The Best Vs. The Worst by Mackenzie Wilson

#12 Corralling the recalcitrant manager.

by Mackenzie Wilson / Based on the following SafeConnection panels

I was originally going to title this ‘Corralling the slippery manager’ says Larry Wilson, SafeStart Author and SafeConnection moderator, at the start of the session. “But I softened it somewhat because, in the vast majority of cases, these aren’t bad people, they’re just pro’s at playing dodgeball…and, like it or not, there are probably some at almost every company”. These managers obviously don’t oppose safety publicly (or indeed privately), but we hardly ever see them get into top gear. As a rule, they are good at things other than health and safety, and that’s typically what they want to push.

“They are also good at procrastinating,” says Dr Waddah Ghanem (Senior Director, Fellow Board Directors Institute GCC). Whether they delay, stall or just don’t engage wholeheartedly with safety initiatives, a recalcitrant manager has a significant effect on the organisation. This leads Larry to examine what has actually worked for panellists and what they wished they had known when they were starting out.

What percentage of managers and leaders are we talking about? Or, put another way, how likely is it that a new safety professional will run into the problem of recalcitrant manage?

Having noted these distinctions, the group set about further delineating the distinct types of recalcitrant manager the better to combat their effects:

For the recalcitrant manager, there is a key technique available: discover and understand their motivation:

Experience insight from SafeStart’s Larry Wilson: “The inconsistent one might be the most difficult. Certainly it was in my case, as a consultant going in and then leaving. You think you really got through to them but then you leave and nothing happens.” Alex agrees: “The real two-faced ones are a bit of a different case. Those ones need to be dealt with swiftly…[as] it goes a bit beyond the recalcitrant manager to the undermining manager”.

The panellists share a few examples of strategies that don’t work

Experience insight from SafeStart’s Larry Wilson: “Where you try to do this and engage the folks makes a big difference. One-on-one seems to go much better”.

One of the best ways to get the manager to see where you’re coming from – and begin to move in the right direction – is through storytelling:

When it comes to working with lots of contractors, it’s not about just one leader, but creating a group of leaders:

Larry asks the panellists, all long experienced in health and safety, what they wish they had known when they first started out:

Pro tip on solving the recalcitrant-manager puzzle: “They all think they have some secret mission that no one else knows about”, says Hector. “So, talk to them, and find out what that is.

Whether you wish to call them slippery or recalcitrant, recalcitrant managers are a challenge to deal with. And there are lots of them everywhere. But regardless of how common they are, the panellists show that they are not impossible to deal with. Using empathetic communication to find common ground is a great way to get your foot in the door, be it through a one-on-one sit-down chat or through storytelling. Understand that it’s unlikely they don’t care about the safety of the people, they just have competing priorities. Once you have mutual understanding, you can begin to move forward.

As Larry says, “if you’re going to hold up a mirror to these people, try to hold up a friendly mirror”. Keep things simple, and keep the safety of the employees at the forefront of your objectives. Most importantly, don’t let up.

Take Aways

  • Health-and-safety recalcitrance can even affect a majority of managers in some settings.
  • It is particularly acute for managers with only desk experience.
  • A small proportion will go further in actively opposing safety measures.
  • Know the types and, avoiding confrontation, discover their motivation.
  • Use storytelling and emotional connections to get the point of safety across.
  • Create alliances in order to circumvent recalcitrant contractors.
¹ Based on SafeConnection panels on North America, Europe, The Middle East, India and Asia.
² All opinions expressed in here are purely those of the panelists. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of SafeStart and the panelists’ companies.
³ For more information about the SafeConnection Expert Panels and to watch past or current sessions, please visit

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