Weak and invisible safety leadership?

photo-1444312645910-ffa973656ebaEvery now and then I meet people who claim that what is needed to improve safety is ‘strong and visible safety leadership’. I sort of get what they mean with ‘visible leadership’ (that leaders can be seen doing the right things), but the rest is confusing. Strong? How strong exactly? Strong in order to do what? What do you mean by ‘leadership’? And what do you mean by ‘safety’ anyway?

Further exploration of the idea of strong and visible safety leadership normally leads down a fairly predictable route. The usual suspects in expanding on the concept includes:

  • The standard you walk by, is the standard you accept. This message needs to come from the top-down.
  • We need leaders who make it clear to people where the line in the sand is.
  • We need leaders who are ready to have the tough conversations about safety!

Put differently, ‘strong and visible leadership’ is a reactive and behavioural intervention, mediated by role modelling and the use of punishments (and rewards) to urge people to comply with the desired behaviours. It is based on assumptions that there are objective safe and unsafe behaviours and conditions (safety is bimodal); that safety is about managing deviations (negatives), that safety is threatened by people not respecting procedures and external standards (people are the problem), and that safety can be ensured if people adhered to external standards (safety is a bureaucratic accountability). 

This is effectively a transactional leadership style:

  • leaders promote compliance by setting clear expectations, and using rewards and punishments in return for the favour/transgressions
  • its focus is on existing rules and procedures (thinking inside the box), rather than being curious about creating a better future

This way, safety is managed as if it was a disconnected aspect from work – as if it was not an outcome or emergent property of how work was setup up and done. It will lock people into a reactive mode, in which safety can only be improved when there are deviations. Safety will this way become driven by deficits, threats and problem which will contribute to a tedious and negative culture, which never really makes anything better.

Furthermore, strong and visible safety leadership will contribute toward problems of adaptation. In a world with a fast paced technological change, increasingly globalised, with competitive pressures to do more with less, trying to overcome challenges by imposing solutions that were developed for yesterday’s needs, will inevitably hold back organisations that need to evolve and overcome.

Some leadership thinkers have suggested that Transformational leadership is a more sustainable way to achieve people’s commitment and buy-in (notably James MacGregor Burns). Transformational leadership is based on the idea that sustainable change can be achieved, not by rewards or punishment, but through engagement with people. By articulating a compelling vision and explaining its importance, people can internalise motivation to achieve the higher order needs and the mission of the organisation. Consequently, people can find an identity and internal drive to do the right things, and take actions to align both behaviours and the environment to achieve a particular vision. This way, leaders are also more likely to get trust, admiration and followers.

I sometimes find myself attracted to this type of leadership discourse. I like the idea of a more forward looking and intrinsically motivated style of safety leadership. But at second and third thought, I can’t see that it is much different from the strong and visible safety leadership talk. In this version too, it is the leader’s task to step forward, do the thinking and feeling, take charge, articulate a vision, and get people’s buy-in. Safety is still being managed as if it was a top-down hierarchical responsibility. The transformational leadership appears to have the same basic assumption: that people are a problem – that they need instructions and motivations from leaders to do what is right.

So, what would a leadership model à la safety differently look like? How can leaders engage based on the ideas that people are the solution, that safety is about a capability to create positive outcomes, and that safety is an ethical responsibility? I’d like to start a conversation about this by suggesting a number of necessary shifts:

From answers to questions

John Green’s post about curiosity highlights that traditional ways of managing safety are hinged on providing people with the right answers for how to do things. This way people don’t have to think for themselves (apart from when they have to, which is often pointed out after incidents). Furthermore, by constantly providing the answers we gradually lose the capability for conversations between people that can generate new answers and insights about how things get done.

Leading safety differently is about having the courage to not have the answers, but trusting that the answers are out there to be found. When leaders enter a situation there is opportunity to pursue questions like:

  • what is going on here?
  • how do things get done?
  • what is it that I don’t understand or know?
  • what’s a mystery to me?
  • what can I learn here?

These questions open up pathways to the unknown, the uncertain, and the unpredictable. Surprise is pretty much the only way to discover the distractions, difficulties, complexities, and other challenges that brew outside what’s in procedures. Unless we have pathways to surprise ourselves, not much is going to improve.

