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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: A spirit of servant leadership

March 4, 2009
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Did you hear President Obama’s provocative and inspirational inaugural address? I’ve read it several times and hope you do the same. His prose is elegant, and his multifaceted message is critically important and instructive. Now we must translate this solemn speech into personally relevant behaviors. By pointing out aspects of President Obama’s speech, I hope to stimulate conversations capable of influencing behavior and culture change in your workplace.

Servant leadership

As expressed by many authors of books on leadership, the servant leader actively cares for the welfare of others with courage, compassion, humility, and flexibility. President Obama urged us all to “embody the spirit of service... (reflected in) the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees broke, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their (sic) job, … the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child.”

The opening quotation from our president also reflects a caring, servant-leadership paradigm. You might associate the closed-fist metaphor with foreign terrorists — those “around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West” — but I suggest we look long and hard in our own backyard. What about those CEOs who gave themselves huge financial bonuses while firing thousands of dedicated employees? And how do you feel about those downsizing companies who seek financial support from our government, while at the same time spending lavishly on extravagant parties for select members of their “loyal” employees?

It seems we have a special brand of terrorism in our country — citizens who think only of themselves with “greed and irresponsibility.” Some of these “terrorists” may be completely incorrigible, but I believe some are merely “unconsciously incompetent.” With direct and corrective conversation, their behavior can be properly aligned toward a common good. For those who are “consciously incompetent,” instruction alone will likely fall on deaf ears. But some of these societal delinquents can be influenced by social consequences. People can be made to feel ashamed or guilty for their apparent greed and selfishness, with the objective to change their related behaviors.

It should be un-American to choose personal pleasure and “narrow interests” at the expense of others. In Obama’s words, “our success depends (on) hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.”

Interdependence and synergy

Defining a new era of responsibility for the welfare of others, President Obama advocates service and interdependence over self-interest and independence. How reassuring and rewarding it is to hear our new president promote the kind of cultural transition needed for world-class safety. I hope the injury-prevention relevance of my interpretation of President Obama’s inaugural address is obvious. Servant leadership and service to others are essential for achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace.

Here is one example: After a Fortune 500 company experienced a horrific on-the-job fatality, senior managers ensured a thorough “accident investigation” and convened to assess the potential legal liability of their company. They defined certain at-risk behaviors the employee had been performing at the time of the incident, and were relieved to find their company had rules disallowing each of these. They felt off the hook.

Not so fast. What about moral liability? What if the culture does not support those particular safety rules? How often are the behaviors that contributed to this fatality practiced by other workers? Do interpersonal conversations and example-setting behaviors discourage these at-risk actions? Is a behavior-based feedback and corrective coaching process in place to hold people accountable for practicing the safe alternatives to the behaviors that contributed to the fatality? Do the workers feel guilty or embarrassed when they see coworkers perform at-risk behavior but don’t speak up with corrective feedback?

The new era of service, personal responsibility, and interdependence promoted by President Obama sets the stage for the kind of organizational culture needed to achieve and maintain an injury-free workplace. It reflects our moral responsibility to try and consistently set the safe example, while realizing we might sometimes work at-risk and thus need mutual interpersonal support for change from others.

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