PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Caring leadership takes courage
November 1, 2007
Success is not final, and failure is not fatal. It is courage that makes the difference. â€” Winston Churchill
The theme of my ISHN article in April 2000 was empathic leadership. I used the two components of Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Model â€” competence and commitment â€” to define four different leadership styles. Coaching, delegating, instructing and supporting are determined by a person’s level of competence and commitment.
• One-to-one coaching is needed when a person’s competence (or ability to perform the task at hand) is low and when this individual’s commitment (or sense of purpose or obligation to perform the task) is also low.
• Instructive leadership is needed when competence is low and commitment is high.
• Supportive leadership is desirable when the individual knows how to perform the task (high competence), but is bored or unmotivated (low commitment).
• Delegating occurs when people know what to do and are self-accountable, they have high competence and high commitment.
Effective leaders are competent and committed regarding their course of action. But I believe a third C-word distinguishes exemplary actively caring leadership â€” courage. The following two stories illustrate what I mean.
Responding to an emergencyIn the midst of a safety meeting, Joanne Dean, the safety director of a large construction firm in New Jersey, was notified of a horrendous incident. The operator of an industrial equipment truck with an attached auger was pulled into the auger by weed mesh under the mulch. Joanne ran to help the bloody victim whose body was severed in half. She assisted the on-site nurse with the AED (Automated External Defibrillator), covered the body parts with a blanket, and stayed at the scene until the local EMS (Emergency Medical Service) and coroner arrived.
It’s likely Joanne’s competence as an emergency-response instructor and her commitment to safety contributed to her propensity to be courageous, but I’m convinced her bravery took more than these two leadership qualities. Indeed, the three safety professionals for the company that hired the construction firm did not intervene. They merely stood at a distance and watched. I assume these experienced safety professionals have both competence and commitment for their job, but that day they lacked courage.
Responding to a risky conditionWhile waiting in the lobby of a Fortune 500 company, Bob Veazie, safety consultant and former culture-change agent for a Fortune 100 company, noticed a bothersome at-risk behavior. A maintenance worker had climbed to the top of an eight-foot stepladder to change a light bulb. Because the ladder was not tall enough for this job, the individual was standing with one foot on the top step of the ladder. A coworker was looking up and talking to the man on the ladder, but was not holding the ladder steady.
Bob walked to the ladder and called to the at-risk individual. Holding the bottom of the ladder, he requested the man to come down because, “It doesn’t seem safe to stand on the top of that ladder.” Then he asked whether a taller ladder was available.
Bob showed moral courage by interacting with this at-risk stranger in the face of potential public embarrassment or an unpleasant confrontation. Bob’s competence and commitment as a safety trainer and scholar certainly contributed to his inclination to speak up in this situation, but it is clear competence and commitment were not sufficient for the courage he showed. In fact, Bob’s training partner saw the same at-risk behavior, but did not say or do anything about it.
How can courage be encouraged?While courage reflects a human characteristic distinct from competence and commitment, these qualities of leadership are interdependent in some respects. Individuals with greater competence and commitment in a given situation are more likely to demonstrate courage. One’s propensity to show courage under certain circumstances is increased whenever relevant competence or commitment is augmented.
Develop competence: Behavior-based training increases one’s competence at a particular task. This involves: a) describing and demonstrating a desirable behavior or skill set; b) giving specific behavior-based feedback during a participant’s role-playing of target behavior(s); c) practicing the desirable behavior(s) with both corrective and supportive feedback; and d) implementing the new competency in real-world situations. Subsequently, when learners have opportunities to teach the skill set to others, their perception of competence increases further, along with their personal commitment.
Develop commitment: Simply put, commitment develops from recognizing the positive consequences gained and the negative consequences avoided when applying one’s competence. As my ISHN article last month explained, motivation or commitment to do something is determined by the intrinsic and extrinsic consequences of a task, as well as one’s personal interpretation of those consequences. While many tasks are performed for expected soon, certain and significant consequences, we use self-talk to avoid impulsive at-risk behavior and work for long-term goals.
Develop courage: The moral courage of Joanne Dean and Bob Veazie was due to many factors, and suggests cultivating courage is more complex and less straightforward than developing competence and commitment. For example, Joanne Dean and Bob Veazie are extroverts. They both gain energy from interacting with people, and are naturally outgoing and inclined to communicate with others.
Another of the Big Five personality traits (as detailed in my ISHN contribution for July 2004) that facilitated the courage of Bob and Joanne is conscientiousness. I know each of these individuals very well, and it’s obvious they each take their safety profession very seriously â€” on and off the job.
Beyond personality traits, certain person states increase one’s propensity to show safety-relevant courage. It’s important to understand that we are predisposed to be courageous in safety-relevant situations by particular person states modifiable by outside forces. Evidenced-based precursors to “actively caring” include individuals with high self-esteem (“I am valuable”), personal control (“I am in control”), optimism (“I expect the best”), and belongingness (“I am an interdependent team member”).
The factors that influence one’s propensity to demonstrate actively caring courage can be subsumed under the general label â€” culture. My ISHN contribution next month will explore cultural factors related to the development and cultivation of courage. At this point, I hope I’ve made a reasonable case for adding courage to the competence and commitment qualities of effective leaders.
But keep this point in mind: The courage component may reflect more than leadership. Perhaps the terms “hero” and “heroine” are more appropriate. In fact, one dictionary definition for these labels denotes the hero and heroine as individuals “noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose.” Perhaps we should be calling for more heroism than leadership in industrial safety and health.