From reactive to creative

Every purposeful action comes with a risk of failure. It is hence the action or activity that gives rise to the need for safety, but also to the potential for success. This gives leaders two options. They can try to ensure safety by safeguarding people and processes so that things don’t go wrong – playing it not to lose, maintaining standards, keeping things in place. Or, they can enable safety by setting people and processes up for success. The difference is that the former leads to constraints and compliance to make sure that things don’t get out of hand. The tendency will be to map the present with standards and ideas developed for yesterday’s needs. In contrast,  building capability to achieve successful outcomes uses the present to ask questions about what future can be created.

Leaders who want to do safety differently, are likely to ask:

  • What is possible here/now?
  • What haven’t we thought of?
  • What ideas do people have for making things better?

From hero to host

Organisational charts with roles and responsibilities can be considered a chart over who has the power, who gets to set the standards and expectations, who is accountable to whom. But as Ron Gantt pointed out to me in a recent conversation, when it comes to safety, organisational charts are better understood as a distribution of labour. This means that all the positions of the chart fill different roles to enable the safe functioning of the workplace, and each position has a different view and can contribute in a different way.

Workplace problems are more often than not, complex problems, wicked problems, problems entangled and influenced by a wide range of sources. There is no single individual in any organisation who has the full understanding of every aspect of an issue. Strong and visible leadership is perhaps able to produce a temporary result in a specific area, but this way the underlying cluster of issues that gave rise to the problem in the first place will remain unaddressed.

To lead safety differently is to accept that in order to understand any issue the organisation needs input and involvement from many, most or all parts of the business. As Margaret Wheatley puts it: We need leaders who can host a platform where the different parts can come together and build a rich common understanding about what is going on, leaders who can give the time reflect on what is going on, and leaders who can deflect other leaders who wish to take control and be heroes.

To lead safety differently involves asking questions like:

  • Who else should be involved in this conversation?
  • What skills and insights of people are available to understand and address this issue?

This is not a warm and fuzzy approach. It is a more refined way of solving problems.

From constraint to facilitation

I am still to meet a person who is not motivated to be safe. People do not come to work to do a bad job, or to create incidents and accidents. Nevertheless, they sometimes end up in difficult situations which may lead to undesirable outcomes, design their own workarounds, or even breach procedures. But people don’t do this because they are bad people or thrill seekers. They do this to get things done, because they are passionate about the success for their team, supervisor and the organisations.

To lead safety differently is to assume that people already have the motivation to be safe. There is rarely, if ever, a need to motivate people further. The challenge is instead to facilitate for people to make informed decisions, to have adequate resources and tools available to meet demands, to address the conditions that undermine performance. The role of a safety leader is not to constrain people, but to facilitate work – so it can be safer, more efficient and more productive.

This too involves asking a different set of questions, or looking for different answers:

  • what are people most dependent on to be successful?
  • what makes their work difficult and challenging to perform?

This way organisations can harness the existing motivation and work with people to create better workplaces. Leading safety differently is not about ‘keeping people safe’. It’s about enabling people to carry out tasks successfully across varying conditions.

Weak and invisible safety leadership?

The above suggestions are not intended as a set of new norms that leaders should follow. That would be an ironic error on my part. What I’ve tried to do is to point out, and start a conversation about, how leadership can be understood in a safety differently context. Using this lens highlights new ways for leaders to see and be in relation to creating successful workplaces. Primarily, I’ve pointed out that leadership is not the end, but a means. And if the goal is to create stronger, better, smarter, more innovative organisations, the role of the leader can probably be better executed in more of a background role. Not invisible, but in a way that supports people.

Now, the above is in contrast with the idea about strong leadership idea described earlier. But I do not think that the suggestions above can be described as weak leadership. The way I see it is that this kind of leadership would require greater courage and greater strengths on the leader’s part – to be behind the scenes, to not have the answers, to not claim credit for success. And in all likelihood, an organisation made up from people who are supported and given latitude to have input and take responsibility will be stronger than one in which people are driven by either punishment or rewards, all things being equal. In a safety differently context, what is needed is a strengthening leadership, rather than strong leadership.

24 thoughts on “Weak and invisible safety leadership?”

