PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Good-to-great leadership

Some of my graduate students reacted rather negatively to my two previous articles in this series reviewing Jim Collins’ national bestseller, “Good to Great,” claiming conclusions from Collins and his research team gave minimal regard to techniques to improve human performance. In Collins’ words, “the good-to-great companies paid scant attention to managing change, motivating people, or creating alignment” (p.11).

Instead, the great companies studied by Collins et al. hired the right people in the first place — conscientious and self-motivated, whose talents and interests matched their job function. Plus, great companies did not let the wrong people hang around. The right people inevitably compensate for their inadequacies and become de-motivated.

So greatness seems to be more about selecting the right people than teaching and motivating the right behavior. Some of my students said this seems to contradict the focus of my teaching. Throughout my career, my professional purpose has been much more about helping people perform better (and more safely) than about identifying and selecting the best personalities for a particular task.

Actually, the entire discipline of applied psychology places more focus on improving people’s performance than on finding the best people to perform. Also, selection devices with impressive predictive validity are rare, and are not applicable to an existing work force.

Six key qualities

Collins does profess a need for the right conditions to support the right people. Thus, leaders of good-to-great companies cultivate a culture that “puts the right people in the right seats on the bus, and then drives the bus to the right locations.” They help people apply their talents effectively and realize self-accountability and self-motivation.

Here are six qualities that distinguished the leadership of the good-to-great organizations from the leadership of the comparison companies. I’m convinced they define attributes of the best safety leaders.

1) Personal humility. “Good-to-great leaders never wanted to become larger-than-life heroes,” rather they “were seemingly ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results” (p. 28).

2) Acknowledge contributions. Good-to-great leaders attribute company success to factors other than themselves. As systems thinkers, they see the big picture and realize their success is contingent on the daily small-win accomplishments of many individuals. And they acknowledge the synergistic contributions of many others who enable remarkable results.

3) Accept responsibility for failure. Good-to-great leaders face the brutal facts of less-than-desired outcomes, and hold themselves accountable without blaming other people or just “bad luck.” Leaders of the comparison companies too often blame others for lackluster performance, while taking personal credit for extraordinary results. Social psychologists call this the “self-serving bias.”

4) Promote a learning culture. Humble leaders are always learning, with impassioned belief in never-ending improvement. They lead with questions rather than answers, and promote frank and open dialogue and debate. The result: People are not satisfied with the status quo, but are engaged in finding ways to improve company performance.

5) Work to achieve, not to avoid failure. Good-to-great leaders never waver in their resolve for greatness. Failure is not an option; it is not even considered. With an optimistic stance, these leaders focus on achieving exemplary success.

6) Encourage self-motivation. Self-motivation is key to long-term productivity and is gained through intrinsic consequences. In other words, people are self-motivated when their behaviors provide natural ongoing consequences that are rewarding.

When does behavior on the job become intrinsically rewarding and self-motivating? Answer: When people believe their work is meaningful. When does this happen? Answer: Sometimes the special value of the work is obvious, as when people are engaged in activities that prevent injuries. But even in these cases, it’s critical to give the kind of interpersonal attention that reassures people they are accomplishing meaningful work. Great leaders know how to do this, and do it often.

I think this final quality is most significant for safety, because it defines the source of the motivation that keeps effective safety leaders going.

Jim Collins ends his book with the following: “It is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work” (p. 210). Safety leaders do meaningful work — and have meaningful lives.

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