Blog post : James Robinson-Burge, Operational Excellence at Svitzer


James Robinson-Burge, Operational Excellence at Svitzer, spoke at the British Tugowners Association Annual Safety Seminar on 6 November on the paramount importance of trust for an effective safety culture within a team and the psychology behind it.

Trust… It plays a significant role in our personal and professional lives, but how often do we stop to examine why we place that trust in others and why others place their trust in us? Often, we consider trust unconsciously. But trustworthiness, like any other soft skill, can be developed.

I consider trust to be a significant pre-requisite of any effective team and crucial to the development a functional safety culture.

With any team, a lack of trust is the foundation of failure. Roger Mayer defined Trust as our willingness to be made vulnerable to the actions of another without the ability to control the actions of that person. Where we lack trust, we are unwilling to make ourselves vulnerable. We are unwilling to say the difficult things, to challenge our colleagues, to speak truth to power. We fear conflict and offence. Hamstrung by this fear, we’re unable to participate in productive debate and engage in effective discussion.

There are those who come away from discussions with concerns lingering, with suggestions in mind that were never raised. Was it fear of being shot down? Maybe you were worried of offending your colleagues or scared of challenging your boss...? You ask yourself “Why didn’t I raise it?”

When we are not able to thoroughly engage with an idea, we often feel no commitment toward it… “I can’t be accountable for this, it wasn’t my idea, I thought it was a terrible plan!”. With no feeling of accountability, we are less inclined to pay attention and to prioritise the actions required for success, and with that failure is only a short step away.

The parallels here to fostering an effective safety culture should be clear.

A truly effective safety culture requires that we develop, in everyone, a questioning attitude. Every shipmate is empowered to ask, “Is what I’ve been asked to do safe?” or equally “Is what you’re doing safe?”.

We all know the mantras that are used to communicate this concept, I should think many Safety Managers have been caught reciting them in their sleep,

“Safety is everybody’s responsibility”,

“You are as responsible for my safety, as I am for yours”.

But how often do we consider the role of trust here? Do we consider that we require trust in order to engage in effective discussion? Do we consider that without it we start to lay that same foundation of failure?

Life aboard ship is a closed system of repeated interactions with a range of personalities, cultures, egos, experiences and those extra special ‘character traits’ that make seafarers such an interesting bunch. Questioning our shipmates can sometimes seem unwise. We often cannot trust that our questions will be met with a receptive attitude or that our intent, to make ourselves and our friends safer, will be understood as such. There are ample opportunities for our colleagues to get offended, to think we are interfering or to react poorly to being challenged by a subordinate.

But not if we have trust. Trust in our shipmates to be receptive to our questions and the trust of our shipmates that we’re asking them with the best of intentions.

Trust is built over repeated interaction with a trustworthy person. You cannot train someone to trust. But you can train someone to be trustworthy and allow trust to grow naturally.

A persons perceived trustworthiness has been found to be borne of their perceived Ability, Benevolence and Integrity[1]. That perception comes from a person’s Communication Skills.

Putting to one side Ability, for which the value in development and assessment should be obvious. I’d like to conclude with a challenge;

Benevolence is the degree to which the trustee is acting in an altruistic way, for the sole good of the trustor.

Integrity is the degree to which the trustee is seen to adhere to a set of principles that the trustor finds acceptable.

Are we considering Benevolence, Integrity and Communication Skill in the recruitment, development, succession planning and promotion of our crews and shoreside personnel?

We are all looking to build safe, trustworthy teams. When was the last time you considered these qualities in your team members? What about yourself?

James Robinson-Burge

Operational Excellence, Svitzer

 Find James' presentation and the others available from the BTA Safety Seminar here