This past February, the American Society of Safety Engineers sponsored a professional development symposium in Las Vegas titled, "Best Practices in Safety Management." While the title reflects the popular use of the term "management" in the safety field, I think we need more "leadership" in safety.

In this article, I'd like to consider six specific differences between safety management and safety leadership. This is not meant to belittle management. We do, though, need more leadership in safety - and this is not the same as management. But managers can be leaders, too!

What's your focus?

Managers are typically held accountable for numbers, and they use numbers to motivate others. In safety the outcome numbers are based on the relatively rare occurrence of an injury. These numbers are reactive, reflect failure, and are not diagnostic for prevention.

Safety leaders hold people accountable for accomplishing activities that can prevent injuries. When people see improvement in the process numbers, they are reinforced for their efforts and develop a sense of personal responsibility for continued contributions and continual improvement.

Do you educate or train?

In industry, "training" is a more common term than "education." With a training mindset, managers can come across as demanding a certain activity because "I said so" rather than because "it's the best way to do it."

Leaders educate - offering rationale and examples rather than policy and directives. This enables individuals or work teams to select procedures that best fit their situation. And in the process of refining a set of procedures, people assume ownership and follow through from a self-directed or responsible perspective.

Do you speak first, or listen?

Under pressure to get a job done, managers often speak first and then listen to concerns or complaints. This is a reasonable strategy for efficient action. After all, managers must make things happen according to an established plan, and this requires specific directives and compliance. After describing an action plan and accountability system, managers answer a lot of questions from workers who want to make sure they will do the right thing.

Leaders take time to learn another person's perspective before offering direction, advice, or support. Active listening is key to diagnosing a situation. This is not the most efficient approach to getting a job done. It requires patience and a communication approach that asks many questions before giving advice. But this is how individuals or work teams can customize a plan or process for achieving a particular outcome.

How do you motivate?

Managers direct by edit for efficiency. While they might get compliance, they might also stifle self-directed motivation. Behaviors performed to comply with a prescribed standard, policy, or mandate are accomplished to satisfy someone else - and they are likely to cease when they cannot be monitored. This happens, for example, when personal protective equipment is used at work but not at home for similar or even riskier behaviors.

Leaders give a reasonable rationale for a desired outcome and then offer opportunities for others to customize methods for achieving that outcome. They facilitate a special kind of motivation. This motivation comes from inside people - it is not directed by others. It's internal or self-directed motivation. People participate because they want to, not because they have to.

Do you leave room for choice?

All behavior starts because someone asks for it. The important issue is whether behavior remains "other-directed" or advances to self-directed. This depends to some extent on how you ask.

Managers favor mandates, reflected in regulatory compliance issues and the common slogan, "Safety is a condition of employment." Mandated behavior is likely to require constant "management."

Leaders use expectations rather than mandates to instill self-directed motivation. What's the difference? Expectations imply choice. There is room for individual and group decisions regarding procedures and methods. When people realize what's expected of them, but perceive some personal control in how to reach specific goals, they are more likely to own the process and move from depending on the directions of others to directing themselves.

Must it be measured?

Managers focus on the numbers, and in safety that means injury records and compensation costs. When I discuss behavior-based safety principles and procedures with managers, I inevitably get the question, "What's the return on investment?" Managers want to know how much the process will cost and how long will it take for the numbers to improve. This analytical approach is obviously inspired by the popular management principle, "You can only manage what you can measure."

Leaders certainly appreciate the need to hold people accountable with numbers, but they also understand you can't measure everything. There are some things you do and ask others to do because it's the right thing to do. Leaders believe, for example, it's important to increase self-esteem, self-efficacy, personal control, optimism, and a sense of belonging throughout a work culture.

The bottom line

The leadership characteristics described here can help build self-directed responsibility for safety. It's usually more desirable for people to be self-directed than other-directed, especially when trying to promote safety and health. When people are self-directed to perform safely, they don't need an external accountability system. Plus, they are prone to actively care for the safety and health of others, a key step in achieveing a Total Safety Culture.

By E. Scott Geller, Ph.D. professor of psychology at Virginia Tech, and senior partner, Safety Performance Solutions. Dr. Geller and his colleagues at Safety Performance Solutions help organizations establish the kind of safety leadership that builds personal responsibility. Call (540) 951-6223 or visit