Emotional intelligence in safety leadership w/Danica Fairfax

We had the pleasure of talking to Danica Fairfax on the role of emotional intelligence in safety leadership. Keep reading to learn about the benefits of practicing emotional intelligence as an EHS professional and the impact it can have throughout your entire organization.

About Danica Fairfax

Danica Fairfax is currently the Sr. Director of Safety and Claims for TCI Transportation. She has more than 18 years of experience in EHS, risk management, organizational development, sustainable development, and training across various industries.

Prior to her first role in EHS, which was a temporary position in her company’s safety department, she didn’t even know safety was a career she could explore. Learning about regulations, claims, and the crucial role of training employees sparked Danica’s interest in workplace safety.

Since that initial EHS role, Danica has developed a full-blown passion for health and safety. She pursued a degree in Occupational Safety and Health, and has worked in many industries, including logistics, transportation, insurance, petroleum, grocery retail, and environmental services.

Emotional intelligence in leadership

Danica’s interest in safety leadership started as the byproduct of natural curiosity. Over the years, she had several mentors who nurtured that curiosity by emphasizing the significance of strong leadership in creating a safe and healthy workplace environment.

Witnessing the positive impact of effective safety leadership on organizational performance has continued to reinforce Danica’s enthusiasm for EHS. Her expertise clarifies the benefits of practicing emotional intelligence in the EHS profession.

1. What’s your definition of emotional intelligence as it relates specifically to health and safety?

Emotional intelligence in safety is all about being able to recognize, understand, and manage your own emotions while helping others work through theirs. It requires a balanced approach and strong focus during high-pressure moments.

2. What are the key skills you need to be an emotionally intelligent EHS professional?

Active listening is a key skill that all EHS professionals need to succeed. It allows for effective communication, empathy, and conflict resolution. You need these skills to create a strong safety culture.

To address employee issues promptly, you need to be present and attentive to your team, whether they work in-person or remotely. By regularly checking in with employees and adapting your leadership style to meet their individual needs, you can stay better informed on things like safety hazards and barriers to quality or productivity goals.

3. In your experience, what’s the general reaction when you bring up a topic like emotional intelligence in safety groups?

At first, there’s usually some hesitation towards “soft skill” topics like emotional intelligence in leadership. However, I believe that once you communicate the importance and benefits of emotional intelligence, safety professionals become more open and even enthusiastic about developing these skills. They come to understand the vital role emotional intelligence plays in both personal and career growth and in enhancing organizational success.

Here’s a great article from the National Safety Council on the intersection of emotional intelligence and safety. It highlights how through emotional intelligence, we can truly listen to others’ experiences and make well-informed decisions to address workplace hazards.

4. In your opinion, what are some of the workplace challenges that can make it hard for EHS professionals to practice emotional intelligence?

I’d say that the top challenges to emotional intelligence in safety are:

  • High-stress environments
  • Time constraints to meet regulatory deadlines
  • Lack of adequate training
  • Company culture that values technical skills over emotional intelligence
  • Resistance to change
  • Conflicting communication styles within teams

I don’t have to tell you how frustrating it is as a safety professional to have limited support and resources. But it’s important to understand your own emotions and responses to navigate these challenges.

5. What are some signs of emotional intelligence in a safety leader?

Signs of emotional intelligence in a safety leader include active listening, demonstrating empathy, maintaining composure under stress, and providing constructive feedback.

6. What does emotional intelligence look like in safety leadership? 

In practice, emotional intelligence looks like a leader who seeks to understand the concerns of their team, communicates clearly and effectively, and fosters a supportive environment where team members feel valued and understood.

Conflict resolution: You can apply emotional intelligence skills like active listening and empathy to calm tensions, address concerns effectively, and ensure that safety protocols are followed without escalating the situation. Take the time to decide if the conflict is an isolated issue or one that applies to the entire team. Even if you don’t solve the problem right then and there, at least you’ve taken the time to better understand it so you can work towards a solution.

Safety audits or inspections: When conducting safety audits/inspections, use emotional intelligence skills like building rapport and showing understanding to establish trust with workers. This will encourage open communication so you can address safety issues effectively.

Emergency response: During an emergency response at a manufacturing plant, for example, you may encounter an injured worker in distress. Provide empathetic support to ensure that workers receive proper aid and feel supported during a challenging time.

Ethical decision making: You need emotional intelligence in leadership to understand when your decisions might affect employee health and safety. Always consider the perspective of all stakeholders to understand the potential consequences of decisions.

