Influencing is an essential skill for all health and safety managers – and one that can be cultivated. OSH professionals and key influencers share their experiences and tips.
Any professional who can be a force for positive change within a business or industry is a huge asset.
To be that catalyst, having the ability to influence is essential. IOSH’s competency framework identifies influencing as a core competency at all stages of a career, specifying that it’s essential for strategy development and execution.
So, what is influencing?
‘It’s trying to persuade people and bring them on side to your viewpoint,’ says Robert Jukes, health, safety and environment manager at Wax Lyrical and member of the IOSH Future Leaders Steering Group. ‘It should also have the best interests of the company in mind.’
David Cant, a chartered health and safety consultant with more than 20 years’ experience who runs Veritas Consulting, puts it another way. ‘It’s having an effect on people, on what they say and do; it’s changing a person or getting them to think about something differently.’
Being able to influence effectively is really about relationships and communication, David adds. ‘It’s also
a two-way process, benefiting everyone, not just one side.’
Doing it in style
Both men highlight that being an influencer requires people skills: being adept at verbal and non-verbal communication (such as reading body language), being an active listener, showing commitment and passion about what you do, having a win-win approach to negotiation, being collaborative, observant, and responsive and understanding about different perspectives.
However, a blanket approach to influencing different stakeholders won’t work. ‘There is no one size fits all,’ warns David. ‘You need to be able to use different styles to influence internal and external stakeholders, for example. Identify what each key stakeholder stands for and their different interests, then outline how they will benefit from what is being set out using language they understand.
'Learning lessons from previous experience and building them into future professional development is key'
Robert agrees. ‘You can’t use the same communication style with shop floor workers as you would with investors, or for board members and external organisations. The type of information you relay and style of language needs to be targeted, although the basic influencing skills you apply will be generic.’
He describes a recent success in persuading board members to increase health and safety budgets. ‘I had to focus on the board’s priorities: the financial aspects of health and safety and the cost of accidents as well as factoring in costs for any near-misses. My argument also needed to be kept brief – boards don’t want to be overloaded with irrelevant details.’
But when Robert had to deal with the Environment Agency about a site, the message was slanted towards investment and how the company is safeguarding the environment and mitigating risk: ‘In contrast to how I presented to the board, this required me to cover a lot of information, display technical knowledge and show we had done our due diligence.’
Inside story: What I wish I had known
What advice do our OSH professionals wish they had been given when starting out to help them become an influencer?You won’t win everyone over, says Robert Jukes. ‘That’s the way it is. But try and build positive relationships with everyone as much as possible. Establish a reputation for being approachable and the person who will try to find solutions.’
Seek first to understand your organisation and its people and politics by discovering who the real influencers are, says David Cant. ‘An organisational chart doesn’t represent how things really get done in a business. Find out who the key influencers are within the workforce and focus on forming relationships with them.’
To find out more, visit iosh.com/ioshmentoring
Take a wider view
Influencers will be able to see the broader picture. Safety managers can sometimes get stuck in too narrow a mindset, says David. ‘They can be hooked on compliance and love forms and checklists, for example. While paperwork is important, safety can’t be managed sitting in an office. We coach managers to see beyond that to increase engagement with workers. We encourage them to walk around the shop floor, increase collaboration with employees by finding out what’s working for them and what’s not. This increases motivation to support initiatives.
‘This is all about managers understanding different perspectives. It helps them have greater influence.’
Being aware of the wider issues is an approach that is pertinent when it comes to influencing upwards too. Robert says OSH professionals can benefit from increasing their understanding of the organisation as a whole to have greater sway with senior managers. ‘Network and form relationships with people from across the organisation and ask questions so you are in the know. Become fluent in boardroom language so any discussion you have highlights the benefits to the business.’
Stand your ground
Influencing senior members requires confidence too. Robert explains: ‘I’ve been in meetings with senior managers who have tried to play on my inexperience or age so my opinion is discredited. I combat that by being prepared, able to back up my argument with relevant facts, data and information. It’s hard to argue with the evidence. Stand your ground and have confidence in your expertise.’
While experience and practice can build influencing skills, it’s also possible to take proactive steps.
Invest time in others so you can observe what is going on, nurture relationships and find out about other viewpoints, advises David. ‘Sometimes I have to tell senior managers a decision they have made isn’t working. That needs me to have a good rapport with them and trust on their part that I am a recognised expert and can come up with a better solution.’
Learning lessons from previous experience and building them into future professional development is key. ‘I have learned it’s important to ask better questions, to want to always understand and listen more and take a “sleeves rolled up” approach,’ says David.
Robert concludes: ‘I have learned it’s critical to be able to support your argument. I also know now it’s important to listen to people’s wants and needs but respond to those with the bigger picture in mind. It means I’m always trying to have an influence in trying to balance business priorities and workforce needs.’
IOSH competency framework
The IOSH competency framework has been designed to help OSH professionals build capability and keep pace with rapid change in the workplace. It’s a useful reference tool for recruiting and developing individuals or a team. To find out more, visit iosh.com/competencyframework