Last week I suggested behaviors that cause safety in the workplace; I also suggested habits that help front-line leaders promote the desired behaviors. Today I’d like to discuss senior managers and how they can create safety within their organizations. Folks at the top of any organization face a paradox: on the one hand, they are ‘in charge’, they ‘call the shots’ and ‘chart the course’. On the other hand they often have relatively little control over daily behaviors of front-line personnel. Senior-most managers are stuck in meetings and separated from the rest of the team by layers of bureaucracy. When they do get out into the workplace, front-line workers are often reluctant to give them straight, candid feedback. In our Senior Leader Development Program, we work with executives to develop a series of habits — automatic, daily behaviors that increase contact with team-members, make honest feedback more likely, and increase opportunities to influence how people behave each day. The first step we recommend is making a sincere, personal commitment to the safety of your workers. In our experience, leaders who undertake the elimination of worker injury are repaid, not only with improved safety results, but with increased employee engagement, improved morale and improved performance in other areas. But commitment alone is not enough. Managers must find ways to influence others. Here are five suggestions for “visible and felt” leadership for safety.
  1. Talk about why… and make it personal. As Simon Sinek says, the best leaders talk about why — they help others find meaning in the work of the team. When it’s time to talk about safety, don’t fall into the trap of reviewing incidents, injury rates, new rules or performance incentives. Instead, talk about why safety matters to you… not as a manager, but as a person. How have you been affected by safety? What concerns do you feel for the safety of your loved ones? Why is keeping employees safe important to you?
  2. Meet people… build relationships. We coach clients to look for ‘triggers’ or ‘reminders’ of opportunities to connect with team-members. When someone newjoins the team, reach out to them. Whenever you pass through a work area (job site, shop floor, lunchroom, office or clinic), greet people and pause to ask about their lives outside of work. If there is an injury, reach out to the people involved, ask how they’re doing and what you can do to help. Even if you only connect with a small portion of your team, people will tell stories about “the time the big boss shook my hand and asked about by daughter’s soccer team”. This creates credibility, access and influence throughout the organization.)
  3. Ask questions… have conversations. Meetings tend to be exercises in talking ateach other — but we have little chance of influencing people without conversation. Many organizations begin meetings with safety minutes — short presentations about a specific hazard. We recommend replacing these mini-lectures with provocative questions that get folks thinking, talking and feeling responsible for safety. The best leaders set out to cause conversations each day — whether they visit the job-site, factory floor or lunch room, they approach people, build relationships and ask questions.
  4. Attend to perceptions as well as processes. The next time someone in your organization gets hurt, try an experiment: have a conversation with the people involved and ask, “What was on your mind the moment before the incident? What were you up to… what was most important to you in that moment?” Write down exactly what they say. Later, ask yourself, “How have I, through the way I manage this organization, contributed to this person feeling this way?” Often, this exercise reveals root causes not addressed in the post-incident investigation.
  5. Use ‘organizational rituals’ to promote these habits. Each organization has certain activities that happen each day, week or month without fail. We call these ‘organizational rituals’. We ask the managers we work with to step back, look at these activities with fresh eye and consider, “What is the message this meeting sends? What is the behavior this requirement promotes? What effect does this review have on the way participants see this organization and our work?” Often we find disconnects between leaders’ intentions and the design of their organization’s rituals. We challenge leaders to incorporate talking about ‘why’, building relationships, asking questions and having conversations, and reflecting on the perceptions of others, into their organizational rituals. (Stay tuned for my next post which will be a deep dive on rituals that make the biggest difference.)
One of the ironies of organizational life is the disconnect between managing and leading. With each promotion, our responsibility expands — and yet with each rung of the ladder, our opportunities to influence — to lead people are reduced. It is vital that senior managers of large organizations take specific steps, day in and day out, to ensure connection, conversation, influence and engagement with their employees. Interested in learning more? Ready to re-invent the way you lead safety? We’re ready to help.   About the author: Andy Erickson is a principal and CTO at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at aerickson@humanus-solutions.com

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