For my final article in 2021, I’d like to share some of the most thought-provoking questions I’ve been asked throughout the year. May they stimulate further critical thinking as you reflect on this year and plan the next one.
This year I’ve noticed an uptick in the interest of senior operational leaders in occupational safety and health (OH&S), perhaps with the destabilising effect of Covid, leaders and organisations around the world have come to understand just how critical their people are to the success of their business.
For years people have been asking me “What makes a great safety leader?”
Here’s the first step: to be a great (safety) leader, you’ll need to understand that it’s not all about you: it’s all about them. You have to let the people be the heroes. So how do you turn regular folks into heroes? Well, it’s not that difficult.
Start by asking for input from the people around you, close your mouth and listen, then recognise the contributions of others and thank people for their efforts. Want to improve workplace safety? Ask your people what change they’d like to see. Ask them where the biggest risks are of them getting hurt and then invite their suggestions on how to stay safe.
Next, know that great leaders don’t worry too much about what he or she looks like. Instead, they worry about helping the people around them to look great, feel great and be great. Remember, it’s all about them.
I’ve been working in safety for nearly 25 years now. At times it’s been a lonely affair – not always is the “safety guy” welcomed to the boardroom, the management team, or the shift breakout room. Perhaps that’s because some safety folks see their role as “stopping bad stuff from happening” and thus take a hard-line approach – acting more like a police officer, auditor or lawyer. Making sure people don’t get hurt at work is a key part of the role, but how we go about ensuring that is vitally important.
In my book From Accidents to Zero, I explain that the absence of accidents doesn’t mean the existence of safety. For too long companies have chased zero injury targets and this has placed all the focus on elimination, prevention, inspection, protection and rules.
I suggest that safety is an output of what we do, so if we want to achieve it, we need to work on the inputs. In my research I’ve realised that the most crucial inputs are the quality of leadership (at all levels, formal and informal) and the quality of engagement (between leaders and workers and between workers in teams). Central to these inputs is how we speak about safety.
Leaders need to explain why safety is of value to them as individuals and why it’s important to the achievement of corporate goals. Workers need to be able to discuss safety without fear or embarrassment, speaking up if something doesn’t feel right. Safety professionals should also take the mindset of a business partner focused on the broader success of the business.
In this modern age, everyone has the potential to be a leader – leadership is everything we do and everything we don’t do. Therefore it’s our behaviours that convey our leadership, no matter what our job title is. Oh, and leadership is also everything we say and everything we don’t say, too.
Speaking of setting the tone, the pandemic has displaced many workers and leaders who now find themselves struggling to get “face to face time” with operators – in the way they may have previously during safety walks or site tours. Here’s an interesting question that really got me thinking about how leaders could interact with their teams:
“The dilemma for many leaders who are not directly involved with their team is that they run out of good questions to start the conversation on, say, week two. They have asked the good question on their visits on the first pass, but when they go back and nothing has been done to implement the one small thing that could make things safer, they lose credibility. And even if they did get the one small thing done, are they going to ask them the same thing each week? Which engaging questions could be asked after one or two months?”
This is a common fear for leaders everywhere. “What if I don’t know what to say?!” But you don’t need to have superior intelligence, you just need the right tone, to be sincere and to be curious. Authentic human connection is founded on curiosity: to be a good boss you have to be curious about those who work with you; to be a good partner you have to be (and stay) curious about the other person; to be a good parent, a good friend, or a good colleague you’ll need to be curious too.
Curiosity adds zest, creates confidence and is the stuff of genius, as Albert Einstein remarked: “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.”
But as this question reminds us, sometimes we all need a little help. That’s why we developed the Creating Safety Conversations Cards – a deck of 50 cards, covering 10 themes of safety culture (including performance, risk, recognition, leadership and motivation). There are five cards for each theme and each card has at least two great questions that will help you “break the ice” and then do a “deeper dive” into a meaningful safety discussion.
You could use one card each week during visits to the shopfloor, get your team together to discuss the cards in pairs, or use the cards to help you reflect on your current culture and performance. The card decks are available in English, French, German, Russian and several other languages. You can find details here: https://fromaccidentstozero.com/product/conversation-cards-multilingual/.
“We know that running a safety moment at the start of each meeting is a good idea, but how do you balance ‘forcing’ safety moments at the start of each meeting versus making them something positive that people choose to engage in whenever relevant?”
This isn’t about “forcing” anything. But it’s not about people “choosing to engage in being safe whenever they wish” either. Like everything else, it’s about getting the balance “just right”. A good safety moment should be brief (five minutes maximum) and encourage people to discuss, gain some learning and identify a clear action. If we make the moment feel upbeat, using common language (rather than technical jargon), and keep it light but focused, this should make it easier for folks to engage. You lead the way with the first few, and soon others will offer up their own safety moments to the group.
