There’s a lot of talk in the safety profession about being a “safety leader” or even the more impressive sounding “transformational safety leader.” If you look at any safety journal, any conference, any discussion board, you’ll see numerous references to safety leadership, whether it’s what makes someone a leader, the importance of leadership, and plenty examples of poor leadership.
But what is “leadership”? As you can imagine, and similar to so many other things in life, the definition of leadership is unclear and often disputed. Is it as simple as “getting others to do what you want”? We don’t think so. A definition of leadership that we like comes from Chemers who describes leadership as “a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.” There are a lot of things we like about this definition, but the most important is that it highlights an important point – leaders cause people to do things that those people already want to do. Leaders inspire action toward a “common task,” which means that those leaders do not create new motivation. Rather they inspire people to act on already existing motivation and use that motivation to create excellence.
It’s easy to see how this would affect safety performance. A safety leader inspires people to work toward the common goal of safety. Instead of dragging people, kicking and screaming, to act safely, the safety leader taps into the instinctual safety motivation all humans have and uses that as a resource to drive safety performance. Safety leadership recognizes people as the source of safety and success in the organization, and it’s the leaders job to tap into that motivation, point the people in the right direction, and then get out of the way.
That sounds great, but the problem we run into in the safety profession is that the tools we often use, safety management, are many times at odds with the concept of safety leadership. Safety management is typically based on the ideas of structure, command, and control. Many of the interventions in safety management are based on the idea that people are unreliable and poorly motivated to be safe. Therefore, safety management calls on us to create specific procedures for the jobs our employees do and punish them when they violate those procedures. The underlying idea here is that our employees are not smart enough to figure out the right way to do the job safely themselves. Or, we implement behavior-based interventions that attempt to win the “hearts and minds” of our employees, implying that our employees don’t care enough about safety already and if we can only get them to care more then our problems would be solved (see our previous blog for more on that topic).
You see, the problem here is that safety leadership and safety management sometimes send two different messages. Safety leadership says, “your goals are good and are the same as mine, so lets tap into those and all work together to achieve our goals as a group,” whereas safety management says, “we need to protect you from you, in spite of you.” We tell our employees that safety is everyone’s responsibility and they all have a place at the table, and then implement policies that take away their voice and inhibit organizational learning. And then we are surprised when our organizations lack trust. Perhaps it’s time to take the emphasis off of our employees as the problems in our organizations (because that’s just not true most of the time) and put the emphasis on our own actions and the messages they are sending to our employees. Maybe then we can take steps toward building an environment of trust and learning in our organizations, which may be the first step toward effective safety leadership.