Even if we throw lots of money at safety, the one thing that managers, supervisors and workers really want is visible senior leader support and ongoing communications — on the floor or in the field.  And when these leaders connect through very simple ways, like smiling, shaking hands, and asking important safety-related questions, again on the workers’ turf, not from the phone or from behind a desk, the vision for safety is being expressed and enlivened in very real ways.

Never underestimate the purposeful presence of your leaders, on the floor or in the field.  This is especially true when your leaders show concern by spending valuable time with your front-line leaders and workers affirming, speaking the language of safety, and taking action to make safety-related improvements.  Sounds so simple but these connections and expressions of support are critical to your leaders’ credibility, your vision for safety, and sustained success.

A vision without purposeful presence is folly. We need to make it easier for our senior leaders to have a profound and purposeful presence — are you?

What we can learn from Undercover Boss

Speaking of leaders, I really love the reality show Undercover Boss but I have to watch it alone because I often become a little weepy! I’ve gotten much softer with age. You probably know what generally happens in each show. After a short period of time, the undercover boss gets to know people in very personal ways and also finds out first-hand about their work challenges.

Near the end of each episode, after getting all kinds of seemingly unfiltered information, the leader begins to make various organizational changes.  Finally, the boss meets one-on-one with some of his “recent co-workers” and discloses who he or she is and their organizational role. Each employee is usually completely surprised.

In almost every episode, Undercover Boss reveals some very good leadership lessons.  Here are four from a recent show:

  1. Listen till it hurts. By its very nature, productive listening is hard work, especially when it comes to something as important as safety. Asking the right questions, listening actively, keeping the conversation open, and acting upon important feedback is critical. But listening also affords opportunities to feel what the workers are feeling and to better engage with them concerning their challenges and avenues for improvement. Listening shows concern and opens communications for ongoing safety improvement.
  2. Look through people not at them. Mitchell Modell (the boss in one episode) does something that not every leader is able to do. He looks through people in order to feel what they feel and value the same. He sees their living situation, financial challenges, and the families they are attempting to support. All of this draws the leader into a more empathetic state but also endears the worker to the leader. This alone can pay big dividends, especially when done for the right reasons.
  3. Meet on their turf. Leaders know the importance of working with and listening to their employees on “their turf.” And their turf is a breeding ground for discovering possibilities for improvement and increasingly open two-way communications. Their turf is where workers can more readily point out specific challenges and the reality of their everyday environment. But it takes time, patience, and a leader who really wants to become more transparent.
  4. Show appreciation. Near the end of each episode of Undercover Boss, some workers are given raises, bonuses, monetary gifts, and promotions because of their input and daily efforts. On other occasions, workers are simply recognized for their hard work. Mostly, this is what many employees want – appreciation for their efforts. And when it comes to safety, people need to be shown appreciation and recognized for their feedback and effort. Showing appreciation is free and can easily be displayed through a kind word or thoughtful gesture. However, I see organizational leaders miss regular opportunities to show appreciation for various safety-related efforts each and every day. Showing appreciation costs absolutely nothing!

In the end…

I really don’t care if some believe that Undercover Boss is staged or contrived. It provides valuable insights regarding the way leaders are able to connect with their workers and how each side can become more engaged and productive. Boss also brings out the kind of “leadership empathy” that is so sorely needed in today’s fast-paced organizations. It is the kind of empathy that I observed with some of the best leaders that I’ve coached and consulted for over the last 30 years. These are leaders who are able to experience greater productivity because they engage through empathy – and safety is all about productivity improvement, just ask me!

Many leaders need to tap into their own empathy and use it on a more consistent basis. Peter Drucker once stated that empathy is “the number one practical competency for success in life.” At the core of one’s culture for safety, I believe that empathy is a practical competency that builds trust and ongoing reciprocity.

I believe empathy can be taught, discovered, learned, and effectively used for the good of an entire organization – especially in terms of ongoing safety improvement which impacts morale, productivity, and quality, too. It may take the right circumstances, but you need to give empathy a try. I’ve provided a start, and I trust you’ll find a bit more empathy, too!