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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Qualities of safety leaders

December 22, 2006
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This month, in the first of a series of columns on people-based leadership for safety excellence, I want to “LEAP” in — the acronym Steve Farber used to discuss leadership in his address at the 2006 Professional Development Conference for the American Society for Safety Engineers (ASSE) last June. He focused on the words: Love, Energy, Audacity and Proof.


Love and other “L” words

Leaders love their job, and love the people they lead, according to Farber. Of course, he’s not referring to romantic love, but to relationships. Leaders respect and appreciate their followers, recognizing the integral role each plays in achieving the daily goals for the job they love. The “L” in LEAP represents other leadership traits, as well:

Leaders attempt to listen actively, hearing both good and bad news. They put aside their biases and pay attention to everything in a communication. Before stating their viewpoint or opinion, they communicate respect for the speaker’s words and emotions, and ask relevant questions. As Dr. Stephen Covey puts it, “They seek first to understand before being understood.”

Live, learn, love, and leave a legacy — Dr. Covey also advocated these four hierarchical “L” words. Empathic leaders learn the life phases of their followers; they know what consequences turn them on and which can be used to improve their work performance.

Workers at the “living” stage are “working to live,” and want to receive fair financial compensation. All employees desire this, but some are also motivated by opportunities to learn. And through learning, these individuals get promoted to more challenging positions. Some learn to love their job and adopt the mindset of “living to work.”

As people mature and consider the end of their lives, many contemplate their life accomplishments and wonder how they helped to make the world a better place. What could be more meaningful and emotionally fulfilling than working to prevent personal injury and saving lives? Safety leaders leave a legacy.

Energy and other “E” words

The subtitle of a book on teaching I recently edited with Phil Lehman is “Energy, Empathy, and Engagement in the Classroom.” We derived these “E” words from a content analysis of the 39 essays in our book. The best university teachers — as with the best leaders — are energetic and empathic, and constantly search for ways to activate engagement among their students. The best leaders do the same with their employees.

Audacity and other “A” words

Audacity, according to Farber, means leaders “show a bold and blatant disregard for normal constraints in order to change the world for the better.” He poked fun at the common slogan, “Think outside the box,” by challenging the assumption there is a “box.”

But safety standards constitute a “box,” and performing outside the box implies at-risk behavior. Still, audacity is relevant for safety whenever leaders attempt to go beyond the tradition of engineering, education and enforcement to increase energy and engagement in safety-related activities.

In safety there is a “box” of procedures and policies to follow in order to minimize the severity, exposure and probability of injury. But there is also a “box” of safety procedures for maintaining compliance. This latter box is the one needing audacious, out-of-the-box thinking and acting. In this regard, two other A-words are relevant: avoidance vs. achievement.

Almost every presentation at the 2006 Behavioral Safety Now conference referenced these “A” words. Whether discussing leadership principles or intervention procedures, BSN speakers advocated a focus on achieving safe behaviors over avoiding at-risk behavior. In other words, audacious safety leaders think outside the enforcement box and design interventions that put a positive, achievement-oriented spin on injury prevention.


“P” for proof

Effective leaders align their behaviors with their values, setting an example for the action they want from their followers. By acting on our values, we prove ourselves to both ourselves and others. Leaders who hold safety as a value consistently walk the safety talk. And if they don’t, they experience a “guilt trip,” as I explained in my ISHN column this past October.

Proof resonated at the BSN conference. First, every speaker had relevant credibility — proof of their expertise in behavioral safety. And every intervention strategy was backed by relevant data.

I recommend using “D” for “data” instead of “P” for “proof.” Then the acronym becomes LEAD, a more memorable and meaningful acronym for remembering and teaching key leadership strategies.


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