Training/Incentives

How to coach senior managers

February 26, 2001
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Kyle B. Dotson, CIH, CSP, PE
In ISHN’s 2001 White Paper survey of safety professionals, only 65 percent believe their “managers actively support safety and health,” and only 29 percent report that “management duties [regarding safety and health] are spelled out.”

Do 71 percent of us really believe that it is not necessary to document the safety roles, responsibilities and accountabilities for the leaders of our organizations?

It’s been my experience that senior managers want to actively support safety and health, and many actually do a fine job. But I think we can do a better job in coaching them on safety management techniques and best practices.

All senior managers understand the basic tenets of human performance management: to cause human actions to occur, the desired actions have to be understood, measured, and rewarded. But for a variety of reasons, measuring safety and health in the workplace is not so easy. We always get what we measure, but we frequently measure the wrong things.

Safety managers are starting to realize the importance of leading indicators of safety performance, and in recent years many have invested in “behavior-based processes” that define critical behaviors, measure the percent behavior achieved, and provide feedback for corrective action. These measures are excellent for getting an accurate short-term measurement of safety at the employee level.

But senior management roles need to be quantified for long-term safety success. Only senior managers can assure safety as an organizational value. To really build a safety culture in an organization, senior managers must outwardly show that safety is a personal value through obvious personal action. And such personal action plans can (and should) be measured.

Also, only senior managers can implement management systems critical to the long-term safety of the organization. Management systems identify, assess, control, and continuously improve the risk profile of the organization. They are crucial because in the workplace we adapt to risks and they quickly become familiar and accepted, despite the fact that safety is one of the fundamental human needs.

What’s the holdup?

So why haven’t more safety and health professionals documented the roles, responsibilities and accountabilities for operations and senior managers? Among the reasons:

  • To do so would somehow limit a manager’s ability to improvise in a positive manner.

  • You would somehow be treating organizational superiors as subordinates — never a good career move.

  • Legislative efforts to document roles may have served as a disincentive to document what supervisors and managers, as legal agents of corporations, would do to manage safety and health. (Yet the safety improvement in the mining industry demonstrates that when this role definition is required — and in mining, managers almost always clearly understand their responsibilities for safety — it is a crucial part of any management strategy for safety excellence.)

    In the past 20 years, I’ve had numerous opportunities to speak with business leaders about workplace safety, including serving as a safety coach for three CEOs of multi-billion dollar corporations. What do most senior managers see as their role in safety and health? In my discussions, it seems that senior managers want to adopt a role with specific leadership duties. They want suggestions for leadership techniques (based on best practices), and want to be coached to assure they deliver on those responsibilities. The senior managers I have met have been very goal-focused, and have no problem with being held accountable for the successful delivery of predetermined objectives.



Defining examples

So what should we ask managers to do for safety? Specifically, they must inspire employee and management involvement to achieve safety as an organizational value. To build such a safety culture takes a consistent show of personal commitment. They must also convey a commitment on the part of the organization, generally through staffing, resources and system integration efforts. And they must monitor performance of subordinates and provide appropriate feedback at appropriate intervals. Here are ten specific examples:

1 Consistently talk about safety in management meetings. Seek to treat safety just like any other important part of the business. Require that your subordinates report on safety to you.

2 Write about safety in other management communications (and periodically ask your safety coach to wordsmith the text).

3 Talk about safety one-on-one to your subordinates. That’s how they know that you are really serious about it.

4 Make sure that the risk profile of your organization is continuously improved. If you are a corporate manager visiting operating locations, personally visit the site of the most recent injury and get an explanation of what occurred, how the investigation got to the root causes and what has been done to assure that it won’t happen again.

5 Personally sponsor an annual team safety recognition award, and show up to present the award.

6 Make sure that the roles and responsibilities for safety and health are defined (in writing and in practice) for every level subordinate to you.

7 Monitor the results of management system audits and provide feedback. Personally praise exceptional performance, ignore average performance, and confront substandard performance on the part of subordinate operations managers/supervisors. Acknowledge efforts in risk-reduction even when safety results are poor.

8 Assure that there is a performance metric for industrial hygiene in the organization. It’s easy to put aside issues with consequences that only occur many years in the future.

9 Assure that safety and health processes are being fully integrated into the primary management system process of your business.

10 Assure safety and health goals are in the executive incentive compensation plan. But find other ways to assure accountability, too. A CEO that I know annually invites two operations managers to make presentations to the corporate senior management team on the same day. One is the manager of the safest plant in the corporation. The other is the manager of the most risky plant. Only one enjoys the meeting.

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