Senior leaders in safety

February 28, 2003
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Last month, in the first of this series of three articles, we discussed how the behavior of senior leadership contributes to high performance in safety. Through what they choose to focus on, and their everyday actions, senior leaders can strengthen your organization's culture in ways that drive performance. Now let's build on this connection. What are the steps senior leaders need to take to foster the cultural characteristics leading to superior performance in safety?

Tools & skills

Managers make sure the right things happen at the right time to meet objectives. Leaders ensure that the overall culture is conducive to high performance. A body of research shows nine cultural characteristics are key. These are:

1) Teamwork - the effectiveness of workgroups in meeting targets and deadlines.

2) Workgroup relations - the degree to which co-workers respect each other.

3) Procedural justice - the level that workers rate the fairness of first-level supervisors.

4) Perceived support - the level to which employees feel the organization is concerned for their overall well-being.

5) Leader-member exchange - the strength of relationships that workers feel they have with their supervisors.

6) Management credibility - the perception of consistency and fairness of management in dealing with workers.

7) Organizational value for safety - the level of the organization's overall commitment to safety.

8) Upward communication - the adequacy of upward messages about safety.

9) Approaching others - the probability that workers will speak to each other about performance issues.

To impact these cultural "positives," leaders must create and recognize natural opportunities, and then seize on them to apply the proper tools. The three steps outlined below will help leaders develop those capabilities - and build a strong safety culture.

1) Define your culture

A good place to begin is to examine the current functioning of your organizational culture. Draw on the nine characteristics of high-performing organizations. Use this assessment as a blueprint, then define your desired culture in terms that are measurable and attainable.

Start with broad goals and break them down into specific terms. In the case of management credibility, that might be defining a culture where managers consistently follow through on commitments, where supervisors demonstrate fairness in personnel decisions, and where managers hold themselves to the same standards and expectations as their reports.

2) Connect to outcomes

With a clear picture of both the current and desired culture, leaders connect their own behaviors to the targeted outcomes to initiate improvements. Each organization has a chain of influence that runs from the corporate office to the shop floor. Leaders connect to the shop floor through the chain of command - supervisors and managers.

Leaders must ask: What needs to happen at each level for the desired outcomes to occur? For instance, if you want a high level of upward communication, shop floor employees must consistently communicate safety and performance concerns to supervisors. To make this a common practice, supervisors must be willing to listen, use information provided, and give positive feedback to employee communications. But for supervisors to do these things consistently, their managers also have things they must do.

3) Apply improvement tools

When leaders have mapped out the chain of behaviors that connect them to outcomes, they can apply a variety of tools to initiate improvement. Tools are directed not only at modeling desirable behaviors, but also at removing the barriers to performing them at every level.

Leaders make significant contributions to the safety performance of their organizations by leveraging their own actions to create a high-performing culture. As they build up performance levels in safety, they also build a culture that sustains improved performance across functions. In the next issue, we'll present examples of how real-world leaders use this approach to change the culture that drives their performance outcomes.

SIDEBAR: What is culture, anyway?

The word "culture" connotes something vague and hard to measure. In reality, culture comes down to "how we do things around here."

When we talk about a site having a culture of mistrust, we mean that people in the organization do not readily share information or cooperate. They tend to keep their cards close to their vests and act in other self-protective and sometimes hostile ways.

If we say that a site has a culture of teamwork, we see employees collaborating with each other on projects and consistently meeting deadlines. Culture, it turns out, is manifested by the way people do things.

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