I recently came across this post on LinkedIn: “I’m looking for ideas in how to better equip our front line supervisors. It could be training, but I’m thinking something that will not only strengthen their ability to lead in safety but in all aspects.” In my experience, the performance of supervisors — and indeed, anyone within an organization — is a reflection of four things:
  • Mission. What is the organization “up to” and do team members feel personally connected to the mission?
  • Mindset. How do team members see themselves and their jobs? Do they believe they can (and want to) make a difference here?
  • Habits. What do team members regularly do (and not do) and say (and not say)? How do they demonstrate their mindset in words and deeds?
  • Structures. What regular meetings, reviews and processes does the organization have in place, and do they promote the desired behavior, reinforce the desired mindset and sustain attention on the mission?
    Change in any one of these areas will lead to improved performance — but sustained change requires improvement in all four elements. There is a strong tendency within organizations to focus on structures and systems. The intention is good (here’s a check-list to ensure we do a thorough pre-task hazard assessment). But we implement tools in a way that undermines the desired mindset (Ugh! More paperwork!) and promotes counter-productive behavior (Let’s pencil-whip this so we can get to work). Similarly, training is often an attractive solution (We’ll teach these guys new skills and when they get back to the field, they’ll behave differently) but we deploy it in a way that makes sustained behavior change unlikely (When the heck will I have time for this? I’ve got other work to do.) And often our structures don’t reinforce or encourage use of the new skills (I’m glad you had fun at training, but let’s talk about your overtime plan for this weekend.) Working on all four (mission, mindset, habits and structures) doesn’t have to be complicated – you don’t need consultants (like me) to sell you magic beans or keys to the kingdom. But it does require stepping back from the situation and looking at it from a different perspective. Let me suggest two approaches in lieu of another training program. (Note: I’m going to assume that you are a manager and that you direct / manage the supervisors. If you’re in a staff or support function, these strategies will require enrolling the managers responsible for their front-line supervisors). Path 1: Learn from your bright-spots… and give the work back to the people. Form a small team of supervisors, and meet with them regularly. Use these sessions to walk through the following steps:
  1. Lay out the problem, as you see it, and ask them how they see it; it’s vital that you listen carefully and closely to what they say (and don’t say).
  2. Ask the team to identify “bright spots” — other supervisors who have avoided or solved the problem you’re discussing. Some call these “positive deviants”.
  3. Ask the team to observe these individuals and identify what they do that sets them apart from the rest. Focus on actions and not personal qualities and attributes.
  4. Ask the team to identify three or four “moves” — actions that any and every supervisor could take. The best moves can be scripted – described and modeled easily.
  5. Ask the team to identify three or four ways to incorporate these “moves” into regular, recurring activities – especially daily meetings and group tasks.
Several years ago, I worked with a refinery in Channelview, TX. This organization had seen an uptick in injuries — nothing serious, but the frequency of low-level hurts was alarming. The manager worried they were “due” for a fatality. One of the first things we did was form team of twelve front-line leaders. We agreed to meet for ninety-minutes every other week: At the first team meeting, the refinery manager expressed his frustration with the safety performance. The team was slow to respond – we had to draw them out and urge them to “be straight with us — how it is on your end?” Eventually the team agreed that safety was poor, but they were more concerned by the low morale and alienation crews were feeling following a corporate re-structuring and layoffs a few years earlier. At the end of the first meeting, we asked the team to go and find “bright spots” — crews that had few injuries and who’s morale seemed higher than they rest. We discussed their findings a couple of weeks later; we then sent the team back out and asked them to observe the “bright spots” and identify the “moves” the supervisors of these crews used – what did they do that was different? This proved to be a bit tougher. There was a tendency to say, “That’s just how Joe is — he cares about his folks and his team loves him.” It took a few sessions but the team eventually identified a series of actions that set these best performers apart. “Joe shakes hands with each person, each morning and introduces himself to every visitor in his unit. If you’re new to the unit, Joe gets up and introduces himself.” From this list, the team settled on three “moves” that everyone could do:
  1. Meet someone new every day.
  2. Ask for what you need… don’t assume the answer is no.
  3. Explain “the why” behind unpopular decisions… and don’t blame “the new owners”
The next step was to find ways to encourage these actions across the site. They decided not to take the usual approach of a communication campaign and mandatory training sessions. Instead, the team members committed to doing the three behaviors themselves — to road-test them for a month. They were so pleased by the results that they began talking about it with their peers. And before long, supervisors who were not on the team were asking their bosses, “When do we get to do that?” Meanwhile, the refinery manager began doing whatever he could to incorporate the moves into the organizations processes and ‘rituals’. In place of a safety moment, they began doing introductions — “does everyone here know everyone else?” The refinery manager began visiting crew shelters asking folks what they needed — not promising to get it for them, but promising to try, and to let them know if he couldn’t. And he began devoting time at all managers meetings to explaining “the why” behind announcements, even going so far as to lead role-playing exercises where supervisors rehearsed explaining “the why” to their crews. That was six years ago, and I’m proud to report that the refinery saw a 75% reduction in recordable injuries, and a dramatic increase in reporting of minor injuries and near-misses. Even better, although the refinery manager has long since been promoted, and most members of the original team have moved on, the team continues to meet once a month. A few years ago, they changed the list of moves, replacing “explain the why” with “catch someone doing something good”. Please note that I am not recommending these three moves for your supervisors — they’d likely fight you every step of the way. I am suggesting that the best way to build ownership and broad-based motivation for change is to engage the people who most need to change. Let them own the problem — and identify the ways they can overcome it. Path 2: Examine your role in the problem… and begin the change from where you’re sitting I’d ask you to take a look at yourself… and ask others for feedback. Here’s how:
  1. Begin by describing the behaviors that you are seeing / not seeing from your supervisors; be very specific: who, what, when, where
  2. Have conversations with the supervisors to understand what is foremost in their minds at the moment they decide to do / not do this? What are they “up to” in that moment?
  3. Ask yourself what is it about the way I work… the message I send through my words and actions… through I am being at work… that contributes to people thinking / feeling this way?
This can be a bit tougher, and getting folks to open up about the motivation behind their actions takes some skill and quite a bit of trust. But there are ways to enroll others in helping you understand what folks are thinking. The key move is actively choosing to be responsible (able-to-respond) for how others think. Three years ago I worked with an organization that made interior components for a large aerospace manufacturer. This team was under intense cost and schedule pressure — and their safety record was atrocious. The senior-most managers were passionate about safety, but they were struggling to enroll and engage their team of front-line supervisors. I coached the Director of Operations; he was committed to reaching the “hearts and minds” of his workforce. He was inclined to think that he needed to fire some of the supervisors, and send the rest through an intensive training and development program. To his credit, he was willing to examine his role in the situation. For the better part of a month, this manager spent the first hour of each day ‘shadowing’ a different supervisor, sitting in on crew meetings, participating in team stretching and chatting with workers. He took note of how supervisors talked about safety, what they emphasized and the response they got from their crews. He spoke to the supervisors, asking them questions like, “What’s most important to you when it comes to starting your crew off each morning?” and “In your mind, what’s your role in keeping your crew safe? How do you do it?” The Director of Ops and I had a series of conversations focusing on his influence over the supervisor cadre. He acknowledged that he was intensely interested in the injury rate… it affected his annual performance assessment. He wanted his supervisors to feel the same way, so he showed the injury rate metrics, and reviewed incident reports at every meeting. Through our conversations, he realized his ‘relationship to safety’ was “failure-centric”. That is, whenever someone spoke up about safety he though, “Oh crap. What happened now?” He realized that he was intensely committed to “supervisors knowing what’s going on in their area” so his daily production reviews were, in part, examinations of how well the supervisor could explain production status and delays. And he realized that although he wanted his supervisors to have collegial, friendly relations with their crews, his own meetings with the supervisors were all business. He made three changes in his management routines:
  1. He changed the daily “crew meeting talking points” distributed to supervisors each morning to focus on “safety issues we resolved yesterday” rather “who got hurt yesterday”.
  2. He changed the agenda for his daily production status review with the supervisors, and instead of asking “did anyone get hurt” he challenged each supervisors to identify three “more-safe” behaviors they had seen and reinforced that day — workers doing the right thing, speaking up and stopping work and corrections and improvements to the work area,
  3. He negotiated new annual performance goals with his boss, committing to a steeper decline injury rates, but warning him that he’d see a dramatic increase in reporting of near-misses and unsafe conditions.
More importantly, he changed the way he thought about his role. He began to hold himself responsibility for the quality of the relationship between supervisors and their crews. He realized that the change he wanted to see in his supervisors began with him. Through these, and a host of other changes, the organization made dramatic improvements in safety — they went from worst-to-first in terms of their injury-rate, and currently take a perverse pride in reporting more near-misses and unsafe conditions than any other division. And, by the way, the Director I worked with has since moved to another job — but the changes he made in the management routines have been sustained. Again, I am not recommending that you apply these specific solutions. But you’d be well-served to follow a similar process — get clear about the behaviors you’re seeing, understand what’s going on for your supervisors, and take a close look at how you’re contributing to the situation. Where from here? It’s understandable: as managers we see a gap in performance… we find a need for changes in behavior… and we reach for something we can hire / buy / deploy: training. But training alone is unlikely to make a lasting difference. The choices individuals make in the workplace are a reflection of how they think and feel about their role — and this is not accessible through training. Leadership is the secret sauce to strengthening performance, and the best place to begin is with the leader sitting in your chair. About the author: Andy Erickson is a principal and CTO at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in leadership, organizational culture and creating breakthroughs in performance. He can be reached at aerickson@humanus-solutions.com

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