stopwatchMany safety programs never really get off the ground, despite being well-planned and well-intentioned.

They are unable to overcome the inertia in the organization. Staff  procrastinate on these programs in favor of less important ones, give excuses for actions not delivered, or budge only when pushed. It is like the pull of gravity on a rocket that’s just lifted off. Tremendous force is needed to break free of the ground.

The force required to overcome complacency and create change is known as a sense of urgency. Think of it as rocket fuel. It is a desire to move now. It is characterized by a set of beliefs and feelings that lead us to constantly look for important issues and make progress today.

The pace of change arising from a sense of urgency becomes evident when there is a major accident. Such accidents trigger fear, a sense of righteousness and social morality. The sense of urgency that results quickly overcomes the complacency in the organization. Significant improvement is made.

The problem is: we do not want a major accident in the first place! Another Seveso, Bhopal or Deepwater Horizon disaster is one too many.

Instead of waiting for major accidents to occur, it is easier to lower the bar for urgency. Urgency is not absolute, but relative. What is perceived by people as urgent, becomes urgent.

For example, an oil spill onto the factory floor from a two hundred liter drum can either trigger a “Let’s stay behind and get this cleaned up” reaction or a “Let’s just cordon the area off and do the cleaning tomorrow” reaction. It’s not the circumstances that determine the experience of the staff, it’s the perspective and actions of the leader and his team. By changing the way we look at something, and how we act on it, a sense of urgency can be created.

Ways to create urgency

There are several ways to create a sense of urgency. First and foremost, conveying a sense of urgency is not about pretending. It needs to come from the heart; otherwise, there is no authenticity and people will see it as merely manipulation or “crying wolf.”

Leaders need to be clear about the values that drive them. They need to discover what they truly stand for. Only then will they be able to talk and act consistently at all times. A sense of urgency around safety requires the leader to find his own voice around safety first. Every one of us is unique. We encounter different circumstances, interpret them in our own ways, and have our own experiences. Only we can explore our inner territory and find the voice that represents safety.

I asked one general manager who is a passionate leader in safety what drives his commitment. He replied that every one of his staff has a family. He recalled a technician under him who met with a fatality, and he had to call the man’s wife to inform her of the news. It was the most difficult call he ever had to make in his life. It pained him so much that he vowed never to have to make such a call again.

Another general manager replied that safety is a way of life to him. It is the right way to do things. I found out subsequently that this general manager had spent ten years in another company that has a strong safety culture.

Below are five ways to increase the sense of urgency:

1. Focus on the heart

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.”—Dale Carnegie

Talk with feelings. Feelings are infective. Heart-felt anxiety, frustration, and delight give our message an emotional punch to sway our listeners. Furthermore, we are not talking about cold hard financial data here. Behind every safety accident statistic, there is someone who has encountered emotional and physical pain. Sharing stories on colleagues who have suffered from accidents will trump statistics every time. Stories conjure a mental picture and connect people emotionally based on a shared past.

2. Ask questions

Silence means consent. Maintaining silence on a mediocre accident investigation or substandard behavior sends messages that these are acceptable. In this digital age, a leader who forwards a safety performance report to team members with only an “fyi” also implies consent. Asking questions sends a different message: I want to know more and I am concerned about this. Asking someone a question puts the thinking cap back on their head. It creates buy-in. Research shows that people are more motivated about their own ideas and solutions. This in turn creates a sense of urgency.

However, some questions are not questions. They are merely instructions or advice masquerading as questions.

Here are some examples:

“Could you get him to follow up?”
“Do you think that conducting this training would give you better results?” “Shouldn’t you check with me before sending out this email?”

If the second word in the question is “you,” it is likely that you are the one giving instructions or advice! Of course, giving advice is better than staying silent. But it pales when compared to asking thought-provoking questions to someone who understands the situation equally well.

Below are some open questions that leaders can ask, the sort of questions that elicit a thoughtful response.

a. Tell me more about that.
a. You mentioned that ___________. Can you elaborate?
b. What is the most important factor in this situation?
c. What do you lack now?
d. What must we do to solve this once and for all?

3. Reduce the amount of happy talk

Is the glass half full or half empty? Either view is correct, it is just a matter of perception. But it is a problem to see the glass as fuller than it really is.

Consider this situation. A manufacturing plant has its recordable incident rate drop from 10 to 8 after a year of hard work. The industry average is 2. The EHS manager presents the information to his leadership team and concludes, “Our accident rate has dropped by 20% over the last year. There is obviously still room for improvement, but good job. Keep it up.”

A more suitable speech to convey urgency would be: “Our accident rate is 4 times higher than the industry now. We have made some improvement, but our workers are 4 times more likely to get hurt compared with our competitors. This is not acceptable!”

