Safety Leadership Coaching – Changing the story

Safety Leadership Coaching – Changing the story

Apr 08, 2020 | By David Turberfield

Safety Leadership Coaching – Changing the story

It is well understood that most accidents happen due to the behaviour of workers on the front line. Accidents almost always boil down to someone doing something they should not have done or someone not doing something they should have done.  It is equally well understood that the behaviour of workers on the front line has a direct relationship with the behaviour of operational leaders, from supervisor to the board. What the bosses really want, is what the workers actually do.

An accident is a clear message that the boss’s behaviours, up and down the line, are not what they should be. One way or another, leaders are allowing workers to do things they should not do or not do things they should do. If leaders weren’t allowing workers to behave like this, accidents wouldn’t happen.

Leaders will point to their strict enforcement of rules, regulation, directives and the punishments they meter out when those rules are broken to argue that they most certainly do not allowing workers to behave in an unsafe manner. But accidents happening tell a different story.

A big part of the solution is to change the story around safety leadership. Organisations that manage to shift leaders from showing up around safety as “policemen” to showing up around safety as “doctors”, are able to transform their safety culture.

The natural instinct of people is to be wary of the police; tell them as little as possible, maybe even hide, cover up errors and mistakes, or point fingers and blame others… all of which makes for an unsafe workplace. On the other hand, we tell doctors everything – they look, listen and diagnose and then work with us, prescribing the treatment and cure. The doctor’s world is collaborative, empathetic and healing – very different to the world of a policeman.

This shift of narrative from “policeman” to “doctor” is a deep change of heart requiring a new set of leadership qualities and skills. Leaders up and down the line need to learn how to engage and coach their people on safety in a way that creates connectivity, understanding and learning. To understand what this means, they need to experience safety coaching for themselves – and this needs to start at the very top.

Safety coaching program objectives

The specific objectives of a safety coaching program for a senior leader are determined and agreed between the client and the coach at the commencement of the coaching program. In broad terms, however, the overall objectives of the coaching program should include the following:

  • Clarifying personal values, principles and objectives on safety – These provide the foundation stone for action and conversations about safety and act as a compass for safety decisions on an ongoing basis. The clearer they are, the better the decisions.
  • Understand unique qualities and skills – It is the client’s unique personal experiences, qualities and skills that have enabled them to achieve a senior leadership position. A key objective of the coaching program is to recognise and review these world class qualities and skills to explore how they could be more effectively deployed in safety.
  • Enhance ability to influence others on safety – This work entails deepening the client’s understanding of what is going on in safety and working with the client to develop specific skills in listening,communicating and coaching their people on safety in the field.
  • Create a personal safety strategy – Drawing on the client’s safety values and principles and unique qualities and skills, the client develops a clear and concise personal safety strategy. This strategy should focus on working through key people, measuring results and using the client’s leadership influence to proactively strengthen the safety culture.
  • Execution– This is the process of working on tactics to maintain the discipline, agility, flexibility and resilience required to execute the client’s personal safety strategy.

The role of the safety coach

If a client is unhappy with the results of their approach to safety, they are acknowledging the need for personal change. Personal change is very difficult. There are lots of internal and external barriers that get in the way. The client may be clinging to habits and ways of doing things that served well in the past but are no longer useful or could even be detrimental.

It is extremely difficult for an individual to recognise and address these barriers in isolation. The main role of the coach is to help the client lift the veil and really understand what they are up to and what they need to do differently. There are two main components of this coaching role, as follows:

Support the Client on the journey: As an independent professional, strictly bound by client confidentiality, the coach offers the client a unique opportunity to open and reflect on themselves and their situation within the safety of a professional coaching relationship.

Once trust and a sense of safety has been established, the client is able to engage and explore their challenges, anxieties, strengths and weaknesses in a way that is not possible with colleagues, friends or family.

This facilitates the deep reflection, self-awareness and learning that is required to navigate the depth and complexity of the safety challenge and make the personal changes that are required.

Enable self-reflection and learning:The coach will ask open, honest and often challenging questions to help the client in their reflection and exploration. The coach will remain impartial and non-judgemental, may share ideas and experiences but will not provide specific direction or recommendations on a course of action or tell the client what they should do.

The client is always the best judge of what is right for them and their organisation and is always the master of their own decisions and direction.

The coach will provide practices and resources to the client to enable learning and provoke reflection. It is important for the success of the coaching program that the client commits to, and engages with, these reflections and practices to the best of their ability. Every resource the coach provides to the client is purposeful.


The behaviours of the most senior leaders, what they pay attention to, what they say, how they say it, where they go, who they talk to and what they do, creates the organisations culture. This powerful leadership influence often plays out somewhat randomly, with leaders stumbling on what works and what doesn’t and often being baffled and frustrated by the unintended outcomes of the actions and decisions they may or may not have taken, particularly in safety.

However, this same powerful leadership influence, if clearly recognised and understood, can be actively harnessed and strategically wielded to effect real change. A safety coaching program is a key tool available to senior leaders to help them unleash their full potential in effecting transformational change in safety performance.