When leader’s actions show that they take personal responsibility for safety, employees will act safely.
Only With Trust Can You Discover the Truth
It was 7 AM when Andy Brown, Vice President of U.S. Manufacturing arrived at his office. The night before there had been a deadly explosion and fire in one of the company’s Gulf Coast plants. His boss, the EVP Operations, called. After talking for a few minutes Andy put down the phone and said, “He wants to know what happened and he wants some heads on the table. I tried to tell him that I can do either of those things but I can’t do both. He wouldn’t listen.” We discussed his dilemma and he quickly came up with a brilliant one-liner that would make a great corporate bumper sticker:
Andy knew that to get at the root cause of the explosion, people must felt safe to speak the truth. If they were afraid for their job, he probably could not get at the real cause and therefore not know what procedure modifications to make to prevent another similar blast. Andy knows that to understand a problem you must look at what led to it, to the context, the situation, the system, the culture. To Andy, the explosion was a symptom and the cause was the system. To his boss the explosion was a problem that someone caused.
People don’t come to work to perform poorly. They want to be proud of their work and feel that they are a valuable and appreciated team member. Few of us deliberately do the wrong thing. There is rarely an excuse for poor performance, but if you look carefully you’ll always find an explanation. Every careless person has a reason.
Accidents Are a Symptom of a Cultural Problem
You can’t understand the cause of the accidents unless you put yourself into the employee’s shoes, understanding why the employee bypasses procedures, takes shortcuts, and ignores obvious evidence of mounting problems, and why, after an accident, the employee justifies this behavior with, “That is how we’ve always done things here.” Culturally speaking the employee did nothing wrong. He or she did just what was expected, behaving appropriately to his or her situation, to the culture, to what managers ask for, not in words but through their actions.
We each know what it’s like to work under pressure to get the job done. You feel that push every minute, in everything you do. Senior managers may even have a bonus for on-time or early project completion. Leaders typically deny any relationship between accidents and their leadership. Ironically, if their division does well they will quickly claim personal credit. But if there is an accident that same manager will blame it on external events or someone at lower levels. Looking in the mirror is painful.
Safety or Profits, or Safety and Profits? — Example
Jack, the manager of a large processing plant regularly preached to his managers and employees about safety, yet the plant’s safety record lagged well below the company’s norms. Jack was unaware of the contradictions between what he preached about safety and what he said through his actions. In management meetings he focused on the numbers, on productivity, labor hours, maintenance costs, expenses, overtime and downtime. It was clear to his managers, and everybody below them, that financial performance trumped safety — every time. Jack justified his emphasis saying, “That’s’ my job. If we aren’t profitable we won’t stay in business!”
We suggested to Jack that if he wanted to improve safety it would need to share the stage with finances. The message took repeating but Jack eventually heard it. He started opening his management meetings by asking for the safety numbers and how these affected his employees. It wasn’t long before the safety numbers improved — significantly. Jack was surprised to see that along with improved safety numbers, productivity slowly rose. His conversations with supervisors revealed that improved safety was improving employee morale and work attitudes. Employees were bringing more responsibility and energy to their jobs.
Fear Brings Silence
Most corporate executives claim they are not afraid to say what they think when they are in meetings with their peers and the CEO. Is that true? Executive meetings are typically dominated by the powerful field of competition, power, authority and control. Put a bunch of alpha males in the same room, human nature prevails. If this were the open savannas of Africa, fangs and claws would be bared — there would be blood. That’s scary.
But in the controlled calm of the executive suite competition is more subtle. Fear is largely suppressed and denied behind a cool front. What is thought and what is said may be worlds apart. When not speaking up, except about “business” issues (levels 1, 2 and 3 of culture) is the model at the executive level, you can be sure it’s the same down below.
Investigators of the BP Gulf oil spill, along with other well-researched “incidents”, unearthed the fear of speaking up. Most companies have box cars full of safety procedures. They don’t need more. The problem is that even when employees know the rules, know what should be done or see something being done wrong, they don’t speak up, don’t say “Stop.” Anyone who has worked in a large organization knows exactly how that feels. Bravery is stupidity.
Ironically, leaders in these bureaucratic and autocratic cultures often imagine they can improve safety by issuing even more rules and harsher directives, maybe even shouting at people to follow the rules and speak out. Of course in a culture or fear and passive-aggressive obedience, this has the opposite effect. It brings more fear, more silence.
Executives Will Get What They Ask For
As we say repeatedly on this website, what people do at the top gives permission for what happens below. To say that in reverse — if there’s a problem at lower levels you can be sure it is mirrored by a similar problem at the top. So if you plan to improve or develop a safer work culture the leadership team might ask itself, “What can we do differently to show we want things done differently in safety?”
These discussions invariably include the human levels of culture. They bring more openness and trust in the leadership team. When leaders combine that with trying new ways of showing safety in their daily work, they start changing the culture. This happens automatically as people below look up, see the new expectation and copy it. People want a safe workplace. When they see they have permission it doesn’t take long before the workplace is more psychologically and physically safe.
1. It is important that leaders don’t navel gaze by asking what they’re doing now that fosters the present safety problem. Human behavior and cultures are far too complex for such simple analysis. Searching for behavioral causes only brings accusations, denial, makes people angry, and in any case looks backwards rather than forwards. It’s more useful to ask, “How can we show greater safety with small changes in how we work together as a team and to how we each do our daily work?”
2. Delegating safety problems to Human Resources or to the engineering department is not only irrational, (it is a leadership issue, not a procedural, training or HR issue) it is counterproductive. People know safety is a leadership issue. When leaders delegate the problem there’s a clear message, “Don’t change. Keep things the way they are.”
cc 431 – © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.