Seagull Safety and Leadership

This article started out looking at safety leadership and fairly quickly evolved into a message that applies to leadership in general. As such, I will often flip back and forth discussing “safety” and “leadership,” as they are similar from this perspective.

Let’s start out with this question: What is seagull safety/leadership? While there is currently no formal definition, the key points are based on the actions of gulls:

  • Show up briefly, unannounced and unwanted
  • Make a lot of noise, often to hear their own voice
  • Often take something
  • Often leave something else

What does this look like at work?

Those in safety/management often show up with the specific purpose of finding you doing something wrong. It seems they are always looking for a “gotcha!” One way to tell if this is the culture where you work is to ask, “Are there safety ‘quotas?’” – i.e., a need to find so many things wrong with every visit? They tend only to criticize your mistakes and not to have anything positive to say. The poor manager will not coach or train when deficiencies are found and will instead often threaten in some way, such as, “You better work faster, or else!”

The feeling is that production is performed in the field and safety is managed in the home office. That perception can foster an “us vs. them” attitude when it comes to safety. The safety team is viewed as the “police,” and field employees feel safety supervisors are out to get them in some way. Safety is used as a weapon, where issues found in the field are used solely to punish field workers in some way. Part of that relationship is created by insecure leaders saying that safety personnel don’t really know anything, “They are a bunch of pencil pushers,” and can’t do the work.

Even the language is negative. “You’re unsafe!” It is hard to feel good about what you are doing when the two options for describing your work are “safe” or “unsafe.”

The seagull-safety person also likes to give “surprise” findings. When they are in the field with you, they say everything is fine, and then they send a report to your supervisors saying what a terrible job you are doing.

Safety leadership is about trust, respect and good communication.

Seagull leaders are not good business partners. They tend to dictate or mandate. There is rarely any real collaboration. Often, they make unilateral decisions and defend their actions by saying, “I’m in charge!” Seagull management doesn’t participate in safety meetings, which sends a message that safety isn’t important to them.

Basically, seagull safety leaders are not emotionally intelligent.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence, or EI, is defined as the ability to recognize, understand and manage both our own emotions as well as the emotions of others. Research shows work cultures with high levels of emotional intelligence create climates in which communication, healthy risk-taking and learning flourish. Work cultures with low levels of emotional intelligence create climates rife with fear and anxiety.

There are five key competencies of EI: self-awareness, motivation, self-
regulation, social skill and empathy.

  • Self-awareness

Defined as: knowing your own strengths, weaknesses, values and drives, and recognizing their impact on others.

    • Good examples

        • Confidence

        • Realistic view of self

        • Self-deprecating sense of humor

        • Thirst for constructive criticism

    • Bad-leader/seagull-safety examples

        • Insecure

        • Unaware of true self

        • Comes across as aloof

Actively discourages input and criticism

  • Motivation

Defined as: the ability to motivate yourself to achieve for the sake of achievement; having selfless driving factors.

    • Good examples

        • Passion for the work itself and for new challenges

        • Energy to improve

        • Optimism in the face of failure

    • Bad-leader/seagull-safety examples

        • Passion for power, control

        • No interest in improving, “Why should I, I am perfect…”

        • Failure is catastrophic, viewed as personal insult or loss

  • Self-regulation

Defined as: managing your own disruptive emotions and impulses; adapting to changing circumstances.

    • Good examples

        • Trustworthy

        • Integrity

        • Comfort with ambiguity and change

    • Bad-leader/seagull-safety examples

        • Breeds mistrust

        • Acts out of self-interest, ego

        • Resists change

  • Social skills

Defined as: managing the emotions of others to move people in the desired direction.

    • Good examples

        • Effective at leading change

        • Persuasive

        • Extensive networking

        • Expertise in building and leading teams

    • Bad-leader/seagull-safety examples

        • Inhibits change, “wheel chock”

        • Needs to bully

        • Doesn’t need a network

        • Doesn’t need a team, “I’m the boss!”

  • Empathy

Defined as: the ability to recognize, understand and consider others’ feelings when making decisions.

