The key to working across different cultures lies in the softer skills of the IOSH competency framework.
Having worked in disparate regions across Europe, Africa, the Middle East and North America, Amjad Awwad CMIOSH says the one competency that has proven to be most useful in his work – the most universally applicable no matter where he has been based – is empathy. ‘That is definitely the one that sticks in my mind,’ says Amjad. ‘Abroad, the issues that tend to arise often revolve around differences in understanding and cultural norms.’
Amjad currently works as a regional health, safety and environment manager for SGS in Houston, Texas, in the oil, gas and chemicals division. Here, he assesses compliance, investigates incidents and aims to instil a culture of safety that has its foundation in behaviour-based competencies.
‘The health and safety rules are much the same wherever you go – stop lights are always red, for instance. But you do need to recognise that, behaviourally, what works in one culture may not work in another culture. So having empathy and understanding is vital if you are to relate to people, which is how you get the right messages to stick in their minds. For example, the focus here in the US and throughout much of the West is the individual, so the basis of the message is, ‘What’s in it for me?’ But in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and North Africa, it’s a collective culture, so the emphasis is more on what is for the greater good. Even though you’re talking about the same things, you have to find a way of doing it that makes sense to those different cultures, and empathy is key to that.’
Learning to care
This awareness of people’s differences and how they respond is not necessarily an innate skill, but it is certainly something that needs to be learned. ‘It is probably one of the competencies that initially I struggled with in my career,’ confesses Amjad. ‘But as I racked up more experience, I came to understand more and more how to put myself in other people’s shoes, how to look at things from their point of view, and try to understand what a particular issue might mean to them.’
Allied to this is another of the core behavioural competencies: communication. ‘A lot of it does come down to good communication and especially being an active listener,’ says Amjad. ‘If you want to be an advocate and a business partner, you have to understand how to work together towards a collective goal, and that takes a lot of listening to other people and their points of view.’
‘It does come down to good communication, and especially being an active listener’
Not unexpectedly, one of the key objectives for Amjad in his work is to ensure that at the end of the working day, everybody gets to go home safely. But in addressing that particular challenge, which competencies does he call on most? ‘Here I would say it’s “influencing”, which comes under strategy. With any programme the big question is how do we get it properly implemented – how do we influence that, what’s the strategy? Again, communication is vital at every stage. But it also takes continuous repetition, motivation and feedback to keep things moving forward, and that’s down to good strategy – what can we do to make the programme stick and become the foundation of the work being done?’
This approach to work was made all the harder last year with the sudden emergence of COVID-19. How does Amjad feel it affected his routine activities and the way they draw on the various competencies? ‘I think it caught us all a bit off-guard,’ he says. ‘The main challenge was to find a way to continue providing essential services while safeguarding employees. That was largely down to having a technical understanding of the issues and then finding a way to educate people about those. So the initial focus was on the technical competencies, which then moved onto the behavioural competencies involved in building the right relationships.’
Beyond securing everybody’s immediate physical safety, the big issue that emerged was that of mental health. ‘COVID showed us that we still have a lot to learn,’ he says, ‘especially with stress management. Fatigue set in and crept up on a lot of people. A big question is how we set up the work environment at home too. In trying to solve that problem and promote mental health awareness, we were again calling on those core competencies of empathy and communication.’
How proficient does Amjad feel now in the IOSH competency framework? ‘I would say I’m comfortable across the board, though I wouldn’t claim I was 100% with each one. Of course, different jobs have different emphases, and then there is the fact that the health and safety law here is a bit different compared to that in the UK. But I’d say I’m strong in 40 or so, which are the ones I use daily.’
For those just starting out in their career and getting to grips with the core competencies, what would be his advice? ‘Pace yourself – just take one step at a time. It can seem overwhelming when you look at the whole thing, so I would say focus on the core technical competencies to begin with because that is where much of our education started. But do be aware that a lot of the job revolves around the behaviour competencies, because we are advocates for safety. They are just as important.’
The art of listening
Behavioural competence of ‘working with others’, where it is described as ‘the ability to listen, respond appropriately and see things from other perspectives’.
‘The behavioural competencies are so important,’ says Amjad, ‘because they are what really get you the buy-in from a lot of the stakeholders, whether they are frontline employees, the management or external parties. They are key aspects to focus on.’
IOSH competency framework
The IOSH competency framework has been designed to help OSH professionals build capability and keep pace with rapid change in the workplace. It’s a useful reference tool for recruiting and developing individuals or a team. To find out more, visit iosh.com/my-iosh/competency-framework