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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Is leadership going backwards?

July 1, 2005
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Sometimes it’s just easier to scream.

I say that just having spent the past three months coaching a “B” squad of 13- and 14-year-old boys, hormones on the rampage, in a lacrosse league.

I also say it after reading an article by Margaret Wheatley, who leads off by writing, “I’m sad to report that… leadership has taken a great leap backwards to the familiar territory of command and control.”

Command and control — policies, procedures, protocols, laws and regulations, maybe some shouting or barking here and there — is certainly familiar ground in the world of workplace safety and health. But I see no signs of OSHA, once the ogre of commanding controls, getting pushy and nitpicky again, do you? Heck, the agency just celebrated its 349th or thereabouts customer-friendly alliance with industry.

But Wheatley, who has been an organizational management consultant since 1973 and received a doctorate in organizational behavior from Harvard, says in 2005 companies are increasingly cluttered with control mechanisms. She blames turbulent times in corporate suites — revolving door CEOs; antsy, activist shareholders; pressures of managing globalized businesses; short-term, short-fuse thinking and all-around uncertainty for management’s retreat from open and engaging leadership.

The result? A rocketing increase in disinterested, demoralized employees, claims Wheatley.

What’s your perspective?

What about you, how you run your safety and health program, and what you see in your own workplace?

Has your organization gone through some type of change initiative, only to see it founder and fail? Almost 80 percent of them don’t succed, according to Wheatley. It’s enormously time-consuming and very difficult work, she says.

Did you pay good money to bring in a consultant, only to be disappointed? Wheatley concedes that she had an epiphany of sorts at one point in her career when she realized that “as a consultant, no matter what we did, we really didn’t succeed.”

Do you see more fear among your workforce today? People too afraid to speak up and tackle safety and health issues? “We have become moral cowards in a way,” writes Wheatley. “I think people have developed a sense of helplessness.”

Wheatley is taking this all pretty hard, calling it the “winter of Western Civilization.”

From where you sit, the climate might depend on the size of your company. Smaller enterprises with tighter cultures and closer relations between managers, supers, and employees still tend to be more humane and participative, according to Wheatley. Some things never change. NIOSH reported similar findings in the 1970s when it studied the characteristics of award-winning safety programs.

Personal assessment

Take a moment and assess how you are leading your workplace’s safety and health efforts. Has your style changed in response to the pressures of uncertain times, smaller budgets, fewer staff? Here are questions to ask yourself, courtesy of Wheatley, to help you notice if command and control is creeping back in:

  • Do you find yourself playing the role of hero and savior? The answer man or woman?
  • This role-playing can lead to exhaustion, stress and feeling overwhelmed. How are you feeling these days?
  • What’s the level of your employees’ motivation? How does it compare to a few years ago?
  • How often do you find yourself invoking rules, policies and procedures to get things done?
  • How often do you respond to a new problem by issuing a new policy?
  • What information are you no longer sharing with employees?
  • What’s the level of trust in your organization? How’s that compare to two or three years ago?
  • When employees are involved in accidents or near-misses, what happens? Has the climate around investigations and audits changed, become more threatening, less open?
  • How’s your personal energy and motivation these days? How does this compare to a few years ago?

Like taking your car in for a tune-up or going to the doc for a physical, it’s not a bad idea to occasionally hold a mirror up to your leadership style.


GUIDING LIGHTS:

Speaking of leaders, this month we’re very proud to introduce our new lineup of editorial advisors. We look to each of them to give us a reading of issues and trends in the EHS world, and to tell us what we’re doing right and wrong with the magazine:

Dan Agopsowicz, CIH, Manager, Occupational Health and Product Stewardship, Infineum USA L.P., Linden, N.J.. Dan cares deeply about industrial hygiene issues, and gives us the perspective of a multinational manager.

Sharon Baker, ASP, Safety, Health & Environmental Engineering, Diesel Manufacturing Facility, Corning, Inc., Painted Post, N.Y. Sharon has written construction and training articles for ISHN, and has recently been heavily involved in bringing a new diesel manufacturing facility up and running.

Dan Boatright, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Public Health Practice, Presidential Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health, Director, Southwest Center for Public Health Preparedness, College of Public Health, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, Okla. Dan brings us a campus perspective on EHS, letting us know what students are interested in, changing student demographics, and where students are finding work.

Bill Borwegen, MPH, Director, Occupational Health & Safety, Service Employees International Union (AFL-CIO), Washington, D.C. Bill gives us the inside word on Washington issues and service industry concerns. Too bad we can’t quote him by name.

Dan Brockman, Brockman Associates, EHS recruiters, Barrington, Ill. He’s been an EHS recruiter since 1986 — a great perch to observe demographic and employment trends in the industry.

Marv Broman, Director, Corporate Safety & Health, Valmont Industries, Inc., Valley, Neb. Marv has been kind enough to introduce us to relevant thinking outside the safety box and comes from a large, multi-location company where safety is “A Way of Life,” as its mission describes.

Garrett Brown, Coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, Berkeley, Calif. Garrett regularly travels south of the border and across the Pacific to audit work sites and conduct training, presenting us with an “on the ground” view of international EHS.

Tom Cecich, CSP, CIH, President, TFC & Associates, safety, health and environmental management consultants, Apex, N.C. He is currently at work on a book detailing the business case for safety, and helps us grasp the corporate/financial realities of EHS.

Joanne Dean, BA, Safety Director, The Gale Construction Company, Florham Park, N.J. Joanne is literally in the trenches every day with her guys on construction sites, and gives it to us straight about real-world safety issues.

Mike Kalbaugh, CSP, Environmental Health & Safety Manager, Avery Dennison Retail Information Services, Greensboro, N.C. He wrote a cover story for ISHN last year on what it takes to build world class safety, and fills us in on the true challenges of changing cultures.

Keith Tait, CIH, CSP, Assistant Director, Corporate Health & Safety, Pfizer, Inc., North Creek, N.Y.. A very sharp industrial hygienist who branched out into areas as diverse as expert systems technologies and conducting training workshops in developing nations, Keith has been a friend of the magazine ever since he told us he admired our “non-linear” editorial attitude.

Linda Tapp, CSP, Crown Safety, safety, health and ergonomics consulting, Cherry Hill, N.J. Linda runs a very successful consulting business and provides excellent insight on the entrepreneurial side of the EHS world, along with ergonomics and small business EHS issues.

We’re fortunate to know such passionate, dedicated professionals who are generous with their time and willing to share their experiences, knowledge and opinions.

— Dave Johnson, Editor

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