The Danger Zone

“Only the paranoid survive

~Andy Grove
Founder and CEO of Intel

Welcome in the new year! The perfect time to check your checklist of tough safety challenges, from A to Z. You know: attitude, awareness, behavior, buy-in, change, communication, compliance, complacency, culture, decisions, environment, equipment, focus……… etc. ……. All the way down to Zero. Nobody gets hurt; everyone goes home alive and well at the end of the day.

Those challenges are simple: they’re simply one or two words, familiar to every leader on the planet.

They’re also vitally important: fail to take good care of those challenges, sooner or later, someone will get hurt. But not easy: if the challenges were easy, they’d long since have been fixed, once and for all.

That’s the other thing about those challenges: they never really get fixed. A fix is a once and for all solution to a problem. Challenges like compliance, culture, and equipment are in a constant state of degradation: without the investment of energy, they won’t maintain themselves at the level necessary to achieve zero harm. That’s just how it is. No sense fooling yourself into thinking otherwise.

Which brings us to the challenge of complacency. It’s a challenge that comes and goes. It’s the challenge that a leader earns as the reward for doing a great job managing safety performance.

But then, no good deed ever goes unpunished.

A State of Mind

Travel as I have for the last two decades, meeting with leaders the world over, one challenge I regularly face is language: making sure we are operating from a common understanding of words. The language challenge isn’t limited to going back and forth between English and another language: as someone wisely noted, England and the US are two countries divided by a common language.

Closer to home, the next time you’re sitting around eating lunch with your working buddies, ask them to define “culture.” You’ll probably get as many different answers as there are people sitting at the table. I get that all the time—at World HQ. No matter where in the world HQ is sitting.

Complacency is one of those kinds of words. We use it all the time. But pressed to define exactly what complacency is……….er…… um…. well, you know it when you see it, right?

“Our people aren’t thinking. Or checking, like they’re supposed to.”

That’s not entirely wrong; but it is far from precisely correct, and can even be a bit misleading. Time for a little help from your management consultant. Complacency is a state of mind: thinking there is no danger; there is nothing to worry about; nothing will go wrong. Fear and doubt have been driven out—of the thinking.

Case in point: in January 2018, there are a lot of investors thinking exactly that way about their portfolios. Maybe there is nothing to worry about. And maybe their net worth is at risk—because there is a lot to be worried about.

But that’s just money.

Complacency – and Safety

Fill up a room with leaders, complacency is guaranteed to show up as one of their toughest safety challenges. For good reason: when their followers exhibit the state of mind characterized as complacency, they aren’t worried. They don’t have to be, because nothing’s going to go wrong. No need to focus on the task at hand; no need to pay careful attention to the details and conditions; no need to check and double-check.

Leaving them free to think about the things they really want to think about. What they’re going to do on the weekend; what they did over the holidays. It’s not that they “aren’t thinking.” They’re just not thinking about what they are doing, in the moment they are doing that. None of which is the least bit conducive to working safely.

Of course, the fastest way to bring complacency to a screeching halt would be to have some kind of a big, ugly incident. That’ll get everyone worried, fearful—and careful. But that’s just not the best way, as has been demonstrated by any number of good leaders who manage to keep their followers on their toes without the benefit of a failure.

That’s what “follower complacency” looks like. You know it well. What about “leader complacency?” Do leaders get complacent? And if they do, what does that look like?

Of course they do: leaders are normal human beings, too. Well, most of them are.

So just like their followers, leaders face their own form of complacency. In absolute terms, leader complacency is an even bigger problem than follower complacency: the magnitude of the consequences from a complacent leader is far greater. But leader complacency looks different: it’s appearance is often something other than what most leaders are inclined to think it is.

Sure, there’s the “Good is good enough” line of leader thinking. Safety performance, as measured against the peers is in the top (take your pick) half, third, quartile, decile: that’s good enough to satisfy (take your pick) the boss, corporate, the Board. Alcoa’s CEO Paul O’Neill faced that kind of complacency on Day 1 of his administration. From some Senior VP, who didn’t think much of some new guy showing up from the outside suggesting that we weren’t on top of our game.

Otherwise known as resistance.

That can—and has—happened. But most places I go, the “Good is never good enough” characterizes the thinking about safety. It’s called continuous improvement. This year’s goal: 10% lower than last year’s actual. Assuming last year was a good year.

That line of thinking won’t produce complacency—as long as you’re the leader who has to figure out the improvement plan—and then deliver the performance. Worry, anxiety, even fear are more likely.

But suppose you’re coming off a year of zero harm. Or been on a run of years of zeros: zero, zero, zero… Or coming off the best ever year. That’s where the problem of complacency can rear its ugly head: “Now that we’ve got the safety thing fixed…..” or “Since safety performance is under control……”  Next up: ________ (fill in the blank.)

That is exactly what leader complacency sounds like—straight from the mouths of complacent leaders. If you’ve been there, said that, don’t feel put upon. You have plenty of company.

Which suggests the nature of the problem.

This Is The Danger Zone

Failure produces a lot of things, but complacency is not one of them. In that sense, success is an Early Warning Indicator of complacency. It’s not a guarantee of complacency, but the temptation is always there. There are always competing demands on the time and attention of every leader; when some aspect of business performance is running well, it’s only natural for a leader to focus on the pressing issue of the day…week….month…..year.

Truth is, leaders are hard-wired to want to seek out problems, and fix them. If safety isn’t a problem, there are always other things to be worked on that are exciting, challenging—and not boring.

So, if you’re coming off a great year of safety performance, congratulations for the job well done! And know well that you are now in the Danger Zone. Thinking that will motivate you to do the right things to avoid that hazard, complacency.

On the other hand, if you’re coming off one of those off years, file this edition away, and read it when you’re back on top. It might just help you stay there—and stay out of the Danger Zone.

Paul Balmert
January 2018

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