  1. • Involvement of Authority

    An inescapable fact is that conditions, behaviors, actions, and inactions were what they were because those in authority wanted them that way, tolerated their being that way, or didn’t know that they were that way.

  2. Great post, Dan. You fired off a few neurons in my head.
    From Answers to Questions: It fits my shift from Knowledge to Ignorance (conscious not blind). “Compared to our pond of knowledge, our ignorance is Atlantic.”

    From Hero to Host: I perceive a hero as an individual who followers trust to direct them out of a situation, more often or not, a disaster, a catastrophe. A host is an influencer in a network acting as a Hub to connect people and ideas together. When I reflect on the parties I’ve been invited to by a host, the best ones are when I can freely mingle with others and the host drops by to refresh the drinks and keep the conversation energized. The worst are those where the host feels she has to be life of the party and everything flows through her.

    Another analogy is sports. You know you’re watching a great game when you don’t notice the officials on the field. They are the facilitators that constrain the players to play within rules and thus enable a great fan experience to emerge. The worst officials are those who call a penalty for every rule infraction committed. The better referees will let some go to keep the game flowing. The best ones openly communicate with the player and give a warning.

    1. Gary,

      Thanks ever so much. Your post fired some of my neurons as well.

      You said: “The worst officials are those who call a penalty for every rule infraction committed. The better referees will let some go to keep the game flowing. The best ones openly communicate with the player and give a warning.”

      Some of the top principles of human behavioral technology are the following:

      One: Null consequences reinforce dysfunctional (nonconforming) behavior.

      Two: Null consequences punish functional behavior.

      In the long run I would expect that the foul-tolerant referees would wind up with a higher number and higher severity of infractions by both rule-abiding and rule-flouting players.

      Is there some counterbalancing principle that kicks in?

      1. Thanks for the neuron triggering feedback Dr. Bill. Your point on the effect of null consequences strikes me as particularly important in today’s workplace. Providing feedback is as critical for performance adjustment and refinement in the human resource as it is within any system. To your second point, we also need to remain mindful of reinforcing those characteristics of behavior or performance that are desirable. We may have our own personal expectations for performance but those remain our own and not really relevant to influencing and reinforcing desirable performance at the job site. Thanks again for another thought-provoking comment.

        1. A reflection on infraction tolerance:

          Definition: An oversight entity that fails to act on every infraction is infraction tolerant.

          Some of the top principles of human behavioral technology are the following:

          One: Null consequences reinforce dysfunctional (nonconforming) behavior.
          This means that if an infraction is not punished the infractor will tend to repeat the infraction.

          Two: Null consequences punish functional behavior.
          This means that if those who comply do not see punishment of the infractors the compliant will begin infraction.

          Hebbs’ Law: Neurons that fire together wire together.
          This means that the infractors and the infraction tolerant overseers will have their neural systems modified to make infractions and infraction tolerance respectively more likely.
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebbian_theory

          Cognitive Dissonance Reduction: The longer a condition, behavior, action, and/or inaction exists the more it becomes “normal.” This means that the infractions will be noticed less and less.
          http://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html

          The Cockroach Principle: If you see one cockroach on the kitchen floor you can expect to find thirty under the fridge.
          (This means that the infractions that are noticed are a small fraction of the infractions taking place.)

      2. Bill: There’s one principle that comes to mind and it’s Doyle’s optimality-brittleness trade-off: “the pursuit of increases in optimality with respect to some criteria guaranteed an increase in brittleness with respect to changes or variations that fell outside of those criteria.” When the brittleness boundary is crossed, something will break as a surprise. In terms of complexity, it’s reaching the tipping point and enabling failure as the surprise to emerge. 

        In my sports analogy, we have one type of official (A) who insists optimal performance means calling every infraction in the rule book. On the other hand, there’s official (B) who interprets optimal performance as not getting in the way of the players the fans pay to watch. 

        With the foul-tolerant referee (B), I agree with you. The level of violence on the field will increase since players know they can get away with it. Eventually an unsafe act takes place when a player is deliberately injured (e.g., kicked, punched, concussed) or a fighting melee breaks out. Once normalcy is restored on the field, (B) will trade-off by giving managers and coaches ejection warnings on the next major foul. (B)’s intent is to pull the “operating point” back from the brittleness boundary.

