The fundamental principle underlying this inter-connectedness across the business is crucial. The principles, practices, disciplines and culture that underpin good performance in safety are the same as those that underpin good performance in quality, maintenance, customer service, business delivery, staff engagement and all other aspects of a business. If you want to improve safety, first improve those fundamentals across the entire organisation.
If you try to overlay a good safety culture on to a toxic business culture, it simply will not work. You cannot expect workers to be open and transparent with safety issues if the general business culture is ‘shoot the messenger’.
Effective safety leaders are strategic enough to see this bigger picture and work on the business as a whole to gain improvements across the board.
Transformational leadership style
Great leaders are transformational rather than transactional. They use vision and empowerment to inspire their teams to take ownership of issues, encompassing and bringing out an organisation’s talent.
Don’t confuse this with the ‘rah-rah’ motivational, charismatic manager who is all talk. Inspiration and motivation fall over quickly if they are not backed up and supported by resources, ongoing encouragement and importantly, acceptance of positive failure (i.e. those failures that occur inevitably at some point in the pursuit of improvement and responsible risk taking).
Transformational leaders are people-centric and collegiate. They are prepared to listen to advice, encourage their teams to grow and develop, share credit for outcomes, and are consultative and co-operative, although not afraid to make a call on difficult decisions. It is a hard balance to strike and rare to find.
Daniel Pink1 has famously reviewed motivational theory and practice. He states that traditional incentive methods designed to motivate are not only ineffective, but can actually reduce performance. Experiments have shown that external motivators, such as financial bonuses for completion rates, work well for simple, routine, mechanical tasks that require little or no thinking or creativity. For more complex tasks, a bonus for completion actually reduces the rate at which problems are solved. In today’s world, difficult problems requiring creative solutions are far more common and are typically at the heart of genuine improvement processes. This is certainly the case in safety.
So, what does work? Pink highlights three areas: autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Compare these to the transformational leader above. Autonomy – allows people to deliver their own solutions and take appropriate risks. Mastery – encourages the team to grow and develop. Purpose – establishes a clear and compelling vision that inspires the team to perform.
Contrast this motivational theory to the majority of safety management activities and attitudes we see: follow the procedures, don’t break the (many) rules, investigate (blame) when accidents happen, only talk to workers when something has gone wrong, 90% of accidents are caused by you making a mistake.
Is it any wonder that people are demotivated and turned off safety?
A natural orientation towards learning
Effective leaders spend time and effort to learn and understand more, increasing their own mastery. This manifests itself in a questioning attitude, lifelong learning and seeking to understand difficult problems.
Safety has a tendency to over-simplify and not acknowledge the complexity of the workplace and the people within it. Effective leaders will simplify to aid understanding, but only as far as realistic. As Albert Einstein is claimed to have said, “things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” It’s also often said that the best way to genuinely understand something is to explain it to someone else. To understand, simplify and explain effectively requires mastery of a subject.
An effective leader does not take matters at face value – they explore, question and challenge.
They are open to learning from elsewhere within the organisation. They listen to their workers and take advice from those with a better knowledge of the practicalities of the workplace.
They also show the organisation that they value learning and support training by encouraging mentoring programmes and shared learning events. This cascades throughout the business. When the whole business adds to their knowledge and understanding on a routine basis, the improvements are dramatic.
Understand the trajectory of their messages when communicating with their people
When a leader sends a message, the business responds. How, when and where the response occurs is the trajectory of the message. There are three key factors within this:
People respond to a message differently
As a leader everything you say and do (or don’t do) is scrutinised and interpreted by the business - so too are the behaviours you model
In a senior role the feedback you receive from the business is not the truth - the better your culture and openness, the closer to the truth it will be
An effective leader recognises that different parts of the business will respond in different ways. Sometimes this is acknowledged – vive la difference – and we move on. At other times what is helpful and positive for some may be damaging and insulting for others. In safety there are typically wide variations in capability and experience within different business units. In highly hazardous industries those in the field are very experienced, risk aware and technically and practically competent, routinely facing and effectively managing significant risks daily. They require a different message and approach to office-based workers who have a much lower risk profile. In contrast, when considering work related stress due to long hours, fatigue and pressure to deliver, these risk profiles can reverse.