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Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Getting engagement right

July 27, 2014

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Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2014, experts from Ojai, CA-based consulting firm BST will share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.

When leaders first engage safety in a real way, they are often surprised by what they learn. Safety is more complex than they thought, more tied to operational excellence, more indicative of the health of the organization, and so on.

But one of the biggest surprises is the power that safety has to draw people together.

Many leaders who spent countless resources trying to get people excited about the business suddenly find that the new safety initiative is forging alliances – even among people who have been at odds for years.

Yet, there are pitfalls too. New attention to safety doesn’t guarantee engagement. How safety is introduced, explained and managed all influence the degree to which employees will actively engage with safety – and whether that engagement will cross over into the organization generally.

Creating motion

Simply speaking, the problem of engagement is one of generating motion toward a goal. In safety, the motivated employee (or line manager or CEO) is one who is actively pursuing the goal of safety improvement: using safety systems, talking about safety performance, advocating the interests of safety in light of other priorities, etc. In this sense, motivation is an active state.

Motivation is also spoken about as the internal drive someone has for something. In this sense, motivation can be active (the leader is interested in safety and actively engaging in it) or inactive (the leader is interested in safety, but is not engaging in it).

In most cases, motivation problems have less to do with lack of motivation and more to do with a failure to harness or channel the motivations people already have. To improve engagement in your organization, look at your stakeholders (e.g., senior leaders, hourly employees, frontline supervisors, labor representatives) and ask yourself the following:

  • What does safety mean to them? Safety looks and feels different depending where you sit in the organization. To a front-line employee, safety is personal; it means not getting injured and not seeing friends and co-workers injured. To a senior leader, safety is personal, as well – no one wants to see people hurt on their watch – but it is also an ethical concern with implications for the health of the enterprise. Talk to representatives from various groups and ask them what really excites them about safety – and what worries them when it’s not done well.
  • What does engagement look like? It would not be practical – or even desirable – to expect a CEO to perform hazard analysis or for a line manager to direct safety resources. Finding the right engagement activities means considering both the practical restraints of a person’s role as well as the motivations that would make an activity meaningful. For some groups, engagement might take the form of leading a safety meeting or doing observations. For others, it would be coaching employees or participating on a task force.
  • How are we demotivating them right now? In addition to creating engagement opportunities, leaders must remove barriers to participation. Does the organization respond promptly to hazards? Are safety suggestions appreciated and valued? Do senior leaders get relevant data presented in a way that makes sense to them? Look at the effect of actions throughout the business on engagement and work toward ways of resolving them.

Building a bridge

When leaders take on safety in a serious way, they must necessarily tackle the issue of motivation. Getting safety right requires everyone’s willing participation – and more than their participation, their active and wholehearted engagement. Understanding both the particular roles and interests that different stakeholders have in safety enables leaders to create widespread and meaningful motivation for safety improvement, as well as build a bridge to performance excellence generally.

Patrick McCorry is vice president at global safety consulting firm BST. McCorry brings more than 15 years of experience in the consulting, leadership development, training, information technology and e-commerce industries to his work helping senior leaders address organizational safety challenges.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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