3 Tough Personalities at Toolbox Talks & How to Engage Them

You’ve gathered the regular crew and temp employees for a pre-shift meeting. You start in on PPE safety when someone in the back says, “Sure, so long as I’m wearing a hard hat, I’ll be fine. You’ll walk right by a real hazard to nail me for having my hat on backward.” 

In every group, there are a few team members who tend to waste time in safety meetings.

Now you’re faced with a few choices. Do you ignore them? Correct them? Laugh it off with the rest of the crew?

Thankfully, there are smart ways to address defensive, dismissive, or distracted workers during toolbox talks. Here are my best secrets for keeping your team on track during meetings and building your safety culture at the same time.

The Defensive

We all recognize the Defensive personality type. When you act as an authority, the Defensive’s first response is to treat your advice as a personal attack. 

Feeling defensive is an experience we all share at one point or another. Any of us is likely to act defensively when something makes us feel uncomfortable or even makes us feel like a failure in some way.

It’s essential to view the Defensive’s perspective accurately. They’re not challenging you for the sake of it — usually. Instead, your words rang true to them in a way they didn’t like. There may also be an unbalanced power dynamic at play that triggers a defensive response.

How do you engage the Defensive in a way that allows them to lower their guard without ceding your authority? Get them involved.

Ask them to lead a demonstration, offer an explanation, or design and co-lead a meeting around the issue they feel is most important.

People who are genuinely feeling defensive will typically respond to meaningful recognition of their experiences. 

Of course, some people turn to defensiveness because they enjoy playing devil’s advocate.

The best way to deal with a devil’s advocate is to allow them to tire themselves out within your control. Create a scenario to let them do their thing. It permits the devil’s advocate to do what they want, but it keeps the conversation on your terms. 

The Dismissive

Do you ever feel like there’s a team member who hears what you say without actually listening? This team member is what I like to call the Dismissive.

Very often, the Dismissive wants to know that the company cares about more than box-ticking: they want to know you care about their wellbeing. Just as importantly, they want to know that your safety concern is consistent across your organization’s hierarchy and always exists regardless of the project.

How do you drive your point home when a team member or even a whole team sets out to dismiss you?

One option is to get the Dismissive’s attention by reflecting on the importance of safety in their work. Ask them to share a story of an incident or a near miss. Talking about personal experiences in front of their crew members makes the need for safety feel more real.

The Distracter / Distracted

You recognize the Distracter as soon as “yeah, but what about” leaves their mouths. Distracters want to switch the conversation to something that interests or entertains them. 

Very often, the Distracter aims to step into the spotlight. They only get oxygen because a group of Distracteds is only too happy to give them attention.

What do you do? 

Your first task is to use your authority to redirect the attention back to the subject at hand. Getting through the meeting and getting the right information out there is your top priority. Safety first.

Another way to work proactively when you have a Distracter in your midst is to check-in before moving on to a new topic. Instead of saying, “moving on…” you might say, “Does anyone else have any questions or feel we haven’t addressed the topic?” Then you’ll find out whether the team feels you can put the subject to bed. It should stop you from returning to it again and again as you progress.

In cases where your Distracter is more akin to a keen storyteller or a complainer, you’ll need a different approach. For example, you can wait until there’s a natural pause in their story, thank them for their comments, bring the meeting back around to the plan, and followup with them one-on-one after everyone else is dismissed.

Set Expectations to Reduce Distractions

To run a successful meeting, everyone involved needs to know what you expect:

  • What are attendees expected to know by the time you dismiss them?
  • How long is the meeting going to take?
  • When is it acceptable to ask questions or share thoughts?

By communicating your expectations, you’re reducing the likelihood that a strong personality (gotta love’ em) will find a way to hijack your talk.

If you find your safety training sessions are consistently sidetracked, you may need to be more intentional in setting expectations. For example, you might set the plan in advance and then give the team time to add other issues they believe should be addressed.

You may also need to remind your team of the consequences of being overly disruptive.

Setting expectations does two things. First, it tests your initial assumption that someone is trying to derail your meeting. (Perhaps it was an issue with lack of structure all along.) Second, it helps you run more productive toolbox talks in general.

Safety is a Team Sport

Every leader will encounter tough personalities in toolbox talks, so don’t take it personally. You can often deal with the Defensive, the Dismissive, and the Distracter by meeting them halfway. 

Understand why your meetings get sidetracked and identify ways to solve the issue. Then, you can get through a critical safety meeting without losing focus on what’s important.

As Frank Guldenmund says, safety is a team sport. You have to take the rough with the smooth and learn to communicate effectively with everyone if you want to win. The entire team’s wellbeing depends on it.

And when all else fails, bring food. 

Peter Grant

By Peter Grant

Peter is co-founder and CEO of Safesite. His experience working as a civil engineer working in project management for large commercial contractors motivated him to use mobile technology to reduce preventable incidents and deaths. That goal has driven Peter's strategic decisions for Safesite, which has grown from a mobile app to a robust safety management system.

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