Leader behavior is the catalyst of culture

September 8, 2009
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Editor’s note: Parts 1 and 2 of this series appeared in ISHN’s May and June issues. Part 4 will appear in ISHN’s October issue.

Culture, or “the way we do things here,” is the major differentiator between good performance and great performance. In a zero-harm organization, we aim to do everything possible to prevent injuries. Culturally, this means employees at every level act in response to exposure, whether or not they believe the increase will result in an injury. Whether or not employees at any level take us at our word (that we intend to be a zero-harm organization) and respond to exposure in this way depends on the relationship they have with the organization, its leaders and each other — and what they see as valued and rewarded. In other words, zero-harm performance is dependent on the culture and climate that leaders themselves establish.

A high-performance culture rarely just “happens.” Culture is the responsibility of leadership who must manage it as rigorously as they do budgets, spending, cash flow and profitability. Leaders know that such business essentials do not just drive themselves, but must be well managed. The same can and must be done with culture.

Leader behavior is the catalyst of culture. Creating a culture that both values the wellbeing of all employees and strives for excellence requires attention to two components of leadership. First are the actual practices that leaders engage in. Second is the style that the leader uses in the day-to-day execution of these practices. Put more simply, leaders of zero-harm organizations pay attention to what they do and how they do it.

What you do
We have all known great safety leaders: people whose commitment to safety, combined with excellence in leadership, has enormous positive influence in making the organization safe. While each leader is different, practices recur among leaders who are effective at developing highperforming cultures. Done well, these practices lead to dramatic improvements in the culture and safety performance:
  • Vision – Describing a compelling and vivid picture of what the future or desired safety state could be — or needs to be.
  • Credibility – Acting honestly and reliably, treating others with dignity and respect and following through on safety commitments.
  • Action orientation – Being performanceoriented, proactive in reducing exposure and showing persistence in solving safety problems.
  • Communication – Actively keeping all people informed about relevant safety information, both in the big picture and in the details.
  • Collaboration – Promoting cooperation and collaboration to solve safety problems.
  • Feedback and recognition – Giving positive feedback about good safety performance, publicly recognizing safety contributions of others and celebrating safety success.
  • Accountability – Communicating clear safety roles and responsibilities, ensuring that people receive frequent, fair appraisal of their efforts and results and holding people accountable for their responsibilities.
How you do it
How the leader executes culture-driving behaviors is just as, if not more, important as the behaviors themselves. There are two basic styles of leadership: transactional and transformational.

Transactional leaders tend to see their relationships with employees, peers, and bosses as a series of exchanges. In fact, if it were not for the job connection, there might be no relationship at all. This leader is interested in what gets done but not very attentive to the effects of how it gets done or to their relationship with people.

The transformational leader, on the other hand, pays as much attention to how the work gets done and how the employee is affected and connected to the big picture, as to the task itself. This leader balances the task orientation with relationships.

Transformational leadership has four dimensions that correlate fairly highly with successful leaders:
  • Inspiring – Painting a picture for people about where you see the organization going, and helping them see (and become enthused about) their role in that future state.
  • Influencing – Affecting the performance of those around you by acting in ways that build respect, trust and admiration.
  • Challenging – Helping people to change their paradigms about how things are done and to think creatively about how to do things differently.
  • Engaging – Helping each individual be successful, often through coaching, mentoring, providing feedback, etc.
Just as with the best practices, leaders tend to be all over the map when it comes to style. Yet timely, accurate and specific feedback on these dimensions helps to predict a leader’s success. The leaders who are able to strike a balance in the transactional-transformational leadership tug of war are always the most successful. Too much of either is like in most of nature not optimal.

Know where you are
Improving culture is not easy. In part, this is because people tend to think of culture as a “soft” area where precise action and attention don’t matter. To be effective, however, leaders must approach their safety role as a business function, meaning they get accurate feedback regularly, focus on two or three target areas, and develop places and triggers for using the new practices and style reliably. Strong leaders develop an acute awareness of how they are performing in the eyes of those who surround them. They get feedback on their behaviors as they relate to the quality of their leadership. Those who do not approach safety leadership in this systematic and focused way have a much tougher time improving and sustaining the new behaviors they need to move their organizations to the levels of performance necessary for zero injuries. Not surprisingly, leaders who take a systematic approach tend to improve more quickly and perform at a much higher level than leaders who don’t.

In the next installment we will look at the individual leader and explore the Personal Safety Ethic dimension. This is what the leaders are made of and is at the center of the leader and their motivation and ability to improve what they do and achieve the levels of leadership and culture necessary to be world class.

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