But you can change how you act”
Every class in safety leadership we teach begins by examining what’s standing in the way of sending everyone home, alive and well at the end of every single day. There’s always a list; a long list of the tough safety challenges every leader the world over faces, no matter what the business. In alphabetical order, the list goes roughly, “attitude, awareness, buy-in, complacency, compliance, communication, culture, decisions, environment, equipment…….”
Feel free to complete the list yourself; after all, these are your challenges – not somebody else’s.
As to the source of these all too familiar problems, they all come about from the simple fact that humans do the work of the business. In doing the work they are surrounded by things that can hurt them. If it were possible to completely engineer out all humans from every work process, there would be no such thing as industrial safety. Management would then be left alone to manage the business, and not be distracted by safety.
Think about the possibilities!
But that’ll never happen. Even in the best of cases, an army of robots hired to do the work of the business would still need design, engineering, construction, commissioning, start up, inspection and maintenance. Performing those functions requires people, albeit people doing different types of work and, in so doing, exposure to a different set of hazards.
That is the nature of safety. As long as there are people doing the work, leaders will be needed to manage their behavior.
The mere mention of the word behavior is capable of setting off a range of emotions, not all of them positive. There was a time when “behavior-based safety” was widely considered the cure for everything standing in the way of zero harm. It was such a great idea that I sat in the audience at safety conferences listening to behavioral psychology professors and doctors staking claim, “I came up with the idea.”
As if it mattered, or the idea worked as advertised.
That’s not to suggest the peer-to-peer safety observation wasn’t a good idea: getting a second set of eyes on the performance of work addresses a number of challenges found in the world of work. For openers, it’s a normal trait of we humans to think we’re better than we really are, and are working safer than we really are. Getting a dose of reality straight from our peers can help us see reality for what it really is.
Back in the 80’s, when my big plant was an early adopter of this next big thing, we were instructed by the consultants that no members of supervision would be allowed to participate in the process, sheltering their followers from repercussions should unsafe behavior be observed by the boss. That couldn’t happen.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In some quarters, following this model was seen as an abdication of responsibility by management, as if leaders were telling followers, “Safety’s up to you, not us.” Of course, we went along with what the experts told us: “Follow the process.”
You’re probably thinking it was crazy. I would not disagree. Back then, nobody called a time out, asking a Darn Good Question like, “What really is the proper role for leaders to play in observing and managing the behavior of our followers?”
It’s easy for leaders to get swept up in the program du jour and lose perspective. So, don’t.
That advice comes from someone who knows a lot because I’ve seen a lot. More than happy to share the specifics of the long list of management “processes” I’ve seen come and go over seven decades dating back to the Blake Mouton Management Grid in the 60’s, not that it matters to you.
Your challenge is keeping your perspective in the heat of the battle. Fail to do that, it’s entirely possible there will be a time in the distant future where someone will come to the same conclusion about something you’re doing today.
The simple truth is there is no escaping the need to manage behavior; it’s foolish to think otherwise. As to where to start the managing, it’s obvious: with you, the leader.
Yet, when it comes to safety, leaders instinctively target followers’ behavior as the focus for their leadership activity. Hence, they produce a list of challenges that seem all about their followers’ behavior: they don’t follow the rules, they take shortcuts, they’re complacent. A five-star general and former President, Dwight Eisenhower, had it right when he observed, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done – because they want to do it.”
There’s not a thing wrong with that line of thinking. The peer observation process is one way to take on challenges like these, but it does not absolve the leader from similarly observing and, when called for, correcting behavior. Which brings up the other appropriate target for the leader’s activities: the leader.
To point out the obvious, whose behavior is required to observe, analyze, decide to intervene, and say something? The leader, of course. Even more fundamental to behavior, a leader who wants every follower to comply with the rules should follow all the rules themselves.
It’s called Leading By Example, a popular term of art for “leader behavior.”
That said, leader behavior covers a far wider spectrum of activities than just setting a good example, however influential that might be. Consider the example of the behaviors – actions – the leader must properly engage in to cause a follower to comply with a procedure: create and communicate the procedure; train the follower; establish and execute the process by which the follower recognizes that the procedure applies in the situation they find themselves working in.
When all those prerequisites are successfully met, the follower then chooses whether to comply. If all of those conditions are not met, if the follower doesn’t follow, the failed behavior is that of the leader.
Said another way, while most of those tough safety challenges involve follower behavior, in many cases the leader’s behavior is the cause and the follower’s behavior a symptom.
When it comes to appreciating the times when “it’s on them” and when “It’s on me”, it would be fair to say that’s the subject of wisdom. For most of us, the “ability to discern inner qualities and relationships” and “accumulated knowledge” – how my Webster’s defines wisdom – comes with experience. A lot of experience!
Still, observation and reflection are key ingredients in the process. As someone once pointed out in a performance appraisal written for a very senior employee, “You have gained one year’s worth of experience, thirty times over.”
Put into practice, observation and reflection require an investment of time and effort, two commodities in short supply these days. Usually it’s easier to “follow the process” than to stop and reflect as to just what the process is – and should be. Asking pesky Darn Good Questions is often labeled as resisting: digging in, rather than digging into. On the point of seeking wisdom versus putting up resistance, there’s a huge difference between saying, “I don’t agree with that” and asking, “How does that work when….?”
As to where to find it, wisdom can show up in the oddest of places, even on social media. The trick to finding wisdom is to be able to tune out all the non-sense – and dial in to the occasional diamond in the rough.
In a farm tractor supply store in a small town in Texas Hill Country, I stumbled upon the perfect example of just this sort of wisdom. Posted behind the checkout counter, was this gem, written by someone who knows a thing or two about behavior.
No telling exactly what they had in mind – or who – when they put this piece of wisdom up for the world to read. People in front of the counter, behind the counter, or the boss back in the corner office? Probably not thinking about safety, or managing safe behavior.
It doesn’t matter. This one really is the stuff of genius, something worth the time and effort to ruminate on.
A follower can’t change who they are; neither can a leader. But when it comes to working safely and leading others to work safely, both a follower and a leader can change how they act.
In working safely, that’s really what matters.