Safety Culture / Psychology / Training/Incentives

Tear down the walls

You cannot reach executives without diplomacy & trust

October 1, 2011
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How can top leaders be unaware of illegal practices, like the Murdoch organizational problems in Great Britain with the hacking of cell phones and paying off of police? Top leaders said they were insulated from the day-to-day decisions. How does an organization get past issues of insulation, and how can you be a change agent for constructive leadership? 

First, let’s deal with reality. It is impossible for top-tier executives to know what is going on in their organizations all the time and/or at lower levels; in fact, this is not their responsibility. Micromanagement is toxic behavior for leaders; we know this. Rather than micromanaging, each leader must ensure the people whom he/she is responsible for understand and practice what is “right,” the right decisions and behaviors. 

Top-tier leaders must establish right-from-wrong expectations and ensure those values and principles are communicated and understood by the organization. The organization must understand non-conforming behaviors and decisions are inexcusable and intolerable. 

To lay down the tracks to what “good” looks like, leaders at the highest levels (CEOs, presidents, division VPs, and plant managers) must commit to identifying the right values, principles, and behaviors for the organization. These principles must be viewed as immutable.  Leaders must then religiously embrace and practice those values, principles and behaviors, leading by example.

Likewise, top-tier leaders’ direct reports must: (1) embrace and demonstrate those values, principles and behaviors; (2) ensure their respective direct reports also understand and embrace the values, principles and behaviors; (3) ensure those values, principles and behaviors — and the associated performance expectations — are translated for members in their parts of the organization; and finally (4) be actively involved in monitoring and reinforcing the right decisions/behaviors.

Reducing insulation

Each leader must monitor how well his/her part of the organization embraces critical values. They must reinforce those values, principles and behaviors. They construct recurring processes to reinforce “what good looks like.” 

This starts with the hiring process. Critical values, principles and behaviors are identified and discussed. Meetings provide another opportunity to communicate. When leaders participate in groups where labor and management employees are together, values, principles and behaviors should be discussed. These discussions present a splendid opportunity to recognize performance that supports the organization’s values and principles. Leaders should include the value proposition for risk management in these discussions, so safety and loss prevention are perceived as being integrated into how-we-do-it-here dialogue.

Coaching

This is a delicate process, since egos and sensitivities are involved. Ask questions about the leader’s perception of what is important and how he/she might characterize the organization’s performance. This can prompt the executive to open up about the subject. Provide timely data to stimulate discussion. 

Leaders in some organizations have responded favorably to the use of an inverse performance analysis (IPA). An IPA is an anonymous questionnaire (shorter and more targeted than a full 360-process) for the top-tier executives. It can also used for leader feedback at lower levels.  Two to three peers, five to seven direct reports (and if a lower-level leader, include two higher-level managers) answer questions pertaining to a leader’s style, values and practices.

Data is collected and analyzed on an individual-leader basis. If an IPA process is not workable, a cultural perception-survey can be utilized. Questions pertaining to leader behavior and organizational values must be included in the survey instrument. 

Armed with data gleaned from either instrument, it is more likely that top-tier executives will understand and address organizational-performance issues. During an IPA process, one company owner almost cried when provided feedback that he was not very well trusted. With guidance, he changed his personal behavior. A year later he was a changed leader — and grateful for what turned out to be a personal-development process.

“Everyone does it”

How do you deal with the common “ah, everyone does it” excuse for organizational misbehavior? Get leaders to question their own organizations’ behavior and practices. Appeal to their pride and competitive nature.

Stephen A. Covey once said to an executive, “Your company is perfectly designed… perfectively designed to be getting the results it is getting today.” He added, “If you want different results, then your company must change how it goes about getting results.” 

To encourage changed thinking, pose one or more of these questions:

  • Aren’t we better then they are? 
  •  Shouldn’t we be better than that? 
  •  Is this level of performance really acceptable? 
  •  How can we ask employees to excel, if we accept this type of performance or these types of decisions?
  • Are we saying one thing, but doing another? 

A second powerful tactic: get leaders to “imagine” what could be. Paint a picture of what “could be” for the organization. Show how embracing a certain set of values or principles or behaviors is transforming to the organization — becoming truly a world leader, or being the most esteemed, or becoming the best in the industry, or being the most profitable, etc. Give leaders reasons to take up the challenge and to embrace making the investment effort. 

The stonewall of denial

What if leaders bluntly refuse to acknowledge problems exist? Be patient and persistent when confronting denial. Do your best to remain articulate and sensitive to all possible issues. In the end, recognize you can’t force leaders to see things differently. 

In the book, “Built to Last,” (Collins and Poras, HarperBusiness, 1994), the authors’ research indicates change-resistant leaders tend to believe their organization can be low-cost OR high-quality; embrace change OR be stable; invest in the future OR do well in the short term; commit to safety OR be highly productive. Company leaders holding this mindset subscribe to a philosophy called the “Tyranny of OR.” 

Visionary companies subscribe to a totally different operational mindset, termed the “Wisdom of And.” Examples include: Safety AND productivity; an extremely tight culture AND an ability to change and adapt; a visionary, futuristic focus AND great daily execution. This mentality does not seek a mere balance — balance implies a 50-50 or a mid-point perspective. 

As a change agent, you must possess one additional factor: trust. People, especially top-tier leaders, judge the credibility and veracity of the messengers (internal or external consultants) and the messages before making decisions. Leaders can be skeptical, even cynical, and they should be. But leaders will embrace change or new thinking more readily, if they feel the messengers ae credible, knowledgeable and trustworthy.

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