The Top 10 Mistakes Managers Make Managing Safety Performance

Biggest Mistake Number 10

Biggest Mistake Number 10:
Relying on Hope as a Method

 “Hope Is Not a Method”

~General Gordon Sullivan

Very few of us started out our working careers as a manager: we worked our way up to the job. When we finished our education, we found our first job in the business. Whether that job was as an apprentice, operator, draftsman, engineer, or working in the office, the only person we managed in the first years of our career was our self.

Not that learning a new job and starting out a career didn’t present its own problems, but as we later learned, managing people presents a set of challenges that very few of us are ever fully prepared to handle.

As our careers progressed, we found out that we liked what we were doing and were good at the work we did. Being good at it, doing our jobs didn’t seem all that difficult. It wasn’t too long before we started to get recognized for our skills – and potential.

Then, one day someone offered us the opportunity to manage others – whether it was what we wanted to do all along or not. Of course, we accepted the promotion.

Of all new assignments we encounter in the course of our career, no one is bigger than the change from managing yourself to managing others. When our new assignment and responsibilities were described, we were reminded “you are also accountable for the safety of those assigned to you.” In industry, managers are entrusted with the safety of those who report to them.

Of course, we knew that. We all understood that being accountable for the safety of others came as part of the job.

Did we really comprehend what that meant? Did we fully appreciate that we became responsible for how other people behaved – whether we were standing next to them or not? That this responsibility could weigh so heavily on us as we stood with the family of an injured worker, not sure whether he would survive his injury? That this responsibility would force us to deal with the people we work with in ways that wouldn’t always make them happy to see us?

The truth turned out to be that managing safety performance was probably the toughest part of our job as manager, and one for which we had the least preparation.

Picture this:

You’re looking for a good athlete from within your workforce for a very special business opportunity. You’d like to find someone with great hand-eye coordination and a track record of success in competitive sports.

Fortunately, there are plenty of candidates to choose from. You’re given a candidate list: former high school quarterbacks, guards on the basketball team, volleyball players, baseball pitchers, and even a tennis player.

You start interviewing the candidates, searching for the one with the right potential for this special assignment. You concentrate on those who’ve stayed in shape and kept up their skills. Eventually, you happen upon the perfect candidate: an employee who’s been working for you for ten years; a former baseball pitcher, who now competes in triathlons.

You offer him the job and he accepts. His new assignment, by the way, is to play golf with Tiger Woods next Monday morning in front of a gallery composed of your company’s President and hundreds of his friends. No matter that the candidate you’ve selected has never held a golf club in his hands in his life.

Sound crazy?

Sure it is. But, in a sense, isn’t that exactly what happened when we were first promoted into management? We were given responsibility for managing the safety of others – even though we had no management experience. Someone with the potential to learn a new set of skills – management skills – is put in a situation where they are expected to be able to immediately perform those new skills, and perform them successfully so that no one goes home injured and everyone who is watching them perform is impressed with their proficiency.

We wouldn’t send a machinist out to troubleshoot a problem with electrical switchgear. At least not without training and some assurance about his electrical qualifications. We’ll promote that same machinist to supervisor, and expect that he’ll be able to manage the safety performance and behavior of his crew. “He’ll do just fine” is what we’ve all said, probably because that’s exactly what happened to us, and we managed to survive the experience.

Big mistake.

“Hope is not a method.” Yet, when it comes to the most important role we play as managers in industry, sending people home safe at the end of the day, hope is the method of choice to prepare managers for the assignment.

It was how we started off our careers in management. And, we turned right around and repaid the favor over our careers by doing exactly the same thing to others: taking people with great potential as supervisors and managers; entrusting them with the safekeeping of their crew; yet failing to give them the kind of support and training to function effectively.

It’s amazing that there weren’t more failures when we were moving into management. At least back them, we had experienced crews working for us, and the people we worked for seemed to be able to find the time to help and coach us.

What’s the situation look like today? What’s the experience level of the performing the work in our organizations now? How much time do senior managers have to spend with their new supervisors and managers, providing the coaching and development they need?

Relying on hope as the method to teach supervisors and managers how to manage safety performance is one of the biggest mistakes managers make.

Advice worth heeding from those of us who’ve made the mistake more than once.

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