Emotional intelligence important for safety professionals

Most safety leaders are strong in technical skills – hazard, risk, control – but soft skills can vary widely

Emotional intelligence important for safety professionals
Eldeen Pozniak

As with most safety professionals, I attend courses and read books on topics that I feel can put me ahead of where I was yesterday. And in today’s job market, can put me ahead of the next person going after that specific job posting. And I think having strong emotional intelligence will put us out front, and help us get our tasks done effectively and efficiently.

When I spoke at the last Canadian Society for Safety Engineering conference, I did a workshop entitled the Bold Strengths of Safety Leadership, and stated that one thing that sets the exceptional safety leaders apart is emotional intelligence (also known as EQ).

Most safety leaders are strong in technical skills — hazard, risk and control focus — but our soft skills can vary widely. We know what should be done and can create amazing programs and initiatives around the specific hazard, risk assessment and control implementation. But when we try to implement it, we can get pushback.

In these situations, it makes me think of my dad’s saying: “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.” We can provide the best system ideas, written programs, policies and procedures, but if the operations manager does not want anything to do with it, it’s not going to happen, or at least not be as effective as it should be. That same manager is often interested when a near miss or an accident happens — he is then picking up the phone to see what we can do for him. Now he is thirsty. But how can we make him thirsty without having an accident?

We have a better chance of making that person “thirsty” (or interested) if we have and use our emotional intelligence. There are many resources and research about EQ based upon intrapersonal and interpersonal aspects. Intrapersonal focus operates via person-to-person relationships and covers the whole gamut of social competencies. The interpersonal aspect is related to the inner states of being, self- awareness, meta-cognition, dreams and spiritual realities.  

Lets look at each of the main components of emotional intelligence briefly and reflect on it within the aspects of our safety framework approach.

Self-awareness is knowing one’s strengths, weaknesses, drivers, values and impact on others. It is the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions and drivers, as well as their effect on others. This has so many directions of application such as bringing in subject matter experts on topics where you may not have expertise to recognizing situations within the workplace and addressing them with some creativity. I remember working in a country where my male colleague had such a great rapport with an operations group, and I not so much. I noted his strength, and my weakness, and worked through him to have the initiative implemented. This was much more successful than if I had tried to push it through myself.

Self-regulation is the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods, and the propensity to suspend judgement or the ability to think before acting. The self-regulation aspect is key in our ability to react to any condition or situation and seeing it as an opportunity. This aspect gives us an openness to change and the ability to find an approach that will work for everyone. It is the cornerstone that builds the perception that we are trustworthy and act with integrity – which are seen as important components that allow us to influence others.

Motivation goes beyond money, status or self-interest. It is when we relish achievement for its own sake and a propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence. For me within a safety framework, this is having optimism, even in the face of that failed conversation with the operations manager, and a strong drive to achieve the personal and organizational commitment to making it a safer workplace. I often share why safety is important to me generally, as well as in specific situations. Great leaders start a conversation with why, and then work on the how, keeping them motivated and at the same time influencing the motivation of others.

Empathy is understanding other people’s emotional makeup and the skill of treating people according to their emotional reactions and how they see they world. When we see people’s motivators or de-motivators for safety — see what they recognize as a hazard or how they assess the amount of risk — we look at things from their perspective, and see how it may be different from ours. We can then often talk “their language” and influence their view, definitions, motivation and desire and ability to act.

Social skills are the proficiency in managing relationships and building networks. This is another multifaceted aspect and grouping, but for me this has had a focus on the ability to find a common ground and build a rapport, and using that rapport to move those I need to in the desired directions through influence and persuasiveness.

Our EQ levels are the foundation to how successfully we use the tools in our safety professional tool box. A very specific example for me, with the empathy and social skill concepts of EQ, is integrating the principles of Peter Sandman’s Risk Communication to increase or decrease the outrage people are feeling to meet the desired action based on the level of risk associated with the hazard. If we have a strong empathetic aspect, we will be better at assessing the situation from that operations managers’ aspects and definitions, and then can use our social skills within the concepts of the outrage factors (voluntariness, controllability, fairness and personal stake) to influence a view or action.