Leading with Safety – Turning Three Words Into Action

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What does leading with safety mean to you? How would that philosophy be evident in your behaviors? How would you explain this leadership approach to your team (both in a spoken and and unspoken way)?

To effectively lead with safety, leaders ensure that every decision passes through the safety gate, or 'checks and balances' if you prefer. The leader considers how each of their decisions impact exposure, beliefs, climate, and culture. The leader's actions reinforce that safety concerns take top priority and speak to the organization's commitment that zero injury is the ultimate goal.

If that is WHAT leading with safety is, then WHY is it important to lead in that fashion?

Leading with safety is foundational to a building a relationship between employers (and their supervisors / formal leaders) and employees, where leaders model genuine care and concern for the well-being of the employee on-the-job and off-the-job. When employees believe leaders truly care about them, they are more likely to do more for the organization – including being more committed to working safer.

So how do we get better at leading with safety?

Consider following these three core principles:

1 – Ensure current safety performance is a function of the alignment and effectiveness of three organizational elements:

  • Safety Enabling Systems – Have we provided the tools, procedures and resources so our employees CAN work safely?
  • Safety Sustaining Systems – Have we created the hiring, development, performance management, and reward and recognition systems to support the effective implementation of the enabling systems?
  • The Organization's Culture – Do we understand enough about our culture – essentially how the work is actually being done and how well that aligns with our expectations?

2 – Be active in culture alignment and process improvement strategies.

High-performing organizations start with a strong baseline assessment to uncover the strengths and opportunities of the organization's culture, and then create a rigorous action plan. Active alignment, front-line engagement, and cultural improvement activities are what help drive overall safety performance improvement.

3 - Remember if you get culture right, you essentially get safety right

Advancing from poor to mid-range or mid-range to good safety performance can usually be done by focusing on enabling systems. However, achieving great or 'world class' safety performance requires establishing and maintaining a strong safety culture. Incremental change comes from strengthening systems, but breakthrough change comes from strengthening culture. When our systems and strategies inadvertently collide with culture, culture almost always wins!

The good news: the cultural characteristics that lead to strong safety performance are the same characteristics that influence all areas of organizational functioning, like productivity, profitability, and employee / customer satisfaction / engagement.

The better news: the cultural characteristics that predict strong safety performance can be measured and can be improved through effective leadership. The nine culture factors outlined in our blog post Safety Culture: The Nine Characteristics of High Performers are correlated with safety outcomes and provide a basis for measurement. And there are specific teachable skills that leaders can model to influence those characteristics.

Our invitation and encouragement to you as a leader (regardless of how high you are in your organization) striving to become a better safety leader, is to begin to ask others about how you are doing on your safety leadership improvement journey. Be open to feedback. Ask others for input on improvement suggestions and support. Are the systems (formal and informal) you advocate, and the organizational or team culture you espouse, serving the needs of the members? Are you manically focused on reducing exposure to risk, and modelling an effective walk to the talk that nothing trumps the importance of zero harm. Change, of course, does not happen overnight. But it's better to start and progress on a safety journey, than do nothing at all.

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