        The foul-intolerant referee (A) also must be aware of his brittleness boundary. With so many penalties being called, player frustration will rise resulting in more flags but of the misbehaviour type (e.g., technical, misconduct, unsportsmanlike, yellow card). Additionally coaches and fans will be upset by the number of penalties and show their displeasure (e.g., objectionable conduct, booing, whistling, objects thrown onto the field). (A) also finds himself precariously close to the breakpoint and must trade-off by being more lenient in order to pull the “operating point” back. 

        If brittleness boundaries are crossed and surprises emerge, both (A) and (B) will receive a similar post-game consequence. The sports reporters and writers will condemn them for losing control of the game and exhibiting weak game-on leadership.

        My suggestion for leaders: Spend less time insisting on some optimal future outcome and more time focusing on the present. Strengthen your ability to lead by knowing where is today’s operating point. Intervene with “pull back” action if it’s nearing the brittleness boundary. If you don’t know where the operating point is, talk to your people. They do.

      3. In reply both to Gary and Bill,

        In my opinion a good referee continuously communicates with the players during the game. The goal here is that players understand where the line is drawn but also, that an infraction is called according to ‘those’ rules. I say ‘those’ because not every infraction is that same, but also not every game is officiated exactly the same. In my opinion if the rules of the current game are used consequently not much objection or discussion is present and therefore the flow of the game can develop. So I think it is both communication about the rules and apply them consequently.

        1. Good thought provoking article. The sporting analogy works for me and reminds of the “game plan” that was used for umpiring football – take control early, reward (pay) every warranted penalty (free-kick) and if they demonstrate they want to play the game, let them play. Worked for me – challenge now is to apply in a workplace situation. I think this is similar to what Steffen has said.

  3. Good piece. I like the focus on “asking versus telling”, although, my preference in terms of leadership models would be on “Authentic Leadership” (a la Bill George) – no need to specify “safety” leadership – in an Authentic leader the safety bit is implied.

  4. A very thought provoking post and discussion.

    I was reminded of Dominic Coopers article, which you can find at http://www.behavioral-safety.com/articles/effective_leadership_cooper_0215.pdf

    It is interesting because it is both practical and research based.

    He emphasises the importance of ‘servant leadership’ in “building a supportive environment” for safe performance.

    However he reminds us that no leadership ‘style’ or approach can overcome the cynicism that results from “known hazards and risks being left to another day”. He believes that this is the result of ‘the last mile problem’. When an organisation has no systematic means of addressing those risks, does not convert its intentions into action due to time or cost constraints, and is unwilling to put the necessary effort into resolving them.

    The message is that the presence of known risks and hazards undermines safety leadership.

    You really do get the level of safety that you demonstrate that you want to have

    1. Rgleed,

      Thanks. You have inspired me to modify my last comment:

      A modified reflection on infraction tolerance:

      Definition: An oversight entity that fails to act on every infraction is infraction tolerant.

      Some of the top principles of human behavioral technology are the following:

      One: People do what they see others do. This is usually expressed as “Monkey see, monkey do.” It is especially true that people emulate those they respect/ admire/ obey, such as superiors and thought leaders. It has been said that “All leadership is leadership by example.” What parent has not been appalled to observe their child acquire the parent’s vices, quirks, and foibles?

      Two: Null consequences reinforce dysfunctional (nonconforming) behavior.
      This means that if an infraction is not punished the infractor will tend to repeat the infraction.

      Three: Null consequences punish functional behavior.
      This means that if those who comply do not see punishment of the infractors the compliant will begin infraction.

      Hebbs’ Law: Neurons that fire together wire together.
      This means that the infractors and the infraction tolerant overseers will have their neural systems modified to make infractions and infraction tolerance respectively more likely.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebbian_theory

      Cognitive Dissonance Reduction: The longer a condition, behavior, action, and/or inaction exists the more it becomes “normal.” This means that the infractions will be noticed less and less.
      http://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html

      The Cockroach Principle: If you see one cockroach on the kitchen floor you can expect to find thirty under the fridge.
      (This means that the infractions that are noticed are a small fraction of the infractions taking place.)

