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4 Leader Behaviors that Kill Your Incident Reporting Culture

July 26, 2018

safety leader injury report

How satisfied are you with your organization’s incident reporting?  Do employees truly feel that they can report all injuries and incidents without repercussions?  Many organizations I work with are putting a lot of time and effort into creating a strong incident reporting culture, but when senior leaders at these companies don’t see the increase in reporting activity that they expect, they often wonder why employees won’t speak up and report injuries.  What they fail to realize is that often, the problem lies at the leadership level.

So how exactly do leaders harm or destroy their organization’s incident reporting culture?  Here are four of the most common factors that we see in our work with clients across all major industries.

1. Poor Communication

Too often, leadership assumes that employees know what constitutes an injury, along with how and when to report it.  But does the average employee really know all of this?  Telling employees once during initial orientation is not enough.  It is critical to reiterate the importance of incident reporting and to frequently check for understanding. Some individuals may have questions on how to report something.  Others may not realize that near misses or minor injuries (e.g., scrapes, cuts) should be captured as well or why this is even important.  Leaders can circumvent many of these obstacles by simply talking about this topic and ensuring that everyone understands the why and the how behind reporting safety incidents.  Supervisors and managers with poor communication skills or highly introverted personalities can struggle with this and may need support and coaching in order to succeed in this area.  Luckily, this is a skill that can be learned and improved over time.  Never underestimate the importance of communication.

Read more: Why Communication Is Essential to Building a Strong Safety Culture

2. Loss of Credibility

Let’s face it – we all know that most of the time, employees don’t report incidents because they fear the potential consequences of doing so.  Sadly, they often fear that if they report an injury, they will suffer some sort of negative consequence.  This is why, as a leader, it’s essential to keep your promises!  If management says they want employees to report all injuries and then employees see a co-worker get reprimanded or treated unfairly when they DO report an injury, what do you think is going to happen?  It’s an instant and huge loss of credibility for management and it will stifle future efforts to encourage reporting – why should employees trust leaders in the future? 

I saw this very same example recently with a close family member who was working at a manufacturing facility.  He recently reported a strain on his wrist due to operating a new piece of equipment that required awkward hand placement for extended periods of time.  After hearing statements for months about how the company “encourages its employees to report anything,” he was quite surprised and disappointed at how his employer handled it.  Minutes after he went to the nurse’s station for medical attention, he was met by none other than the Operations Manager, who immediately put him through a full inquisition.  It was very clear this senior leader was unhappy with the injury and doubted the veracity of it, making the individual feel very uncomfortable for having reported the severe pain he was having.  Needless to say, this was one of the last straws for my family member who soon afterward quit the job as a result of this and many others instances of leaders not “walking the talk” when it came to safety. 

As leaders we must back up our words with actions, making sure to create an environment where our people really can report injuries without fearing what will happen to them.  Some managers and supervisors struggle in this area because they are lower in personality traits related to accountability or locus of control, which often results in a lack of personal ownership and can damage their credibility in the eyes of others.  It’s important for these leaders to receive feedback on this critical gap early on so they can change their behaviors accordingly.

3. Impatience

Changing any aspect of an organizational culture is never going to happen overnight.  It takes time for employee perceptions and attitudes to change, especially when it comes to incident reporting.  Recently we were working with a company who had implemented a new incident reporting system.  Supervisors were complaining that despite all their efforts and time spent on communicating the new system, employees were not reporting incidents.  “What’s the point?” they asked, exasperated.  Then I asked them how long ago they put in the system.  “Oh, about six weeks ago,” they replied.  Their lack of patience really surprised me. 

No matter how wonderful our new process may be, as leaders, we must exhibit patience.  Employees must have time for any new change to fully sink in, and if we rush or give up too soon, we may never be able to get employee buy-in for that change in the future.  As the old adage goes, patience is a virtue, and it can certainly apply to an incident reporting process.  This is where having a personality with very high initiative or action orientation can sometimes get leaders in trouble.  It’s good to have a sense of urgency about safety initiatives, but when it causes a leader to give up on something too soon, it can become a problem.  Learning the right level of balance between patience and initiative can take time, but successful leaders are able to navigate the balance between these two traits.

4. Lack of Empathy

At the end of the day, what is the goal of your incident reporting process?  To show the right numbers?  To produce cool and impressive leading indicators?  Or is it about helping people go home safely each and every day?  Don’t forget that this is ultimately about people.  Many leaders struggle to foster a strong reporting culture simply because they lack empathy or they make it all about the process of reporting.  In particular, leaders with poor interpersonal skills or low social awareness can have a very negative impact on the process when they display little empathy for injured employees.  Rather than asking about the employee’s medical needs or visiting them in the hospital, some managers are more concerned about the impact on the company’s TRIR.  Leaders must show that they care about the person and their well-being.  The message from leaders should be that we want incidents reported, not to keep tabs on you, but because this data allows us to create a safer work environment so that we can send you home safely every day to your family.

Related: This Strategy Increases Emotional Control and Awareness to Reduce Risk

People must understand that reporting minor injuries or near misses can help the company prevent a more serious injury in the future (note the emphasis on the word “can” – I am not implying that minor injury statistics are a strong predictor of serious injuries. I am simply saying that they can provide some valuable information for preventing future injuries).

These four simple but critical safety leader behaviors can make or break your company’s incident reporting culture.  You can help your leaders to gain more self-awareness around these behaviors and their underlying personality traits through personality assessments, training, coaching, and behavioral action planning.  Providing them with these types of tools and processes can better equip them to create and sustain a strong incident reporting culture.

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Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Safety Solutions at PSI. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.