Monday, May 18, 2015

Real Safety Leadership

Recently in conjunction with a management system assessment at a large international airport, we were holding focus groups with line employees, discussing their perceptions of how safety is managed. These focus groups are not only one of the most important pieces of the assessments, but they are also so much fun, because you get to interact with the people who really make safety happen, day in and day out. You get to see an expression of who the organization really is as the employees share stories and interpret those stories. It’s just fascinating.

At one particular focus group, the employees were discussing issues with upper management, where they felt management misunderstood the role of the employees and often blamed employees for problems that weren’t really the employees’ fault. The supervisor for the work crew spoke up and mentioned how often the issues are far worse than the employees may know. He often is called into the offices of upper managers and given a tongue lashing for the workers not getting the work done fast enough or not meeting expectations. The expectation is that the supervisor will then trickle down the discipline to his employees, where the problem (supposedly) really is.

But the supervisor in this case mentioned that his employees didn’t realize that this was happening as often as it was happening. Why not? Because he had deliberately chosen to bear the brunt of the production pressures and not share that with his employees. He didn’t want his employees to feel that production was more important than working safely. When asked why he did this, he simply stated that it was his job. Now, we’ve looked at the job descriptions in this organization. Nowhere does it mention in this guy’s job description that his job is to shield his employees from undue production pressures. So this supervisor, on his own, because of his concern for his crew, decided to bear this burden on himself.

Folks, that is safety leadership. In the safety profession there’s a lot of talk about how we need safety leaders and the idea of leadership is often glorified to be a person out in front of the organization, pointing them in the right direction against all odds. But we don’t think that’s really leadership. That seems more consistent with hero worship, than leadership. Instead, leadership is a social process used to influence others towards the completion of a common task. There’s nothing in that definition that requires someone to be in front of the organization. It’s about using the tools in your disposal to influence people to do the things that they already want to do. It’s about making it easy for people to achieve their goals (which you also happen to share).

That supervisor from the airport, by removing potential negative influences to his employees, is creating an environment that enables his employees to do what they already want to do – do a great job without getting hurt. How many of our safety programs are designed with this process in mind? How many safety systems focus on enabling safety rather than ensuring safety? Think about that. In one case (ensuring safety) we are dragging the organization kicking and screaming to do what they apparently don’t want to do (or else they wouldn’t be kicking and screaming about it). In the other case (enabling safety), we are making it easy for our people to do what they already want to do. It’s about identifying and removing barriers that make it hard for people to execute their tasks safely.

We think this is a seemingly small, but potentially revolutionary shift in how safety management systems are structured, and how safety leadership is conceptualized. How can you get started?

Step 1 is to go out and talk to your employees. Ask them how work really gets done and what makes getting the job done challenging or difficult. Ask them what surprises them when they do jobs. Make a list.

Step 2 is to do an assessment of your safety management system. Identify the gaps, the imperfections, the places where goals are competing, where work is complex, etc. Once identified, list out what your organization is doing to fill those gaps, or mitigate the risk from them. Chances are many of them are filled by employees, not because that’s the best option, but just because no one else is dealing with them. In our experience, these issues often seem less problematic on paper than they are in the work environment. List all these out too.

Step 3 is to devise plans to remove the barriers your employees identified and fill the gaps identified in the assessment with system fixes. Involve your employees in identifying those fixes.


Step 4 is simple – follow through. By removing the issues your employees face you will influence their behavior toward the common task of getting the job done safely. You will be enabling safety. Like the airport supervisor, you will be a safety leader.

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