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POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: Developing your safety team

August 1, 2005
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Quite a few safety pros I’ve worked with feel that even with support from a team or committee, they personally do much of the heavy lifting needed to create a positive safety culture. Sometimes they feel like a solo performer with a cast of observers — not a leader of a powerful guiding coalition. In a classic Harvard Business Review article a few years back entitled, “Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” John Kotter noted that a common denominator in failed culture-change efforts is the “failure to build a powerful guiding coalition.”

What are the characteristics of an effective guiding coalition for safety transformation? Based on decades of team-effectiveness research and practice, four features appear to be central:

1) Not too big & not too small

Teams work best when their membership numbers around seven to ten, plus or minus a few. If you have too few members, you may not reach critical mass for brainstorming, or have enough hands to do the work. If you have too many members, you have a crowd. It’s hard then to build real cohesiveness as a unit. And team cohesiveness — the sense of mutual commitment to goals and to each other — is essential to team effectiveness.

2) Multi-functional & multi-level

A huge body of research literature supports the value of a “diverse team.” OK, these types of teams will take longer — sometimes a whole lot longer — to jell, and there is certainly more potential for misunderstanding, conflict, and disagreement, especially early on. But diverse experience, ability, and viewpoints can be invaluable, and more than offset the slow lift-off of a multi-skilled and faceted team.

Plus, the work of effective multi-functional/multi-level teams is often better accepted, and more easily implemented, than the work of more homogeneous, one-dimensional teams. And remember, first-line supervisors should be represented on the safety team (and indeed on any team whose work significantly affects the core operations of the business).

3) Focus on measurable results

Teams exist to achieve objectives that align with the overall organizational mission and goals. The more those objectives are stated in clear and specific terms that can be acted upon, the more motivated team members will be to work toward achieving them. Your team must have a clear and compelling mission and set of targets, and know how to track progress — to keep score.

4) Enlightened, inspiring, and empowering leadership

The team leader always plays a primary role in setting and communicating the vision and mission, providing overall direction, setting objectives, establishing roles and responsibilities, establishing accountability, and ultimately, leading a team to high performance.

It’s important for leaders to be alert to the thought-suppressing effect they can have, definitely by position, and sometimes also by personality. Leaders must encourage open participation and the free flow of ideas, and avoid dominating the proceedings or otherwise suppressing input.

The point is to maximize performance and minimize “group think.” Cohesiveness is a double-edge sword, and can be overdone. Indeed, unless team dynamics are carefully monitored (again, the leader plays a central role here), cohesiveness can become a primary goal in itself. Group think is the dark side of cohesiveness, where members self-censor, and put more value on agreeing and supporting the leader than on making a good decision.

No overnight sensation

Merely pulling a group together and calling it a team does not automatically guarantee any sort of success. Truly effective teams — the kind of powerful guiding coalitions that Kotter prescribes as essential in leading major organizational change — don’t just happen. Real team-building is never a “microwave” or “shake and bake” process. The group must be actively led through something akin to the stages of team development that psychologist Bruce Tuckman popularized some years ago — “Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing.”

When a safety team is well constructed and well led, the long-term result can be a safety coalition that truly magnifies the impact of the safety pro. It helps weave into the fabric of the organization a steady focus on workplace health and safety. Ultimately, a high-performing safety team or committee, functioning as a guiding coalition, can make all the difference in building a durable, self-sustaining, positive safety culture.

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