Toolbox Talks: How much is a good example worth?


Actions speak louder than words. There are many famous versions of this adage.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.”

Mark Twain put his own twist on it when he said, “Actions speak louder than words but not nearly as often.”

Even the Bible shares this advice. “… Let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” (1 John 3:18)

There are numerous related quotes and it’s not a tough concept to grasp. We often don’t notice a good example, but we certainly see when someone’s words don’t align with their actions. We know “actions speak louder than words” because we see no shortage of the opposite concept in the workplace: Do as I say, not as I do.

How many times have you seen a supervisor go in the field with a brand-new hard hat and safety glasses but wearing the wrong shoes?

How many managers, doing an observation, just sign off on the safety briefing sheet without really reading it?

How many foremen turn a blind eye when a shortcut or a workaround is executed because, well, production?

The best way to build trust with your team and get the behaviors you want is to lead by example. Walk the talk yourself and others are more likely to follow. Here are a few tips for leading safety by example.

Know what’s expected

You don’t have to be the most proficient technician, but you do need to know the safety rules that govern the work. Before you go in the field, learn what the job hazards are and what we need to do to mitigate them. The best time to learn all of this is to attend the pre-job brief where it should be covered in detail. If you must wait until after the job has started to swoop in for a “drive-by observation”, ensure you take plenty of time to read and understand the work plan before you just “sign on.”

Do the work

To gain a better understanding of why a worker may take a shortcut or not comply with a safety rule, do the work. You might discover for yourself that all those hand injuries are because you can’t do the work with the gloves that are provided. You might also be inclined to remove your PPE because you’re so hot due to a lack of provided shade or ventilation. Maybe you’ll see how unworkable the procedures or work packages are.  Yes, they need to “do as you say” but you also need to “say only what is easily doable.”

Ask for help

If your worker isn’t 100% sure what to do, you would expect them to stop and ask for help. We say this over and over, but we don’t see it happening nearly as often. There’s no better way to get questions than to demonstrate that it’s OK to not know-it-all and ask questions yourself. Do I have the right PPE? Where should I stand to be out of harm’s way? What’s the emergency plan? Show them you are willing to reveal that you don’t have all the answers and asking for help is expected and respected.

Watch what you say

Actions speak louder than words, but your words do have an impact. Be careful to not undermine authority with statements intended to be sympathetic like “I know this doesn’t make sense or is difficult, but this is what management wants.” You’re sending the message that you don’t agree with this rule or policy either and just opened the door for them to justify their noncompliance when you’re not looking. If it doesn’t make sense or is difficult, don’t sympathize and undermine it; fix it.

If a picture is worth 1,000 words and a video is worth 10,000, then how much is a good example worth?

Toolbox Talks offers quick insights and thoughts to use for your toolbox (tailboard) talks. Dave Sowers is a founding member of Knowledge Vine, a veteran-owned human performance training and consulting organization that strives to reduce the frequency and severity of human errors in the workplace. He has almost 30 years of experience in power generation and the utility industry. He is a veteran of U.S. Navy Nuclear Power Program and holds a bachelor’s degree in resources management and a master’s degree in both management and emergency management and homeland security.