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POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: The craft of everyday leadership

October 8, 2009
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What can people like us in positions of leadership do to maximize the positive influence we have on our organizations? What do effective leaders actually do on a daily basis?

A great deal of research and applied experience has led me to the broad conclusion leaders at all levels must fulfill four overlapping roles:

Performance manager

Here a leader focuses on getting the work done and meeting overall objectives through his/her own efforts and the efforts of others. How? By setting clear objectives, focusing on a limited number of high priority initiatives at any given time, coaching, giving effective feedback, getting closure on issues, and motivating self and others to their highest level of performance.

This role is very close to the “traditional” role of the supervisor — “planning, organizing, directing, and controlling work.” Most current conceptions of the role emphasize coaching and facilitating styles rather than direct command-and-control approaches to get work done through the efforts of others.

Team builder

Leaders are expected to develop a team (and its individual members) to the point that they handle hour-byhour, day-to-day issues without requiring close supervision. This role requires effective use of a wide variety of leadership strategies: more of the less conventional “telling” approach (initially); a hands-off, delegating, “boundary management” approach (once a team is “mature”); and recognizing problems as learning opportunities for team members to build higher levels of competence and confidence.

Strategic business leader

As leaders we need to deepen and broaden our own understanding of the business, and our ability to actively support the mission and goals of the organization overall. This requires getting out of narrow and limited, “functional silos.” We don’t want to lead from a sales, operations, or safety bunker. We must coordinate with other functions seamlessly to meet business objectives. Strategicminded leaders help set a vision and direction. They see the big picture. This understanding helps their team better grasp the business they are in, so they can solve problems and make decisions to drive the business forward.

Change agent

Organizations must become more effective at anticipating “threats and opportunities” in the environment — changes in technology, customers, customer requirements, competition, regulation, the workforce, and the economy. Businesses can then reconfigure and reposition to avoid the threats and capitalize on the opportunities.

Leaders must improve their personal ability to be flexible and adapt. And they must create a positive attitude toward change in their organization. People are more likely to overcome their own natural resistance to change to the extent they understand the “drivers of change” (“why are we having to do this?”), the vision/ future state we are trying to achieve (“when we make this change, where will it take us?”), and the immediate marching orders (“what do we need to do today?”).

Concurrent and critical roles

These roles are not stand-alone, or implemented one at a time; they are implemented concurrently, and all are critical. At any point in time an effective leader who is trying to get some current task completed (Performance Manager), will do so in ways that build the working relationship (Team Builder), help others understand the business system in which their work fits (Strategic Business Leader), and help them increase their flexibility, adaptability, and receptivity to change (Change Manager).

Working on these four leadership roles will bring about positive performance results if:

1) Folks in your organization understand the goals and objectives of workplace safety and health, in very specific (even behavioral) terms, understand the reasons behind those goals and objectives, and see you “walk the talk.” They need to be coached and trained in safe work, and receive ongoing feedback, including deserved positive feedback, on their safety behavior and overall safety results.

2) Folks in your organization feel “connected,” feel that they are an essential part of an important team, and that they and their team “matter.” They must be encouraged and allowed (and at some point in their development, required) to take on more personal responsibility for their own safety, as well as the safety of others.

3) Folks understand the business they are in (not just their immediate functional roles), and how their work impacts others in the organization in terms of safety and otherwise, and even how their work impacts the customer in the marketplace.

4) Folks make peace with the reality of unending change. They might long for the good old days when things were simpler and more stable; those days are gone and they won’t be back.

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