During my many years in the trucking industry, I found most commercial drivers are dedicated, conscientious professionals, who take their responsibility to operate safely very seriously. I’ve also determined that the best way to communicate with professional drivers is in a frank, honest and transparent way. They want and deserve to know, not only what is being proposed, but WHY.
Previously we discussed that safety performance needs to be viewed through both moral and financial lenses. It’s important to keep in mind that drivers also need to view safety performance (new safety initiatives) through the same lenses.
The Great American Rule
I had a boss many years ago, while I was in the military, who espoused what he called “The Great American Rule” when referring to our soldiers. He explained that all of our soldiers (and their leaders) are Great Americans, dedicated to doing the best job they can for our country. I’ve observed that commercial drivers are the same. They understand the role they play in our economy and they do their very best to conscientiously and safely do their job. My boss often explained that while “Great Americans” may disagree from time-to-time, generally when we disagree, it’s because:
- They know something I don’t know …
- I know something they don’t know OR …
- Something got garbled in our communication
Said another way, our disagreements are normally communication breakdowns, NOT philosophical differences.
When contemplating new safety initiatives, carrier safety leaders and executives have access to fleet performance data that paints a pretty clear picture of what the safety issues and opportunities are. They perform data analytics to determine causal factors for crashes and they have access to safety programs and/or technologies that have demonstrated effectiveness in addressing the issues (and opportunities) they see.
Drivers, on the other hand, only see what can be seen from the seat of their truck (but they see it with great regularity and clarity). They too, develop a sense for safety issues and crash causation. In short, carrier executives know something their drivers don’t know and their drivers know something they don’t know. As a result, disagreements may occur.
Unclogging the Lines of Communication
The answer is quite simple. Unclog the lines of communications. Listen actively to your drivers’ perspectives and recommendations, and proactively communicate both the WHAT and the WHY behind each new safety initiative. Drivers spend hours in the solitude of their truck, thinking about things, and filling in the blanks of what hasn’t been explained to them with what they think – based upon their observations (a perspective from a different lens). In my experience, once I shared with drivers what I knew and solicited their perspective on what they know, our disagreements faded away.
When communicating with your drivers, it’s OK (and even essential) to play the emotion card. I’d explain our empathic program to our drivers and then describe a time when we had a crash for which the new initiative was designed to avoid/mitigate. I’d ask our drivers, if you were me, how would you answer the question asked by a grieving family member–“were you aware that there are safety programs or technologies that have demonstrated the potential to have prevented this crash?” Can I answer that I was aware of that fact, but was concerned that our drivers would balk at implementing the program or that the program cost too much to implement? Of course, I couldn’t!
A Safety Collaboration
Achieving sustainable safety excellence is a collaboration between leaders and drivers. It’s not a top-down, shut-up-and-color command. By opening the lines of communications and actively listening to my drivers’ perspectives and then explaining in detail my perspective, disagreement morphed into support. Bottom line, a relationship based upon mutual respect and open, transparent communications is preconditional to alignment between conscientious, professional drivers and caring leaders.
I’ve learned throughout my professional career that leadership is leadership. Soldiers and professional drivers expect and deserve the same things from their leaders: open, honest, transparent communications and credibility earned through mutual respect based on consistency between words and actions.
Don Osterberg, safety advisor, formerly served as senior vice president of safety, security and driver training for Schneider. His distinguished career in commercial transportation spans several decades, and he is a recognized authority on carrier safety, having held leadership roles with organizations including the National Safety Council, FMCSA Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee, American Trucking Association’s Safety Policy Committee and American Transportation Research Institute’s Research Advisory Committee. Osterberg is a retired Airborne and Ranger qualified US Army Infantry Colonel. Prior to entering into the commercial transportation industry, he held many leadership positions during his military career including Chief Plans Officer for the 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One) during Operation Desert Storm and an appointment as the strategic advisor to the President and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff while serving on the National Airborne Operations Center staff.