Leaders who "get" safety

October 11, 2009
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Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a four-part article series. Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series appeared in ISHN’s May, June and September issues.

Creating a culture that promotes safety and strong business performance depends on what leaders do and how they influence others. In this article, we will examine the ways personality and values shape a leader’s personal safety ethic and will consider personality traits that can strengthen the safety culture of your organization.

Avoid the inertia trap
A leader’s safety ethic is a manifestation of his or her values and personality. Most leaders have developed their own style that, in their perception, serves them well. Very few fail so miserably that they are fired or given extra help. Instead, many continue unaware that some of their actions may be detrimentally affecting the culture and performance of the group. Lacking candid feedback and coaching on how to improve, it’s not likely these leaders will develop new ways of doing things.

If an approach “works,” whether or not it serves the organization or improves safety performance, it is very difficult for a leader to change without a focused effort on the part of both the organization and the individual leader. In fact, the leader who is going to adapt new behaviors and a new leadership style has a very tough task. After all, the forces that shaped his or her behaviors and style are, for the most part, still in place.

That is why understanding the ways in which a leader’s values and personality shape their personal safety ethic is so important. This ethic is the single strongest motivator for staying the course in the face of some likely discomfort.

What do you actually value?
I once spoke with a CEO whose son had just earned a degree in civil engineering. The young man had been hired by a company building skyscrapers and was out in the field learning the ropes. I asked the proud father about the value he wanted the CEO of that company to place on his son’s safety. He said he hoped it was very strong.

“Do you think of your own employees’ families in the same way you want the CEO of your son’s company to think of his?” I asked. The CEO thought a moment, then said frankly, “I hope not — I never really thought of it that way.” Challenging him further, I asked: “How you can expect the CEO of your son’s company to value safety when you don’t?” It was a turning point in the development of this CEO’s personal safety ethic.

The lesson is clear. Before you can effectively lead safety, you need to “get” safety. Do you know what safety means to you and to those who report to you and work with you? Do you know what it means to their families?

No one can be an effective safety leader, or credibly communicate the importance of EHS efforts, without genuinely valuing the safety of others. What’s important is not what you say you value, but what you actually value — the ethics manifested in your personal behavior. These values directly influence safety decision-making, interactions with subordinates, the priority placed on safety, and the ways you measure success The things you consider important and acceptable — or unimportant and unacceptable — influence the collective values in the organization at large.

A sure sign that a leader does not “get it” is when he defines safety purely in quantitative terms. I have heard leaders try to motivate others by talking about the cost of poor safety in terms of dollars or productivity. There is not one person in industry who does not know that accidents cost money and cause loss of productivity and morale. Leaders are effective at motivating others when they genuinely understand what safety means to them as human beings and appreciate the awesome responsibility they have in running a business and doing so without harming those who do the work.

Personality traits that promote safety
Personality refers to individual differences in the ways people think, feel and act and strongly influences how a leader interacts with others. Personality is harder to change than growing hair on a frog — in fact, personality change is rarely seen apart from a serious physical change, such as a brain injury or heavy drug use.

Nonetheless, leaders should periodically self-evaluate to discover ways to compensate for personality traits that may negatively affect their organization.

There are five basic personality dimensions — commonly referred to as the “big five” — that a leader should consider when evaluating the need for personal growth and change.

1. Emotional resilience is the ability to overcome frustration, worry, anger, moodiness, self-indulgence, impulsivity and sensitivity.

2. Learning orientation refers to imagination, aesthetic sense, willingness to experiment, intellectual curiosity, and the tolerance for diversity and values other than your own.

3. Conscientiousness refers to overall competence, responsibility, orderliness, achievement, self-discipline and deliberateness.

4. Collegiality is the ability to be agreeable, trustworthy, straightforward, sympathetic, considerate of others, modest and compliant with standards.

5. Extroversion refers to positive emotions and warmth toward others, outgoingness, assertiveness, optimism, high activity levels, and the tendency to seek excitement.

The stronger you are in each of the “big five,” the more skillful you will be in using best safety practices in a transformational way. Not surprisingly, there is a wide variation in personality profiles across leaders. Successful leaders have learned how to use what they have and to compensate for personality traits that may not be conducive to leading safety.

Getting to “zero harm”
Leaders are often unaware of their own personal safety ethic. Without that awareness, it is easy for safety to become lost in the day-to-day chaos of a leader’s life. Personal safety ethic is like a muscle — to be effective, it has to be exercised and strengthened. The failure rate is high for a high stakes issue; success requires a concerted, structured effort. Coaching, expert consulting and feedback can be effective tools in starting this journey.

A successful leader is eager to understand what a good personal safety ethic is and is willing to do whatever it takes to develop it. A truly great leader cares enough about employees to do what is necessary to protect their health and well being.

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