Conflict is inevitable — but the way safety professionals manage conflict could mean the difference between a worker going home safely and never seeing their family again.
“Safety professionals enter situations with the potential for conflict all the time because we are often working to convince people that safety is an issue,” says Eldeen Pozniak, CRSP, CMIOSH, an international management consultant specializing in occupational safety and health. “Sometimes we disagree about whether something is safe or unsafe, sometimes we work with senior leaders who don’t understand what we’re doing and sometimes we need to mediate someone else’s conflict because it’s putting people at risk.”
No matter which of these situations you encounter most, learning to anticipate and work through conflict should be high on your list of professional development goals, Pozniak says, especially if you’re a person who tends to avoid disputes with others.
“I want everyone to get along, so my natural instinct is to avoid conflict at all costs,” she explains. “However, I’ve honed my skills in this area over time because emotional intelligence is key to success in our profession.”
Ready to review your feeling fundamentals? Here are Pozniak’s top 10 conflict management tips.
1. Evaluate Whether Your Conflict Is Healthy
To successfully navigate a conflict, everyone involved must come to the table in “good faith.” In contract law, good faith is the state of entering an agreement with sincerity and honesty. It’s a similar idea when professionals are attempting to find common ground in the workplace. If one or more people are unwilling to consider a new perspective, Pozniak suggests you may want to reframe or postpone your conversation.
“Before you engage, ask yourself whether it is a healthy challenge where people want to discuss and learn and explore. If it’s a challenge that comes from anger or you believe someone’s intention is to prevent you from doing your job, the conversation could actually have unfavorable results.”
2. Consider Each Person’s Safety Experiences
Everyone has had different experiences with safety during their careers – some positive and some negative. It’s one thing to understand this intellectually, but it’s another thing to keep it top-of-mind during a conflict.
“I always feel disappointed when I go into a workplace and people complain about safety because someone they knew dealt with safety inappropriately in the past,” Pozniak says. “But positive experiences have the same effect, and workers will embrace safety much more if they’ve learned and understood its value.”
By taking the time to understand the origins of workers’ feelings about safety, you will be better prepared to address their concerns, she says.
3. Start by Communicating the Facts
Communicating the truth of a situation without feelings can be difficult. Even safety professionals, who are used to conducting incident investigations and assessing risks with objectivity, can wind up making emotional assumptions. But if you are involved in a conflict, it is critical to start by setting aside your biases and focusing on the truth.
A good practice is to identify and share all the facts related to a disagreement before proposing any action items or addressing any concerns, Pozniak says.
“If someone confronts you about safety on your job site, for example, try writing down the details of the encounter from your perspective. Then, go back and highlight the parts that are facts, removing any details that reflect your subjective thoughts or opinions.”
4. Build Authentic Relationships
Conflict can be more productive when everyone involved feels a sense of psychological safety. When people feel psychologically safe, they trust each other enough to own their mistakes, communicate their real emotions and approach their relationships with authenticity. As a safety leader, it is your responsibility to set the tone for these types of professional connections. To get there, Pozniak believes you have to start with self-awareness.
“Being emotionally intelligent means being self-aware and having self-regulation,” she says. “Even simple steps — taking personality tests, for example — have helped me understand who I am in relation to others, increase my levels of empathy and see the world differently.”
5. Find a Way to Connect
Pozniak says that when the going gets tough, the tough tell jokes.
“The other day, I was conducting an audit on a job site where no one knew me and no one wanted to talk to me about safety. I noticed that one worker had a tattoo of a bear on his arm, and so I asked him if I could tell him a joke about bears since I taught bear safety all the time when I lived in Canada.”
She did, and she says the punchline landed on the small group that was gathered there. By using humor, she endeared herself to workers who were suspicious of her presence. She also got them talking about something they had in common: The tattooed worker’s wife was also from Canada.
“When they told me to go away, it had nothing to do with me,” Pozniak says. “But I realized that I needed to diffuse the situation, play down our differences and find a point of connection.”
6. Ensure Everyone Feels Heard
Active listening is an important component of every healthy conflict. But Pozniak recommends going a step further by taking quick breaks during your conversation to repeat what you’ve heard. There are two benefits to this, she says. First, it communicates that you have understood what someone has told you. Second, it lets them know that you care enough about what they are saying to ensure you’re getting it right.
“It’s important to step back, determine the issues at the heart of your conflict and reflect them back in conversation,” Pozniak adds. “The most common way that a conflict will escalate is when people feel no one is listening to them or attempting to understand their point of view.”
7. Look for Ways to Collaborate
When you are engaged in a conflict, it’s easy to start taking sides. However, it’s rare to find ideal solutions at the far ends of any spectrum. If a heated debate feels like it’s going in circles, driven by the same tired arguments, Pozniak says it may be time to position yourself somewhere entirely new. By introducing possible alternatives, you open yourself up to one of the best possible outcomes of conflict — collaboration.
“When people collaborate, they are assertive and cooperative,” she explains. “Those are perfect conditions for healthy conflict because people are truly engaged in the process of finding answers that work for everyone. When people are engaged, they’re safer.”
8. Provide Context for Each Safety Decision
When you were young, did a parent ever tell you to do something “because they said so?” How did that make you feel? Pozniak says safety professionals should avoid this dynamic with their teams. Instead, she advocates providing enough information to give others the context they need to understand your recommendations. This may be especially true when you are working with organizational leaders to advance worker safety and health, she says.
“Good leaders always start with why,” Pozniak says. “With senior leadership, for example, I might need to talk about the topic a bit more to find common ground and provide information about how safety decisions are in response to increased risk or liability for the organization and its people.”
9. Avoid Getting Defensive
You feel misunderstood. You hear a remark dismissing the importance of worker safety and health. You hear someone question your ability to do your job. Your heart starts to race and before you know it, you’ve said something you regret. When people get defensive, no one feels good. Even worse, impulsive behavior fueled by anger can undermine the hard work you’ve invested in protecting others. Pozniak says anger management is one of the most important tools safety professionals can use.
“We can either make disagreements better or worse with our reactions. We have to be able to ensure, at the end of the day, that we can handle safety without leaving a bad taste in people’s mouths.”
10. Let Conflict Teach You About Human Behavior
Safety professionals know that many factors contribute to incidents in the workplace, including human behavior. While conflict may be uncomfortable, it can also present a unique opportunity to learn more about worker and leadership perceptions of safety and health. For instance, some team members may be in what Pozniak calls the “zero-intent-to-change” stage, where they don’t yet accept that they need to adjust their behavior. Once you understand that, you can adjust your messaging to make a stronger case.
“Strong leaders learn to speak with people at each stage of their journey toward change,” she says. “Only then can leaders explore why people may be avoiding or competing or getting angry about a safety conversation. Only then can leaders persuade people to go in the direction that will send them home safely at the end of the day.”
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