Suppose you want to accelerate the safety performance of your organization, but you have limited resources to get started. You can only invest in one of the following strategies to improve safety: You could build a stronger safety culture, improve your safety management systems, build an inherently safer facility, reduce at-risk behavior, or strengthen safety leadership.
Where would you invest your limited resources? All of these things are important, and there are merits to starting with each. But in our experience, leadership is really the heart of the matter. In fact, elevating safety leadership is the most important single thing an organization can do to set improvement in motion. Leadership is the place you want to go first, with the most energy that you can, and that will innervate all the rest of the things that influence good safety outcomes.
What does strong safety leadership look like?
Safety leadership is an extremely broad subject area, but there are dimensions of safety leadership that stand out to us as the place every senior leader should start: the value for safety projected by a leader; the vision that leader holds for the organization; and the credibility the leader establishes behind both the value for safety and the safety vision.
1. A Personal Value for Safety: What does it mean for a leader to have a personal value for safety? As you think about this, think about the people around you, and ask yourself, do they value safety? How important is safety to them—not because it’s supposed to be important, not because somebody else says it’s important, but how important is it to them? And how important is it to you? Really, and truly, deep down, how important is safety to you? How deep is your resolve to prevent injury and illness in your organization, in your community, and in your family?
If you think about the people who hold safety as a core value, they share some things in common. To the person, they believe they can make a difference. They believe they can be successful. They take responsibility for their decisions and actions. They are self-confident without having all the answers. They spend time learning about safety, injury causation, and prevention. And they know what it means to lose a loved one, or to suffer a debilitating injury or illness. We believe everyone has an intrinsic value for safety; that’s just how we start, regardless of whatever competing values we may also hold. A deep personal value for safety is the appreciation, prioritization, and cultivation of that intrinsic value, and we find it develops over time, with experience, and with attention.
Leaders who embody a strong personal value for safety allocate resources, recognize contributions, talk about safety, and get personally involved. They hold themselves to the same high standards that they hold others to. They educate themselves, they look into issues, and they ask questions. They take action when they see someone in harm’s way, and, crucially, they also take action on issues before bad things happen.
2. A Vision for Safety: Of course, wanting something is not enough. To make something happen, we need a clear picture of what we are aiming for. Safety leaders need a vision for safety. By vision, we mean knowing what it looks like as safety improves day by day. So yes, we want to get to zero safety incidents, but has the leader broken that down into small, achievable steps? Can the leader describe what people will be doing differently three, six, and nine months from now? What’s going to change? How is that going to appear in our lives as employees at work? The effective safety leader can see that, can articulate it in a compelling way, can recognize progress as it’s happening, and thus convince people around them that they can and will be successful.
Leaders who have a clear vision for safety talk about it. They talk about it frequently. They talk about it in some detail. They talk about it in concrete, practical terms. They bring it up in conversation, and they lead with it in formal presentations. They talk about it from the point of view of those around them, and show how everyone will benefit. We could go on about this for some time, but our point here is to convey the depth and richness of actions that result when a leader really has a well-developed vision.
3. Credibility: A good vision will challenge people’s beliefs about what is possible, and it will ask some to reach outside their comfort zones. In order for a vision like this to be heard, a leader needs credibility with his or her constituents. Credibility is formed when people know they can count on you for something. It is based on how people experience you, and what that experience tells them. Can people see the consistency between your words and actions? If you tell someone that you will do something, can they see that you did (or didn’t) do it? If you say something is important to you, do they see you show it? When you are consistent in these ways, your credibility grows and trust deepens. People can predict, with great accuracy, what you will do. You begin to get the benefit of the doubt. And people will listen to you.
When leaders are credible in the eyes of those around them, they do not have to work nearly as hard to influence people in their organizations. People are less resistant to change, need less convincing, and raise fewer objections. This does not mean there will be an absence of resistance, because resistance is a healthy and natural part of any organizational change, but people will spend less time testing “Is this for real?
If you want to improve safety, start with leadership and work from there. Have a vision for the safety culture you want to see at your organization. Put your values and credibility behind it. A shift in leadership can have immediate impact on performance. Safety systems, systems thinking, safe design, and safe behavior all flow from leadership. Impact on culture will be longer term. Your leadership will send some message about safety no matter what you do; why wouldn’t that message be a credible one you really believe in?