“How does working across different geographies with different risk perceptions change the way we approach H&S?”
I think we need to be mindful of the beliefs and values of particular cultures or geographies, the prevailing views, customs and perspectives – and tailor our approach to these. For example, in Arabic countries the phrase “inshallah” may be uttered by some people. My team and I come across this regularly, with workers suggesting that “if ‘it’s God’s will’ to take me, he will”: here there may be an opportunity for a leader to talk about the importance of the worker to the business, the team, their family, or even the “work family”.
“How do you change cultures in factories that are currently very independent and led by long serving charismatic factory managers?”
The easy answer is to change the manager. Otherwise, question why you retain this manager if they are not focusing on something you feel is so important (the safety of your people). Consider the “what’s in it for me” and work out what this manager likes and set a safety objective around that. Don’t forget the old maxim that smart folks “like what their boss likes” – perhaps it’s about you setting the right tone from the top and leading by example.
“Should all senior leaders in our businesses be ‘safety qualified’?”
Yes! Though this doesn’t mean they all need master’s degrees in safety! Every leader needs to understand why safety brings value to their business and how their leadership affects the culture of the business, and the behaviour of the employees within it. This might be achieved through reading, attending professional development events, working more closely with safety professionals, or through learning and development opportunities. We run a programme called Total Safety Leadership where, in just two days, we equip leaders at all levels with the knowledge, skills and tools they need to drive a significant step-change in safety culture and performance. Find out more here: https://www.rmsswitzerland.com/create-great-safety-leaders.html.
“Many of our employees live outside work and travel to work in an unsafe way – it’s difficult for them to change their behaviour when they cross into work. Any thoughts?”
Great question. I’ve seen this regularly in Africa (and other countries). I’ve also seen how a strong focus on what’s most important to workers (their families and being able to provide for them) can shift the needle. One firm we work with asked workers to bring in a picture of their kids and these were posted on the canteen wall as a poignant reminder of why safety was important. Beneath the images a large sign said “Daddy come home safe”, and at various points around the site a small sticker with the same words was strategically positioned as a reminder – on staircase handrails, steps of ladders, machinery guarding and so on. Remember we’re looking for evolution, not revolution here, and that small steps in the right direction help us reach our goal.
“Why do we have a safety focus at work but then compromise those standards at home?”
Perhaps because at home we “let our guard down”, as we feel comfortable and familiar with our surroundings and everything seems easier. Oh, and no one is watching! Perhaps consider your own safety standards at home – cutting the grass, fixing something, fire safety, etc. Do you feel that they are “just right”? What message does your standard of home safety send to others in your house? And is there a risk that your “home standard” comes with you to work?
“How do you make safety live in the office environment?”
By keeping it real. Behave in proportion: risks may be lower in the office, so don’t go overboard – no need to ban hot coffee, but you might ask people to put a lid on the cup if they’re heading up or down stairs. Think about the health aspects too – sitting at a desk too long damages our spine and causes myriad other health issues.
“If safety is an unconscious, consistent behaviour that takes us home in the same condition as we arrive, how do we create that state on scale?”
I’m not sure that it is unconscious, to be honest. I think we do need to be mindful of the risks and what we choose as our behaviours. Our behaviours tend to come from what we believe to be true, right or fair – in addition to the influences we have around us. Back in the 1930s, German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin proved that our behaviour is a function of the person and the environment they are in (when he said environment, he means what today we call culture).
So, a good starting point is building safety as a personal value for everyone. You can do this by demonstrating why safety is important to you as a leader and then taking every opportunity to demonstrate this with your teams. That might include responding promptly to employee safety concerns, providing feedback to safety improvement suggestions, or even stopping process lines or activities when a significant safety concern is raised. It also means recognising good safety behaviours, suggestions and ideas. Keep in mind that a good attitude to safety spreads like a virus – like the common cold – from person to person to person. You’re not trying to win everyone over all at the same time!
So, there you have it – my top questions of the year, and my thoughts on each. I hope that you’ve found them helpful to reflect on your own safety leadership. Here are three further questions that you could ponder at the end of this year:
How will you talk about and present safety performance in your part of the organisation?
How will you increase your visibility and show genuine interest in safety?
How will you make it easier for people to be safe each day?
All of us, regardless of title or where we sit in an organisation, can influence others to create positive change. All we need is to think critically about how we apply our knowledge and experience to the challenges at hand. Here’s to another great year of working together in OSH, and thanks to each of you for your efforts to make the world of work a safer, healthier place.