Some organizations succeed readily with new safety initiatives while others struggle. Why is that? This article, the first in a series of three, outlines the dynamics of high-performing organizations and how senior leaders can support new and existing safety efforts.

Making waves

Introducing a performance initiative into an organization is like tossing a pebble into a pond. Successful organizations achieve ripples that flow effectively and efficiently, creating rapid improvement and wide acceptance. In organizations that struggle, the pond is more like a pool of molasses; the ripples bogged down by built-in barriers such as mistrust between levels or poor communication. Still, others experience a ripple effect like dropping a pebble into a turbulent ocean. Activities are quickly swallowed up in a sea of competing priorities and conflicting messages.

A study of sites using the same behavior-based safety methodology matched pairs of sites by industry, site size, and time in the process. In each comparison some organizations were steadily improving (the ripples flowed freely) while others were struggling (like ripples in molasses or the ocean). The study showed that leadership behavior was a critical success factor.

Leaders in successful organizations don't just provide resources and verbal support; they influence the organizational climate through their actions. A body of research in organizational psychology shows nine characteristics predictive of successful safety outcomes. Senior leaders can strengthen their organizations in these nine critical areas and improve their organization's ability to engage the energy of its employees:

1) Teamwork

How effectively do your work groups function as a team? The higher the level of teamwork in your organization, the more likely people will talk to one another about performance, improving outcomes such as level of desired behavior and rework or injury prevention.

2) Work group relations

To what degree do your co-workers treat each other with respect, listen to each other's ideas, help one another out, and follow through on commitments? Workers who believe they have good relations with their co-workers are more likely to actively engage in their work group's commitments.

3) Procedural justice

Are the actions of your first-level supervisors perceived as fair? Perceptions of unfairness may lead employees to believe that the organization does not care about them. Employees who feel their supervisor is fair are more willing to contribute above and beyond their immediate job duties.

4) Perceived support

Employees who believe that your organization is concerned about their needs in general, and who perceive that support is available, are also likely to believe in the organization's values and to be actively engaged in its goals.

5) Leader-member exchange

Do employees feel that the supervisor is willing to "go to bat" for them? Employees who believe they have a good relationship with supervisors are more likely to be cooperative, to live up to the spirit of organizational objectives, rather than just the letter, and to initiate voluntary contributions.

6) Management credibility

How do employees perceive your management in terms of judgment, honesty, consistency, fairness, and openness in dealing with workers? Levels of trust influence the extent to which individuals will take personal responsibility and support new initiatives.

7) Value for a specific outcome

What are employees' beliefs about how your organization prioritizes its goals and about management's willingness to invest time, energy, and/or money in its goals? The higher the perceived value for the goals, the more likely workers will be willing to invest their energy in them.

8) Upward communication

Do your employees feel comfortable bringing up concerns and performance issues with supervisors? The more freely communication flows from front-line workers to their supervisors, the more influence your organization has over the level of desired workforce behavior.

9) Approaching others

How likely are your employees to speak to a co-worker they think is jeopardizing performance? Are they willing to pass along information about improving performance or step up to help a co-worker do a better job? The more likely workers are to speak up with each other, the higher the level of desired behavior in a work group and the more individuals become involved.

Going forward

As leaders foster these qualities in their organizations, they not only facilitate successful safety performance, they build a foundation for overall organizational excellence. In the next issue we will discuss how to define this kind of leadership in specific terms.