The primary reason for a lack of understanding around safety leadership is too much conversation and not enough communication.
I differentiate between conversation and communication in this way—conversation is merely filling the airwaves with noise; communication is reaching a shared understanding. In conversation, the term “safety leadership” is often used in a vague sense, with the user of the term assuming safety leadership means the same to others as it does to them. To communicate a shared understanding, we need to precisely and concretely define safety leadership.
These are the ten traits and characteristics I have seen in great safety leaders, with four of them directly applicable to safety investigations.
Leadership competency: Some people are natural born, charismatic leaders; the rest of us have to work hard at it. Leaders assess what skills they have and what skills they lack and then work to improve any gaps, recognizing the human tendency to play to one’s strengths will generate only incremental improvement. Once all the necessary leadership skills are present, they are applied in a systematic, business-like approach to managing safety.
Passionate and visible role: Leaders have a passion around one or more aspects of safety -- a passion that is obvious to all around them. That aspect or issue will vary among leaders, depending on a leader’s personality or business. But questioning people in the organization about what is important to that leader should result in prompt and consistent responses. People can understand your passion only if your safety activities are visible to them. Leaders must have followers and people cannot follow unless they know where you are going.
Actively care about people: Leaders care as a result of their personal values. Because they care about their people and any others affected by our operations, they have the energy and drive to respond to low level deficiencies and problems before they develop into major issues. Editor’s note: Dr. E. Scott Geller of Virginia Tech and the consultancy Safety Performance Solutions has written extensively on his term, “Actively Caring for People,” as an evolutionary step in behavioral safety and has created a website: www.ac4p.org.
Involve the workforce: Leaders understand that safety depends on the constant efforts of everyone in the organization and therefore continually strive to get more people involved in the effort. One basis for selecting and promoting staff, engaging contractors and selecting partners is the willingness and capability to support the safety vision. Leaders recognize the role of positive feedback and use every opportunity to recognize and reward safe behavior, and conversely are willing to make the difficult decisions when performance is lacking.
Plan for improvement: Leaders have a defined plan to improve safety performance. No matter what the current level of performance has been, a leader will identify the organization’s strengths and weaknesses and will set a path forward to improve. Leaders are in active control of the processes used to deliver safety.
Set and maintain expectations: Leaders will make clear within the organization what their personal standards are for how work will be done safely. Besides setting and articulating these standards, leaders will know how well those standards are being practiced through personal observation and questioning. Leaders will intervene—always—when they discover those standards are not being met.
Accountable and responsible: Leaders recognize they are accountable for knowing the reality of the organization’s safety performance. This goes beyond knowing the OSHA rate. Leaders must understand why the performance is what it is. They accept the responsibilities to set out the actions needed to raise the bar on performance, and then ensure those actions are implemented.
Effective metrics: Leaders carefully consider the metrics used to measure and assess safety performance. The lagging metrics of injury and illness experience are accurately tracked, but leaders will also establish and track meaningful leading and concurrent metrics relevant for their operations.
Open reporting and shared learning: Leaders believe in the importance of open reporting, and will foster an environment that encourages such reporting. Identified issues are investigated appropriately and agreed recommendations are acted on promptly. Leaders value the opportunity to learn from mistakes of the past, either in our operations or from the outside, and will create mechanisms to identify and implement relevant lessons. A leader will test and verify key lessons are learned and embedded and will react with some level of outrage when repeat incidents occur.
Unrelenting effort: Leaders recognize that safety leadership is similar to rolling a large rock up a steep hill. It is not easy, nor does it allow you to stop and rest on your laurels. Safety leaders will do everything in their power to ensure their people go home safely each day.
With respect to leadership involving an organization’s investigation of safety incidents, the critical leadership traits are having a passionate and visible role, involving the workforce, setting and maintaining expectations and open reporting and shared learning. Even with well -written procedures and skilled investigators, your investigation efforts will fail if these leadership traits are not present.