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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Welcome to alphaville

July 1, 2004
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Does this fellow sound familiar?

You’re presenting your annual safety budget proposal and out of the corner of your eye you notice he’s leafing through the binder, pages ahead of where you are with your PowerPoint slides.

He drums his fingers on the boardroom table. Keeps flipping the pages, like he’s read it all before. Is that a yawn he stifled? You try not to be distracted. Then he cuts you off mid-sentence: “OK, I get your point. We don’t have a lot of time. You got anything else for me?”

Did he even glance at one of your slides?

Yes, odds are you’ve crossed paths with this fellow. He’s the typical alpha male boss, and about 70 percent of all senior executives share his traits, according to an article in the May 2004 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR).

By way of background, an alpha male or alpha female is the chest-beating, glowering top dog, king of the hill to whom all others bow. Humans and their nearest species-relative, the chimpanzees, show deference to the alpha of the community by ritualized gestures. Humans, for instance, will hold the umbrella while they dash for the rental car in the rain, or laugh at all his crude jokes over dinner.

In the business world, the alpha strides into meetings with a limited attention span, and the firm belief he already knows your key points. Full of energy, he’s always ready to bound on to the next action item. You’re talking recordable rates and he’s plotting his afternoon meetings with analysts and attorneys.

Are you getting through to him? Hard to tell with an alpha. He’s not a particularly patient listener, and gives few hints of appreciation. He gives orders, not feedback.

Out of sight, out of mind

Read this HBR article and you’re reminded why safety has a hard time integrating into mainstream management. Why safety issues are put in a silo, or on an island, as safety expert Dan Petersen has said, cut off from the organization.

Safety is one of those things that make the alpha boss uncomfortable. Oh, he’ll pay lip service to so-called “soft” objectives, but in his heart he thinks all this talk about coaching, actively caring, and being your brother’s and sister’s keeper is oversensitive touchy-feely mush. Not relevant to delivering results.

Far from wearing their emotions on their sleeve, alpha bosses want them locked away in a vault somewhere. They’re not particularly curious about people — and what is safety if not a people business? Plus, alphas don’t relish dealing with the kind of emotions that are part and parcel of safety: injuries, pain, suffering, victims’ families, tears, fears of toxic exposures, pressures and stresses that lead to shortcuts and risk-taking, complaints about supervisors who don’t care, fear of raising safety concerns, employees who bully safety “do-gooders” and toss off their respirators.

What does all this have to do with the bottom line?, asks the alpha.

Feelings just cloud decision-making, in the mind of an alpha. He’s much more at home in the world of black and white ratios and percentages.

Love of numbers

Which is why many safety pros have a hard time weaning management away from OSHA recordable rates to accept alternatives for measuring safety performance — leading indicators such as employee perception surveys or percentage of safety work orders completed.

Asking an analytical alpha to make a decision on the basis of perceptions can definitely be an “at risk” behavior for those doing the asking. Feelings? Show me the data, says the alpha. Where’s the data?

Alphas can get a bit carried away chasing after numbers — they love to set the bar high — which presents another challenge for safety pros. For instance, behavorial observations can turn into a numbers game. I want more observations, says the alpha, more feedback sessions. Of course, what happens to quality when quantity is the goal?

Even perception surveys can be turned into a numbers game for alphas. Behavioral Science Technology has a contract to fix the broken safety culture of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Early on, NASA employees were surveyed by BST to gauge safety attitudes, and they will be surveyed again after behavioral interventions. Eventually, NASA wants to hit the high 90th percentile in all attitude categories compared to hundreds of other BST clients. Alphas love to aim high. Indeed, “stretch” goals can bring out the best in people. But they can also intimidate employees into shortcuts and cover-ups. You need to carefully monitor how you reach these goals.

Alphas have another trait that puts distance between themselves and the safety department. Bring them a problem (“Our accident rate is going up, boss”) and they’re no different than anyone else — they spring to the defensive. Except they have the power to do something about it. “Until the alpha accepts ownership for his share of a problem, it simply won’t go away,” state the HBR article’s authors, Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson.

Safety pros know how hard it can be to sell the idea of ownership in the executive suite. It’s been the subject of countless books, articles, keynote speeches, workshops and roundtables for decades.

Coaching lessons

Executive coaching is booming these days because many corporations see the competitive need to make alpha leaders less distant and more engaging. “Alphas make perfect midlevel managers, where their primary focus is to oversee processes,” states the article. “But as they approach CEO level, they’re expected to become inspirational people managers.” The trick is to work on their weaknesses without undermining their strengths, especially their ability to drive performance and produce results.

Safety pros can take a page from the playbook of executive coaches to better integrate themselves with unemotional, uncommunicative alpha top guns.

  • Learn alphaspeak — big binders with bright color graphs are a good start. Whatever safety issue you’re presenting, try to frame it in metrics, in facts and figures, in black and white terms.

  • Talk in terms of delivering results. This is something the safety field in general needs to work on. At the American Society of Safety Engineers’ annual conference last month in Las Vegas, you heard plenty of talk about enriching cultures, achieving excellence, influencing change. Give me specifics, says alpha boss. Connect safety to tangible business outcomes. Can you show reduced healthcare costs, less process waste, improved customer satisfaction?

  • Don’t be passive or kowtowing. This is walking a delicate line for sure, when it’s your job on the line. But long-winded explanations or falling back on technical jargon won’t win the respect of the alpha boss.

    Ask for the order, as they say in sales. Ask for his full commitment and not only support, but involvement. Clarify his intentions. An old safety vet used to ask his bosses: “How much safety do you want?” Do you want improvement? Are you willing to do whatever it takes? Identify situations where he can apply his leadership.

    If you get an alpha’s commitment, and he sees signs of positive change, you can count on him to follow through. And the whole organization will vibrate. If he resists and remains distant and defensive, you know not to waste your time.

    — Dave Johnson, Editor

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