    • Good examples

        • Expertise in attracting and retaining talent

        • Ability to develop others

        • Sensitivity to cross-cultural differences

    • Bad-leader/seagull-safety examples

        • Forces good people to leave

        • Doesn’t bother to develop others

        • Not sensitive to different styles or personalities

        • Difficult to communicate with

Group emotional intelligence?

A group’s EI comes from norms that support awareness and regulation of emotions. Teams must feel they are worthwhile and are more effective working together than apart. Emotionally intelligent groups explore, embrace and rely on the emotion in work that is ultimately and deeply human. Oddly enough, just having a group of emotionally intelligent people working together doesn’t ensure that there will be group emotional intelligence.

These group norms are built on three key components:

    • Trust

    • A sense of identity

    • A sense of efficacy

Emotionally intelligent groups can only start with trust. Each member of the group needs to trust one another, especially the leader of the group. There will always be a leader in every group, regardless of title.

Group identity is important, as it unites the members under a common banner. It is not much different than fans of a particular sports collective. There is an instant sense of community with someone else who identifies with what you identify with.

Lastly, a group needs to feel that what they do matters. They have to believe they can get more done as a team than they can on their own. If a group exists for the sole purpose of being a group, just like those endless meetings where nothing of value happens, the group members will quickly lose interest.

How to improve safety leadership

Whether we are in a leadership role or not, we can all be leaders as we influence those around us. One of the best ways we can do this is to work on how we interact and communicate with our co-workers. In general, we need to think about how what we say and do would make us feel if someone else said it or did it to us. A few specific things to think about and work on include:

  • Interactions

        • Remember your mission and objectives; make sure your words and actions are consistent with the mission.

        • Think about your words or actions beforehand and assess whether they will increase a connection with whomever you are dealing with or if they will create a barrier between you. Remember, it is how they perceive your words and actions, not just your intent.

        • Our goal as safety leaders is to support the field operations, and we should be asking ourselves if our words and actions are supportive.

        • Don’t say anything about someone that you wouldn’t say to their face.

        • Be mindful of the language you use.

        • Don’t assume you are right.

        • Don’t assume that just because someone does something differently than you would, it is wrong.

  • Written communication

        • Be deliberate and thoughtful before you communicate.

        • Do not write more than you need to; try to get your idea across in a few bullet points if possible.

        • Remember the phrase: stimulus-pause-response.

        • Do not respond when angry.

        • Do not respond in writing when you can resolve the issue better by phone.

        • Listen to what people mean and what they say.

        • Think about what people hear when you communicate with them.

        • If asked a question or asked to do something, respond to the request, don’t try to guess what the person really means.

        • If you have a question about a request, ask the person directly.

One last thing to consider, which may be a little outside our scope of influence but can have huge impacts on employee engagement, relates to innovation.

Employees don’t want to stagnate; they look forward to learning new things and using techniques and equipment that make the job easier. I realize some people don’t like anything new, but I believe most do. New ideas, equipment and techniques increase engagement by field employees. Engaged employees are safer and more productive, and they tend to do higher-quality work.

It is best when field employees are part of the process of bringing new ideas to fruition. Even if some new idea or piece of gear is useful, people may feel they are being forced into using it if they didn’t have a say in the process. Additionally, if the field personnel are involved, there will likely be better feedback, and you will end up with a better result.

If “no” is always the answer, people tend to stop asking questions. It is best to have open and unassuming communication in your organization. People learn quickly who not to ask and who can get things done. Often, they will work around the safety team because it can be too much hassle to engage them. It is better to be a “yes, and …” culture, instead of a “no” culture. If you start with trying to find a solution instead of just saying “no,” it moves things forward more efficiently and shows collaboration.

Timothy M. Walsh, CTSP, is director of corporate safety with The Davey Tree Expert Company, a 49-year TCIA member company headquartered in Kent, Ohio.

This article was based on his presentation, “Seagull Safety – Do You Engage Your Field Teams?” at TCI EXPO 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Press play below to listen to an audio recording of that discussion..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to listen highlighted text!