For any sports fan, John Wooden would be near or at the top of their list of greatest coaches in the history of sports, and with good reason. Wooden is the most decorated coach in college basketball history, with a career that included 10 national championships, 6 NCAA coach of the year awards, and membership in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Even the annual award for the best college basketball player (similar to the Heisman Trophy of college football) is named after him. What I find most interesting about his legacy is that he is remembered as much for his leadership style as his long list of accomplishments.
Wooden was a coach in the truest sense of the word. He was invested in teaching his players how to be a success at basketball as well as in life, and was a master at inspiring people to perform at their best. He had a clear vision for how he wanted the game to be played and conveyed it to his players (which hits an important factor of leadership, as we discussed a couple weeks ago). Importantly, he was also sensitive to his players’ needs and knew how to give them feedback in a constructive and motivational way. As a result, he maintained close, lifelong relationships with many of his players, who viewed him as somewhat of a father figure and life coach. Leaders who want to improve their organization’s safety culture could learn a thing or two from John Wooden’s approach. Why? Because he was the ultimate coach, and Acting as a Coach is critical when it comes to safety.
Leaders who Act as a Coach during their employee interactions really enjoy developing their people and interacting with them in an engaging, respectful manner. They tend to see themselves more as a teacher or mentor than as a “boss” and this has a big impact on how they supervise people and correct unsafe behavior. These leaders like to teach others new things and they take pride in helping team members to learn and grow. But there are three specific things that great coaches such as Coach Wooden did which can have a big impact on employee safety:
1) Listen Actively
Take the time to truly listen to what your people are saying. Are you listening actively to your people’s thoughts and concerns? When people are speaking to you, do you stop and listen or are you already thinking of how you are going to respond? John Wooden was like a father to many of his players long after they played for him in college. He didn’t develop these strong relationships by only talking at his players. He also took time to truly listen to what they were saying, and I believe that’s a reason why he was such a great communicator and why so many great players of his maintained close ties to him until his death in 2010.
2) Give Balanced and Timely Feedback
Coach Wooden had a lot of great quotes, but one of my favorites is: “A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.” What a great way to summarize the essence of good feedback. Telling someone they are doing something incorrectly without making it personal. Wooden was great at this, and was able to develop great players by giving them lots of feedback – but in a constructive and balanced way. Feedback is one of the single most important aspects of safety, and unfortunately, most leaders are very ineffective at it. Remember the following tips when giving people feedback on (un)safe behavior:
- Consistency: Provide feedback on a regular basis and in a timely manner so that employees are aware of their safety performance and areas to work on.
- Objective information: Don’t provide feedback based on feelings or how much you like the employee. Focus on specific behaviors related to safety.
- Constructive delivery: Always try to give balanced feedback. Highlight strong safety behaviors and use poor safety behaviors as an opportunity to learn and improve safety performance. Emphasize your commitment to their safety.
3) Keep it Positive
Another one of Coach Wooden’s great quotes was: “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.” Always remember to keep it positive and encouraging, no matter what the situation. Employees should feel inspired to improve their personal SafetyDNA after talking with you. Despite being amazingly competitive, Coach Wooden was a great mentor because he focused on what his players could do, and how to make them better people, and he did this by having a positive attitude throughout his life. So, be like Coach Wooden and find the positive when you’re tempted to focus on people’s mistakes or poor decisions.
Coaching employees on workplace safety does not come naturally to everyone, but just like any other area of leadership, we can all sharpen our skills. We can each channel our inner John Wooden and Act as a Coach in order to improve safety and foster a strong safety culture in the workplace.
Our Guest Blogger this week is Craig White, a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Texas A&M University. His research domains include selection test development, training, and team processes and performance. He has six years of research experience at Tier-One universities (Texas A&M University, University of Houston, Rice University), and has been closely involved in applied safety and health research projects at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Health Services Research and Development CoE in Houston, TX. He is also a contract safety services consultant for Select International.