To achieve exemplary safety performance, leaders must improve their impact by adopting management strategies based on the science of behavior.
The default approach to managing safety, commonly known as “exception management” (or the safety cop approach), focuses on exceptions-what went wrong, errors, violations of procedures, and at-risk behaviors. Such a focus leads to the use of corrective feedback at best, and more negative consequences (like discipline), at worst. The science of behavior shows that over time, an overreliance on negative consequences leads to undesirable side effects such as lower morale, suppressed reporting of incidents and near misses, lower trust, and decreased engagement.
The alternative is positive safety management which focuses more on what is going well-adherence to procedures, productive safety conversations, safe behavior, and improvements. The science of behavior has proven that a greater focus on desired behavior not only strengthens desired behavior, it also leads to greater teamwork, improved trust, more open conversations about safety, and increased engagement.
Following are six tips that help leaders begin to use scientifically sound strategies for managing safety:
It’s no coincidence that leaders who have strong relationships with their direct reports tend to have better safety performance. So how are relationships built? The first step is to treat direct reports like people, not just employees. Leaders must demonstrate that they truly care about their direct reports-and in particular about their health and safety. The second step is to ask more and tell less. Leaders too often believe that because they are the “boss” they are supposed to have all the answers. By asking more than telling, leaders learn more about direct reports, leave them feeling valued and respected , and end up with more optimal safety solutions. A third key to relationships is building trust with this simple formula: do what you say you will do. While the formula is simple, following through with it is not.
Relentlessly Address Hazards.
Frontline employees gauge how truly important safety is in an organization by management’s willingness to eliminate hazards. When leaders make hazard identification and remediation a priority, frontline employees are willing to get more engaged in safety. Be sure to ask about hazards frequently, make reporting hazards easy, take personal responsibility
for hazard remediation, and communicate status frequently.
Conduct Daily Safety Interactions.
Take the time to talk to people about safety every day. Those interactions allow you to learn about hazards, address concerns, and importantly, to influence behavior. But be careful that you don’t just initiate interactions when there are problems or at-risk behaviors. Look for and recognize the safe behaviors you want more of. Remember to ask more than you tell, focus on specific behavior (not generalities), and be sincere in your interest in safety. Engaging in frequent safety interactions will strengthen critical safety behaviors, making them more consistent, and at the same time
build relationships, trust, morale, and engagement.
Respond Positively to Reporting.
Incidents and near misses provide valuable lessons about how safety is working . They uncover weaknesses in safety systems and processes that, in turn , enable changes to be made to prevent future incidents. But most leaders inadvertently discourage reporting of minor incidents and near misses by how they react. Signs of frustration, disbelief, or anger are only the start. Reporting often leads to unpleasant paperwork, investigations that feel like inquisitions,and sometimes discipline for those who report. Ensure that reporting is positively reinforced by letting those who report know that the information they provide will help prevent incidents.
Focus on Prevention.
Managing safety with lagging indicators leads to a reactive approach and can be misleading. Going for long periods without an incident is no guarantee that safety is under control. Leaders need to actively manage behaviors that prevent incidents, not just react when incidents occur. By focusing your management time and effort on preventative behaviors-what you and your team
do each day to prevent incidents-you will have a much better sense of how truly safe your workplace is.
Consider Safety in Every Decision.
Organizations are interconnected systems. A change in one area inevitably has impact in other areas, often unanticipated. While it is impossible to anticipate all the ways a decision will influence safety, it is important to try. Senior leaders are always concerned about safety however; they are responsible for keeping their organizations profitable. It is easy to see how well-intended leaders
make decisions that are good for the business but end up having negative implications for safety. Be sure to think through how each decision will affect the antecedents and consequences for safe and at-risk behavior at the front line and through all levels of management.
While there is much more to learn about becoming an exemplary safety leader, these tips can start you on the path to having greater impact on safety culture and safety performance.
ADI Safety Solutions
ADI is dedicated to accelerating the safety and business performance of companies worldwide using positive, practical approached grounded in the science of behavior and engineered to ensure
long-term sustainability. Some of the areas in which we help our cl ients excel include:
• Safety Leadership
• Safety Culture
• Safety Surveys & Assessments
• Behavior-Based Safety
• Safety Training
Dr. Judy Agnew, Dr. Judy Agnew is a leading authority in the field of safety leadership, safety culture and behav ioral safety. She is the co-author of three highly regarded safety books, Safe By Accident: Take the Luck Out of Safety, Removing Obstacles to Safety, and A Supervisor’s Guide to (Safety) Leadership. She is Senior Vice President of Safety Solutions at Aubrey Daniels International (ADI), where she helps clients create behavior-based interventions that lead to a company-wide culture of safety