Most organizations that seek to achieve safety excellence realize that this performance level can only be attained with strong leadership. When it comes to safety, there are two prevalent leadership philosophies. There is a stark contrast between the resulting safety cultures. We can better understand the differences by realizing that each is grounded in very different motives. One approach emphasizes control, while the other starts with caring.
Control = Compliance
Some managers define “strong leadership” as carrying a big stick. These managers believe that any time there is an injury or near miss, their principal responsibility is to hold people accountable. In practice, this means that the primary reason they have any safety conversation is to exert more control.
These managers believe that if people would simply comply with the policies, rules, and procedures, then no one would get hurt. Armed with this reasoning, they strive for greater control by criticizing actions that are inconsistent with established policies. Safety conversations center on correcting errant behaviors through counseling or discipline.
This safety philosophy leads to a Culture of Compliance.
The graphic shown here demonstrates the actions which lead to this kind of safety culture, which is summarized in the following statement:
If the reason (Why) you have any safety conversation is to exert control, the approach will be to criticize (How) and seek compliance through correction (What).
A Culture of Compliance results in a falsesense of improved safety performance, because many incidents are driven underground. The official safety numbers may look good. However, the number of unreported near misses and unrecorded minor injuries are indicative of an insidious safety culture. Because the causes are never acknowledged and addressed, they accumulate until a significant event occurs. Continue Reading
One of my summer jobs was working at a busy warehouse, filling wooden pallets with various orders of canned fruit or juice products. Forklifts then loaded the pallets on a trailer for shipping.
I remember the day I filled out the employment application. The job was on second shift. It was hard to find anyone who wanted to work these hours, so I was hired. The woman from human resources asked me if I could start working the same night. I showed up 30 minutes before my shift for orientation. While I don’t recall everything that was said, the supervisor’s safety expectations were memorable. The speech from Lyle went something like this:
“Most of these guys have been working here for more than 15 years. So ask them anything you want to know. The work isn’t that hard, but you can expect to get a few minor injuries before the summer is over. Nothing serious – maybe a gash from a box cutter or a sore toe from a case that is dropped accidentally. No open-toed shoes, by the way. There’s a first aid kit in the break room. If you need something more than a bandage or ointment, come see me. Now look, the number one thing you need to remember is that those guys running the forklifts are moving fast. The sooner we get these trucks loaded, the more time we all have at the end of the shift to relax. So stay clear of them at all times. They have the right-of-way in the aisles. Any questions?”
What questions would an 18-year-old ask? I had none.
Imagine you are part of a team that has been assigned a particularly difficult maintenance job. It will take three craftsmen at least eight hours to complete this task. Your supervisor (Jeff) is coordinating a long list of planned jobs as part of a large shutdown. Before you go to the work site, Jeff provides a pre-job brief:
“OK, guys – listen up. We have to replace the large pump in the northwest corner of the basement. As you know, it’s in a very tight space with no head room and there isn’t much ventilation or lighting down there – so make sure you hook up a fan and some temporary lighting. This is a critical path job, so I need you guys to get started on it ASAP. The guys on the production line will be waiting on this job before they can start back up. We’re behind on shipping customer orders, so there’s some heat from upper management to get in, get out, and get running. Don’t take any more time than is necessary to get the pump changed out. Keep any breaks to a minimum. I know you guys always work at a good pace. That’s why I teamed you up on this job – to get it done quickly. I’ll be checking on the job every hour to see if we are on schedule. If you need anything, get me on the radio and I will rush whatever you need to the work site. If you run into any problems and aren’t sure what to do – use your judgment and do whatever takes the least amount of time. I know I can count on you guys to get this job done right and on time. I gotta go … but don’t hesitate to yell if you need anything!
Family doctor visits usually have one of two purposes: either you are having a routine check-up to make sure that everything is okay with your health (preventive care) or you have an illness and your doctor wants to find the cause (diagnostic care). We can use health care as a metaphor to consider the approaches that we take when having a safety conversation.
A doctor who is diagnosing an illness or disease relies upon a series of questions and tests. If she suspects heart disease, for example, she may inquire about the patient’s smoking, eating, and exercise habits. She will also want to understand the patient’s family health history. These provide clues that may support her initial diagnosis, which can be confirmed with further testing.
Using this analogy, many supervisors and managers focus on providing diagnostic services when it comes to safety. After someone has an injury, they ask a series of diagnostic questions, aimed at determining why the injury occurred.
What were the factors that may have contributed to the injury?
All of us know about the importance of giving and receiving feedback. If the goal is improved behavior or performance, effective and timely feedback is essential. Most of what we read on this topic is focused on how to give feedback. There is considerably less advice on how to get useful feedback from others.
Most of us are not well equipped to receive feedback in a way that encourages people to be truthful. The person giving the feedback can easily be dissuaded from sharing the truth with you. The difference between receiving qualified feedback versus unvarnished feedback is determined by your reactions to the person who is giving the feedback. Without an honest assessment, it is difficult to change our personal behaviors that target our weaknesses.
Peter Bergman recently summarized some key actions that the receiver of feedback can take which will significantly increase the likelihood that the feedback will be useful. According to Bergman, there are five ways that we can improve the way that we receive feedback.
In what situation are you likely to hear someone ask this question? Perhaps an associate in a retail clothing store would use this phrase to offer some assistance. You could hear this phrase from a librarian while looking for a book or reference. Maybe you have called a customer service number to ask about a recent purchase.
However, would you expect your manager to inquire, “How can I help?” when you walked into his or her office? I wouldn’t.
Equally important, do you use this question as the opening for many of the discussions with your co-workers or those who report to you? Upon reflection, I only occasionally offered these words to my direct reports during the course of my career.