The professional safety landscape is always shifting, in terms of hot-button issues. Many of you have seen the years of heavy OSHA standards-setting in the 1970s and '80s, the boom in behavior-based safety in the 1990s, and now the focus on organizational leadership and culture.
Dr. Tom Krause's 2005 book, Leading with Safety, is representative of this new landscape. Evolving front-burner safety topics were also evident at the most recent users conference of Behavioral Science Technology, Inc., of which Dr. Krause is co-founder and chairman of the board. More than 3,000 BST users attended the conference earlier this spring in Dallas.
We interviewed Dr. Krause by phone in early May for his take on why leadership and culture are hot safety topics, as well as other organizational issues and changes facing safety professionals.
THE NEW EMPHASIS ON LEADERSHIPWhy are we hearing so much in safety circles about leadership in 2006? Safety professionals have always known that "safety starts at the top."
Safety pros have known the importance of senior leadership. They know senior leaders are needed to support safety. What is new is to operationalize senior leadership in behavioral terms.
This is critically important. As CEO, I can say, "I'm behind safety. I support safety." But at the same time I can still send the wrong message about safety to the organization.
Say I'm the CEO of a multinational corporation. In one of our work camps in an emerging nation a tree falls on a tent causing a fatality to an employee. Now keep in mind in this corporation on-the-job fatalities will affect senior leadership's compensation. But based strictly on OSHA rules, leadership does not have to take this incident on as a job-related fatality. So they don't. What message does that send? How sensitive are leaders in this case to the message they are sending?
Or let's take small examples of sending the wrong message about safety that occur in executive life every day. I've coached CEOs, spent time in their offices, and I'd say in 30 percent of the email exchanges of executives there are opportunities to emphasize a safety message. For example, say a CEO receives an email from his COO reporting that X division is suffering financial setbacks and budget cuts are being reviewed. The CEO is asked if he wants to review the cuts himself. He tells the COO to take care of it.
The better answer is for the CEO to ask the COO, "Do these cuts have a safety impact?" Better still is for the CEO to answer, "I want to see the proposed cuts myself to see if there are any safety impacts."
In working with safety leaders across many organizations, we (Behavioral Science Technology - BST) have identified a set of best practices that effective safety leaders engage in that create a strong organizational culture and safety climate. I've presented these in workshops and in my book, Leading with Safety.
We developed these best practices in 2002 based on our experience with more than 1,700 projects. We looked at what distinguishes effective safety leadership from mediocre leadership. We also reviewed relevant research. As a result, we operationalized executive safety leadership behavior into seven categories: vision, credibility, action orientation, collaboration, communication, recognition and feedback, and accountability. Each category contains a subset of six to ten behaviors.
Senior executives want to know what they can do for safety. "Tell me what you want me to do," they will say. But many don't know how to act on their support. They might not know what a vision for safety is, so they will miss opportunities. A leader might visit a plant and articulate his or her support for safety, but that same leader at a corporate board meeting does not talk about his or her vision of safety. The organization's people are not moved. So operationalizing these seven best practices behaviors is very important.
But is management just waking up now, in 2006, to the fact they must take the lead with safety?
I think something else that is occurring is a natural pendulum swing back from Deming and the emphasis on the hourly employee. Now what Deming emphasized was very important. But many organizations forgot about the effect that supervisors and plant managers have on performance, and in a way they went around supervisors straight to employee engagement. Many organizations became confused. You see, you can get both employees and supervisors and managers engaged. So gradually now the emphasis is swinging back to the effect of leadership.
ACTIVATING MANAGEMENT SUPPORTWhat can safety professionals do to activate senior manager behaviors that support and improve safety?
One tool to activate senior managers is to give them feedback on how they perform in the various best practices categories by using a 360-degree feedback instrument. Give them feedback on how employees perceive them in terms of safety, what they do for safety. It can open eyes. We can also show executives how their scores, in terms of employee perceptions, compare to a large database of perceptions of executive safety best practices.
How do you handle the executive who is not open to receiving this type of feedback?
You're never going to get 100-percent cooperation; you're never going to get everybody on board. But you can get enough people to be receptive to feedback to achieve your objectives. I would say, in general, two-thirds of people will be receptive to feedback. One-third you will really be able to work with, one-third will be tough, and one-third will be in the middle in terms of being on board.
Who are you referring to here when you say "people in general"?
We define leaders as anyone with influence on safety. It's union leadership. It is pivotal employees. It is supervisors and managers.
TODAY'S EMPHASIS ON CULTUREIt seems like everyone in safety wants to talk about or write about or lecture on safety cultures these days. You have written on the difference between safety culture and safety climate. Can you explain?
An organization's culture is not primarily about safety. It's "how we do things in general." Unstated assumptions that are deeply embedded in the organization.
The climate of an organization is more focused on something specific, such as safety or quality or productivity. Climate describes how an organization pays attention to a particular area of functionality.
Culture changes slowly. Climate changes rapidly. A new CEO, a fatality, a financial setback can affect climate quickly. A fatality might occur and the safety climate gets immediately stronger. But over time it goes back to the way it was. The unstated assumption of the culture is that safety is important only at certain times. That assumption will be much harder to change.
DEFINING ACCOUNTABILITYHow do you define a safety accountability system?
Here is an example of accountability: An employee or supervisor is told that it is up to them to see that safety training is done on a particular schedule, and they are told there are consequences if the training is not done on schedule. There might also be consequences if the training is not done according to certain quality or frequency standards.
But what happens is that many organizations are lax about consequences. They don't pay attention to the consequences. So they let things go by.
In comparison, an accountable leader will say, "This can't be the case, that training is not done as planned. It is not acceptable for an 18-year-old to not be trained in forklift safety. I'll shut down this facility unless I am assured that this training is a given."
Accountability is one of the seven best practices of leadership behavior in the BST system, and it is last in the sequence. When we conduct a 360-degree review of a company's leader, a common profile is that the leader does not have a vision for safety, does not have credibility, is not a collaborator and is not action-oriented toward safety. But that leader is seen as someone who says, "I will hold you accountable." If you hold people accountable but don't do the other best practices, you will not get the performance you want.