Management Observations: Challenges and Pitfalls

Management Observations

In previous articles we have addressed the importance of real-time management observations. Such observations help responsible managers understand actual job performance – rather than hoped for performance.  We have also described what these management observations should look like and offered guidance to help observers optimize their time in the field.  Like anything worth doing, however, observation efforts require management commitment and ongoing leadership.  There are always challenges and setbacks in any significant change effort and observation programs are no exception.  Based on actual implementation experience this article will briefly, but candidly, discuss some of those challenges and pitfalls and how to minimize them.

Challenges of Management Observations

  • Motivating Managers – Managers need to understand that they are accountable for knowing how safely (and efficiently) the work they are responsible for is actually performed.  Managers should also understand that continuous improvement via manager/worker engagement is an organizational expectation. Practical goals and metrics are important, but the author has found that routine management discussions are perhaps the most effective means to ensure high quality observations and shared learnings.  These management team discussions identify issues that have surfaced during field observations, and the resultant improvement efforts to address them.  Managers that chronically offer little input may require additional attention and coaching but the desire to avoid appearing like a slacker in front of their peers (and their boss) is generally sufficient motivation for meaningful participation.
  • Finding the Time – Safety shouldn’t be something you do only when you find the time.  Managers are busy folks and seriously conducted observations do take a portion of their finite time.  With the possible exception of first-line supervision, however, most managers need only spend a few hours a month looking at important work activities while partnering with their employees to improve operations.  If safety really is an organizational value (not to mention “first” or “priority 1”) it is difficult to rationalize that spending such a modest percentage of time ensuring that their work is performed safety, is an undue burden.  There are certainly few, if any, safety activities that will pay greater dividends.
  • Doing Them Right – It is unfortunately true that some managers are simply not comfortable interacting positively with their employees. Whether or not such individuals should be in leadership positions is a moot point.  We must deal with the managers we have even if they are not necessarily the managers we want.  Managers who lack social skills and/or come from a command-and-control background are a challenge to transition into effective observers.  Since such managers are not comfortable interacting with their people, their field “observations” often become more like low value compliance inspections that focus on things (e.g., extension cords, ladders) rather than the work as a whole.  In general, however, most managers can perform productive observations when provided clear expectations, sufficient training, ongoing coaching, and accountability.  These provisions are not essentially different from what is needed to accomplish other important organizational objectives.

Avoiding Pitfalls

Some setbacks are unavoidable when implementing any new safety initiative.  Keeping the following guidance in mind, however, should help you minimize some common observation pitfalls. 

  1. Keep your observations positive and fault free.  Observations should help develop relationships where workers feel respected and empowered to bring up issues without fear of intimidation or rejection.  In other writings, this is known as creating “psychological safety.”
  2. Praise good performance – no “gotchas.”
  3. Listen – humbly.
  4. Know, and follow, the rules – no exceptions.
  5. Be careful not to interfere unduly with work in progress, especially safety critical work.  Wait for an appropriate time to interact with the workers.
  6. Lastly, observations are your opportunity to not only enhance safety but to build personal and productive relationships with your workers.  That effort will pay dividends in everything you do.  Don’t miss out!

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Jim Loud

Mr. Loud’s over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all Laboratory operations.

Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferences. He is the author of numerous papers and articles. Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.

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