      1. Dr Bill, people seem to assume that addressing an infraction implies punishment or stopping work (the game). In a high functioning work group sometimes a look is enough to correct the behavior. Then there is the type of infraction. For instance I encourage ground rules like ask questions before drawing conclusions. Why wait till some one has an accident or near miss to demand clarity of communication?

  5. Daniel, it seems that several people have responded to your inspirational article. There are voices supporting both the transactional and transformational approaches. This is interesting. When we open the opportunity for the workforce, managers and leaders in dialogue, we should expect these responses.

    The challenge you inspire readers to consider is also interesting: discussing more ways to shift beyond our assumptions and traditions to the safety differently approach.

    Your starting list and supporting information for leaders, provides substantial opportunity for organizational change, in my opinion: “From answers to questions, From reactive to creative, From hero to host, and From constraint to facilitation.”

    I have the honor and privilege to be currently working with a team on bringing the New View of Safety to a specific distributed audience of safety professionals. Many of them will be unfamiliar to this New View SafetyDifferently approach. Your article will be very helpful. I have suggested that our team’s approach to increase awareness and understanding with this community of practice in the following way:

    1. WHY we believe the New View has really significant value to doing safety differently.

    2. HOW people can shift from assuming that people are a problem to control, to people are a solution to harness.

    3. WHAT people do to continually learn safety differently.

    4. Connection to New View and safety differently resources (people, tools, ideas, success stories, etc.).

    The order of these valuable take home packages (Why, How, and then What) is recommended by Simon Sinek in his 2009 book “Start With Why” for several interesting reasons. Simon is one of the authors I have found to be very inspirational on the presentation of organizational change opportunities.

    Facilitation of dialogue, mentioned in your last shift, is a special skill that is critical to success in moving beyond our assumptions and traditions. An inspirational 2013 book, “Relational Leading: Practices for Dialogically Based Collaboration,” by Lone Hersted and Kenneth J. Gergen, is one that many might find helpful.

    Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this conversation. Please keep these challenging articles coming!

      1. Probably the best place to see side-by-side comparisons in tables like you mention are throughout all three editions of The Field Guide to Understanding Human ‘Error’ by Dr. Sidney Dekker.

        Sidney also wrote the book Safety Differently: Human Factors for a New Era in which you will find Table 8.1 titled Transitioning from Modernist Safety Thinking to the New Era on page 236.

        Another very compatible author you’ll likely enjoy, Dr. Todd Conklin, writes about the New View of Human Performance in his book Pre-Accident Investigations: An Introduction to Organizational Safety.

        If I can be more helpful, please don’t hesitate to ask.

        All the Best,
        Dave

  6. Thank you for this interesting post.
    I believe safety is built through learning. When we tell people what to do, we create opportunities for judging, blaming and even shaming, none of which support learning. When we are curious and ask questions, we create opportunities for reflection, which lead to exploration and discovery. Curiosity, created through listening to absorb, choosing to focus on others, open and non-judging and asking open, curious questions supports the development of a culture of safety for all organizations.

  7. While not always mentioned in many of our discussions, I can say enough about Dr. Nancy Leveson’s contributions to the “Safety Differently” movement. I recommend her Engineering a Safer World: Systems Thinking Applied to Safety as a standard text to anyone entering the field. It is available as a pdf through MIT at https://mitpress.mit.edu/sites/default/files/titles/free_download/9780262016629_Engineering_a_Safer_World.pdf.

    Enjoy!…and enjoy your weekend. Great discussion.

  8. Great article Dan, all the best for 2017.
    I think one of the key things to consider to see safety done differently and to have it claw back its credibility across our workplaces, is to have safety front of mind while project teams schedule work programs.
    This would assist in expecting guys to follow correct processes and procedures all the time, not just when the schedule allows.
    This is a particular challenge during occupation or shutdown works.
    Inadvertently and unintentionally we can drive perverse outcomes by being inconsistent at different phases of a project.
    Helen Lingard wrote a paper and article on the topic, which won the International reasearch paper of the year award mid last year.
    Please let me know if you would love me me to send you a copy, or I could post it on my LinkedIn profile.
    Well worth a read for anyone wanting to make a real difference this year and how we go about effecting positive change across our workplaces locally and globally.
    Take care and speak soon, Broadie

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