7. Are there any exercises that EHS professionals can do to improve their emotional intelligence in safety? 

Absolutely! These are my favorite ways to both practice and teach emotional intelligence at work:

Active listening practice: Go into conversations with positive intentions and try not to interrupt or jump to any conclusions. If something is unclear, ask questions so you can end each conversation with a clear understanding. You can teach your team the value of active listening by developing training exercises and providing feedback to help them improve.

Reflection journals: Regularly write down your interactions and feelings in a journal to enhance self-awareness. I like using OneNote to document employee conversations. That way, I can track tasks and add reminder alerts for follow-up.  It’s great for keeping yourself accountable for the promises you make to your employees.

Role playing: Engage in role play scenarios that focus on empathy and conflict resolution. For example, role play a difficult conversation with an employee so you can respond better in the moment.

Mindfulness training: Incorporate mindfulness or meditation practices to better regulate your emotions. This helps you avoid making insensitive remarks and fosters patience in conversations.

8. How can EHS teams integrate emotional intelligence into their incident investigation process? 

Inclusion and empathy are the two key ingredients of emotional intelligence that you can use to improve your incident investigation process. This means ensuring that every team member has a voice during investigations. That way, you can see different perspectives and create an environment of trust and openness. Plus, recognizing and addressing the emotional and psychological factors that contributed to an incident reveals more insights than a purely technical review.

After an incident, it’s crucial to support employees as they return to their roles. This includes ensuring they’re mentally prepared to start work again. It also means discussing the incident transparently to understand the contributing factors and preventive measures. Addressing these issues openly means employees can better protect themselves and their peers from hazards.

9. How does emotional intelligence in leadership (or the lack of it) affect safety outcomes? 

Emotionally intelligent leaders boost employee engagement, foster strong relationships, and lift worker morale, all of which create a positive safety culture. Emotional intelligence is also essential for building connections with people at work. If you don’t have good working relationships, it’s very hard to lead effectively. And that’s because you need trust and respect to influence the people around you.

On the other hand, a lack of emotional intelligence can lead to poor communication, confusion, and a blame culture, which negatively affects safety outcomes and employee well-being.

10. How has understanding emotional intelligence made you a better safety manager and leader?

Understanding emotional intelligence helps me connect with my team on a deeper level. When you build a culture of trust and open communication, it allows you to handle conflicts more effectively. This then boosts team morale and ensures that employees both follow and embrace safety initiatives.

Practicing emotional intelligence has also given me better self-awareness and helped me approach challenges differently. Because I can put myself in their shoes, I see my employees and coworkers as internal customers. I value their feedback when making decisions. I seek input from them because I want to be the leader that helps our company continue building a strong safety program.

The more you practice emotional intelligence, the more you come to see how crucial flexibility and adaptability are for success. There are always new technologies, risks, regulations, and exposures to deal with. And emotional intelligence in leadership helps you maintain perspective so you can always find ways to improve and grow.

11. You recently co-wrote a book on safety leadership. Can you tell us what it’s about and what you learned during that process?

I recently co-wrote Chapter 13, titled “Leadership: What Works and What Doesn’t,” in the fourth edition of the book Moser’s Effective Management of Health and Safety Programs: A Practical Guide. This chapter emphasizes the significance of treating others with respect in leadership roles, which can enhance performance, reduce turnover rates, and foster a positive work environment. It also stresses the value of learning from past leaders, understanding fundamental leadership principles, and upholding ethical standards. The chapter also explores the critical skill of decision-making.

My experiences as both an employee and a leader have shown me that while some leaders inspire and motivate, others teach you what NOT to do. Knowing that, I’ve always aspired to share my safety journey to help others better navigate their own challenges and barriers. Working on this project allowed me to do just that.

Danica’s EHS resource recommendations

We asked Danica to share some of her favorite professional resources for growing in the EHS career. Check out her recommendations below!

Professional networking in EHS

The relationships and organizations I’ve joined have greatly contributed to my growth as a safety professional. Everyone has been supportive of my journey, and I’m immensely grateful for their role in my career. I’d recommend joining the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (RMCOEH), and National Safety Council (NSC).

Continued learning options

My favorite online resources for continuing education are LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, BCSP, The Institutes, and NATMI. And you can check out publications to stay updated on best practices. For my job, I like ASSP Professional Safety Journal, Transport Topics, and Risk & Insurance.

Best advice to EHS professionals

The best advice I’ve ever received is to:

Continuously strive for personal and professional growth while prioritizing relationships. Always be open to learning and adaptation and remember that building strong relationships with your team is crucial for effective leadership. Seek feedback actively and use it as a tool to better yourself and your safety programs. It’s essential to balance technical ability with soft skills like empathy and communication to create a holistic approach to safety management.