Safety excellence requires the true engagement of leadership. Leaders effective at creating and sustaining change actively embrace their role in safety, take ownership of the results, and understand the safety mechanisms essential to achieving outcomes. That's easy to say. The reality is that getting things done through others (the basic task of management) can be a tightrope walk under the best of circumstances. Leaders are at once coaches, directors, enforcers and advocates. When leading through change (such as in safety), they add the role of engagers: engaging their reports in new activities and in doing old things in new ways. It's no surprise, then, that one of the most critical indicators of success in a change effort is how well a leader is able to influence others.
KNOWING HOW (AND HOW NOT) TO INFLUENCE
In organizational safety performance, everyone has a role to play. These roles are all aimed at the same objective. However, they differ by level and job function. While most leaders would agree that a "hands-off" approach is not appropriate, many well-intentioned leaders err on the side of "taking over" roles that really belong to others. Role confusion can become a prolonged problem because it often provides positive short-term consequences: satisfaction, results and even climate change. However, it also takes a toll on organizational culture: failing to develop role competency in others, blurring the leader's true role, and avoiding the underlying causes that led the leader to take over in the first place.
As an example, consider just one manager's effect on his organization's culture. The site's incident investigations are handled at the front-line supervisor level with support from the safety staff and some wage-roll employees. The new manager finds the investigations inadequate. He reviews the reports, sending them back with notes in red, but with little other guidance. When little improvement is seen, the manager decides to conduct the investigations himself. The reasoning is that he wants to demonstrate and role model how a "good" incident investigation should be handled and demonstrate caring for the injured employee.
These are honorable motives. However, in taking over this role, the manager has inadvertently undermined any hope of lasting change. Rather than try to discover and improve the circumstances that prevented good investigations in the first place, he has implicitly told these employees that they are incompetent, lessening the likelihood that they will participate in future safety activities. In addition, he has neglected fulfilling some of his own roles and responsibilities in the process, creating further mistrust and resentment.
STEPS TO BETTER INFLUENCE
When leaders make missteps in safety it is rarely out of bad intent. More often the culprit is the leader's lack of understanding about what he or she can and should be doing to influence safety. Below are some of the steps we have found to be critical in establishing an effective and appropriate leadership presence in safety.
Develop and articulate your own safety vision.
Unlike a "vision statement," your safety vision should be a heartfelt and personal viewpoint of how safety fits into the organization and why it matters. For most of us, this vision has to be cultivated through educating ourselves about safety in the organization and acquainting ourselves with what it means.
Monitor the most critical elements of the safety system.
Enabling safety systems (e.g., hazard recognition and mitigation, skills training, and regulations and procedures) form the foundation of safety functioning. Know what these systems are, how they are audited, and how effective they are. Make sure that the employees involved have the resources and training needed to be successful.
Ensure the effectiveness and use of sustaining mechanisms.
Sustaining mechanisms (e.g., personnel selection and development, organizational structure, and management systems) are those elements that support enabling safety systems and allow them to function. Determine how well these systems work—and how to improve their impact on safety systems.
Establish a context for safety actions.
Don't make people guess about why safety activities and systems are important. State their importance clearly—and follow up your words with actions.
Align organizational consequences with values and beliefs.
Employees take their cues from you. Consequences (e.g., rewarding high production achieved through safety shortcuts) that don't match professed convictions (e.g., that safety is important) make values and beliefs a dead letter.
Apply the right solution to the problem.
Avoid simplistic solutions for complex problems (e.g., the use of trinkets or threats to try to change behavior and culture).
Focus on culture.
Change is sustained only when it becomes "the way we do things here." Work at creating a culture that supports safety activities and safety improvement—and communication of important safety information even when it is unfavorable.
Achieving safety excellence starts with the influence of a few good leaders. Research is revealing more about what makes a leader effective in safety, and true excellence has become accessible through methodologies that improve leadership skills and practices. As a result, leaders at all levels are learning how to focus on doing the "must do" in a way that provides a powerful impact on the culture. ip