When I speak to leaders, I often tell a story related to GE’s former CEO, Jack Welch.  Although Welch was known to be a challenging taskmaster, he knew the importance of spending quality time with his workforce or “wallowing with his people.” Seemingly, he was big on teaching appropriate “wallowing lessons” to his leaders. 

Jack Welch likely still stresses the importance of leaders spending “wallowing time” with their followers.  Even more, the word “wallow” resonates because the metaphor creates images those leaders can draw upon regularly. Leaders have to learn to “appropriately wallow,” one-on-one, and with groups. When I coach leaders, I often hear that the image of wallowing stays with them long after I’m gone - even when they don’t feel like wallowing! Ultimately, the thought of wallowing moves their thoughts to intentions, and then, purposeful actions.  

Enlarge the communications loop

For leaders to wallow, I believe we have to first understand that they need to feel comfortable in their own skin and be genuine with others. The thought of wallowing often brings to mind a hippopotamus or rhino, rolling around in water and mud, having a great time, with few cares or concerns. But from an organizational standpoint, I see leaders having fun and enjoying time spent with their followers - laughing, asking, listening, and sharing appropriate and respectful thoughts that might not otherwise be shared. But also communicating  information that’s normally filtered or closed off, except for those who are “a part of their group.” More specifically, a part of the group that is normally “closed off” to formal leaders, and sensitive safety-related issues and concerns that might be considered off-limits. 

Wallowing also suggests allowing workers to see their leaders as “real people” who want to better relate, and understand others, but to also more clearly identify with their challenges – largely because of similar goals and personal values. By spending time with workers on their turf, and allowing them to appropriately identify with leaders, suggests that greater openness and transparency can develop. And if greater forms of identification and transparency occur, then communications can become healthier, more open, candid, and helpful in improving safety. It happens and I’ve been a part of it.

Be candid and open

When leaders provide open and candid communications that are both helpful and reliable, followers begin to feel they need to do the same. And when followers provide important and valuable safety-related information back to their leaders, equilibrium is established. However, when the balance of communications and appropriate actions is off and out of balance, and when there is unequal flow of information between groups, there’s much greater risk of frustration, anger, resentment, closed-communications – and unwanted consequences.1

Greater transparency and openness should create better understanding and more coherent communications that decrease errors and incidents. Individuals regularly file and filter communications, retaining what they find useful and valuable, and discarding information that will not help them to communicate better and work safer. 

Wallowing helps to establish greater credibility with others, which in-turn leads to better relationships, morale, communications, and trust. When trust develops, open communications is more evident and helpful, and workers will often provide greater forms of unfiltered information about precursors, near misses, and unabated exposures. All of this will allow for more timely interventions and improvements that relate to potentially serious injuries and fatalities. 

Engage your leadership

Are you helping your leaders feel more comfortable talking about safety? Are you helping them to ask the right questions in order to build credibility, so that challenges and exposures can be uncovered and controlled? Are you helping your leaders create the right space and place for them to respectfully wallow, openly and comfortably?

It’s up to us to help create more equilibrium, balance, and genuinely open communications – so that both parties are giving and receiving regular forms of unfiltered-information.

Our organizational leaders need and want to take on the role of facilitator, coach, champion, or even cheerleader. And it’s partly what’s needed to spend productive time with workers. 

Many organizations have some type of vision for safety, but is it backed by meaningful actions? And I’ve stated before, “Vision without purposeful presence is folly.” Leaders who have a great vision for safety also need to learn to appropriately wallow. And in doing so, will likely experience what Jack Welch wanted his leaders to feel - a purposeful presence that leads to open, rather than closed communications, and much more. From a leadership perspective, this is key to improving safety performance and reducing serious events that can be controlled or eliminated.(1) Newcomb, T. M. The Prediction of Interpersonal Attraction.  American Psychologist, 11, 1956, 575-586; Gouldner, A.W. The Norm of Reciprocity:  A Preliminary Statement, American Sociological Review, 25, 1960, 161-179.