Happy talk happens either because egos come into play or because there is a climate of fear, where people are afraid of being ignored, blamed, or fired. In such a circumstance, people are stubbornly reluctant to move out of their comfort zone. When the glass is seen as three quarters full, there is no urgency to add more water! Reducing happy talk does not happen in a vacuum. It goes hand in hand with a climate of trust and openness.

4. Change the measurement system

The performance of safety is typically measured by using lagging indicators such as accident rate. There have been numerous articles advocating the problems of using lagging indicators.

In the context of increasing urgency, lagging indicators have their shortcoming as well. Listen in on a conversation taking place when a plant manager is asked by the senior management about causes of the high incident rate. He says, “One incident occurred when a technician put his hand on the door frame, and caught his fingers when the door closed. We can’t prevent stupidity. Another case happened when a staff member walked down the stairs and just sprained his ankle. This is not foreseeable.”

What the plant manager is saying is that several of these incidents are out of his direct control, and he should not be held accountable for them. When people feel that they are not accountable for something, we cannot expect them to act urgently.

Lower accident rates are the result of upstream programs. Examples of upstream programs are closing audit findings, conducting inspections, and holding safety briefings. When these programs are effective, the accident rates subsequently drops. The implementation of these programs is directly within the control of a number of specific people.

Quoting Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “Most leaders have a far easier time holding people accountable for their results than they do for behavioural issues. This is a problem because behavioural problems almost always precede results… Have the courage to hold people accountable for their behaviours.”

Measuring accident rates is necessary because of regulatory and corporate requirements. But it has to be balanced with leading indicators or behavioral-based goals. In the conversation above, the senior manager replies to the plant manager, “Some accidents are indeed unforeseeable. However, from your EHS KPIs for last year, it has fallen short in two areas: conducting two inspections per quarter, and conducting weekly safety briefings. What happened?” Imagine the change in sense of urgency that follows this response.

5. Dealing with NoNos

When the plant head consistently fails to meet the production or sales target, he is likely to be seen as failing at his job. It is not uncommon to hear of leaders being asked to leave for this reason. When the same leader excels on the sales target but deliberately slows down the direction the company wants to move on safety, it is less common or even unimaginable for him to be taken to task. Two main reasons for this are mentioned above: lack of clarity on safety as a value, and inadequacy of measurement systems.

John Kotter aptly distinguished two categories of people who slow down the change initiative: Skeptics and NoNos.

The Skeptic has an attitude of “show-me.” He wants enough information to convince him that the change is feasible.

NoNos are simply content with the status quo and will kill urgency at any cost. Skeptics can be co-opted along the way but NoNos cannot. NoNos carry old baggage that they are unwilling to shed. They can appear to act with urgency, but quietly sabotage the process behind the scenes.
Once the leader is convinced that someone is a NoNo, it is a mistake to leave that person in place.

Kotter suggested three ways to deal with NoNos: distract them with a special assignment where they can add value out of harm's way, expose their behavior for what it is so that natural forces will reduce it, or move them out of the organization. Making tough, sometimes unpopular decisions removes a roadblock and sends a powerful message on what the company values.

Beware of false urgency

Although a sense of urgency is necessary for change, too big a dose can be detrimental. This is termed a false sense of urgency. Take the example of a manufacturing company where the accident rate is very high. The existing managing director leaves and a new one comes. The new person senses the need for urgency, and gathers his leadership team together. He bangs his hand on the table and demands, “I want significant improvement within three months. If not, I am prepared to take drastic measures. You jolly well know what I can do!” From that day, fast-paced activity commences. The managing director is satisfied that safety is finally on track, and believes positive changes are happening. Behind the scene however, staff feel differently.

“Show you’re making an effort in safety, or else you will be out.”
“This is just crazy, hope things simmer down after three months.”
“We have had many meetings, but I don’t see real changes happening.”

A false sense of urgency arises as a result of some form of intense pressure. A sense of fear and panic pervades the workplace. A lot of activities are taking place but there is a lack of conviction. People are doing for the sake of doing. This results in disproportionately more activities than productivity and causes a high burnout rate.

Behaving with a sense of urgency demands patience too, because real results can take years. It requires acting every day with a sense of urgency and yet being realistic about the time frame. It means recognizing that although three years are required for change, daily commitment is required to make a difference. After all, Rome was not built in a day, but every single day until completion.

So, what have we learned?

First, creating a sense of urgency requires a leader to find his voice in safety, so that there is authenticity and consistency in his words and deeds. He needs to infuse his feelings into his words, and ask questions to convey his sense of urgency.

Secondly, the measurement system for safety performance should be balanced with leading indicators, to hold people accountable for behaviors and actions they can directly control. There will be no sense of urgency without accountability.

Finally, the negative impact of a NoNo in the change process is immense. It is a mistake to leave these people alone; they will be like weights hanging on to that rocket that is trying so hard to leave the ground. Take action to cut the strings, and let the safety rocket soar into another dimension.