Many companies have a good safety culture; few have great ones. Great safety cultures generally have strong leadership engagement. However, gaining leadership engagement can be difficult, or seemingly impossible. This article will provide tools you can use to motivate your leadership team to move your safety culture from good to great.

Safety step-change Often organizations feel they have reached a safety plateau in incident rate, type of safety activities tried or leadership support. This is where a “safety step-change” can help. For over 15 years, I have been researching, analyzing and consulting with top-tier organizations with good safety cultures. Interestingly, I’ve found that companies with great safety cultures have certain elements in common

There are many methods of creating a safety step-change, but the critical element I will focus on is leadership engagement. Securing true engagement at the upper levels of organizations requires safety leadership. If your leadership team is not “walking the talk,” your organization will never reach the next step in its cultural evolution.

Perceptions & proxies How do we know leadership is truly engaged in safety? A common method is measuring one’s safety culture. Because cultures are difficult (or impossible) to measure directly, organizations use surveys to assess employee perception. However, perceptions often lag reality. In other words, your leadership team may truly be engaged, but peoples’ perceptions may be rooted in the past when leadership was not so engaged. I am not saying that safety culture surveys are not beneficial, they are. Assessments help pinpoint safety processes that are not functioning well. For example, a lag in perception may indicate a lack of communication (another step-change element) that can be addressed and improved.

We can also estimate safety culture through cultural “proxies.” Cultural proxies can be physical conditions, safety processes, employee activities or individual behaviors that when observed signify a positive safety culture. Examples include good housekeeping, a fact-finding incident analysis process, turning in near-misses, a VP walking the shop floor, an executive attending a safety team meeting and the president performing a safety audit. Safety culture surveys help identify important cultural proxies to focus on in order to reach the next step in the culture improvement journey. In essence, these cultural proxies are leading indicators of a strong safety culture.

Engagement vs. support Your leadership team tells you they support safety, but what do they do? More importantly, what do your employees see leadership doing to support safety? If you are trying to improve your culture, the first step is to identify the cultural proxies that are applicable to your leaders and turn those into actionable leadership engagement behaviors. When witnessed by your employees, these leadership behaviors send a strong signal that leaders care about the health and safety of their employees. Some examples of leadership engagement follow in the case study below.

From good to great: A case study Let me share a recent case study that highlights how we can improve culture through leadership engagement. “Alpha” Company had operations across five states, with 6,000 employees at dozens of locations. Based on a safety culture assessment, a significant gap in perception was uncovered between what leadership thought they were doing to support safety and what employees actually believed was happening. In addition to several safety process enhancement suggestions, a leadership engagement initiative was begun.

Alpha Company began its journey by identifying cultural proxies: leadership visibility in the field, increasing field audits, increasing near-miss reports and increasing fact-finding related to incidents. All levels of leadership (1,000+) attended a two-day workshop focusing on leadership engagement and the redesign of the new processes. Following the workshop, the president set expectations for leadership engagement. There were two aspects of engagement Alpha Company focused on: Crew Audits and Leadership Engagement Behaviors.

Previously, only supervisors and safety personnel conducted Crew Audits. Following the engagement workshops, all levels of the leadership team, from the president to the first-line supervisors, had Crew Audit goals tied to their bonus structure. The president, his VPs and regional managers were required to perform three Crew Visits per quarter. The executive’s Crew Visits focused less on compliance and more on engaging the employees in conversations about their jobs, concerns, precautions and needs. Managers and supervisors conducted typical compliance safety audits.

In addition, the leadership team had a list of specific Leadership Engagement Behaviors they could perform in the field to demonstrate commitment to safety. Again, these activities were tied to bonus structure for extra motivation. The senior level executives had to perform at least four Leadership Engagement Behaviors per year; managers perform six per year and supervisors completed 12 per year.

As a result of the engagement initiatives, Crew Audits increased from 200 per month to over 1,300 per month for the first year. Twenty-two executives exceeded their Crew Visit goals every quarter for a total of 420 visits in the first year. A follow-up survey revealed that employees perceived a positive change in the safety culture, were more willing to talk about near-misses and perceived their managers cared more about their safety.

Getting started To get started on your own safety step-change today, begin by estimating your safety culture — paying special attention to potential lags or gaps in perception — and identifying those proxies (or leading indicators) that are of most relevance to your organization. Then, don’t do anything until your leadership team is ready to really engage, and not just support, a safety culture change. Tie increased attendance and visibility in safety initiatives directly to performance goals and bonuses. Outline specific “leadership engagement behaviors” that will be measured to demonstrate commitment. Most importantly, shift the focus from compliance to positive fact-finding and recognition. Your initiative may start with just a few small steps, but securing leadership engagement at the beginning will sustain the success of your journey from good to great.

Chuck Pettinger, implementation manager with DBO2, is responsible for implementing and evaluating large-scale behavior change initiatives for continuous safety improvement and leadership engagement.