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Collaboration builds ownership, better outcomes

August 1, 2012

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Editor’s Note: Creating a dialogue, keeping the focus, asking the right questions – achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2012 in Safety+Health, 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 achieve world-class safety performance.

By Tim Hoover

We all know the ideal of the collaborative safety leader. He or she is the one who includes a variety of people in safety decisions, building engagement in the decision-making process and its outputs. Not surprisingly, collaboration is linked to better safety outcomes overall. Still, most leaders can tell you that in practice, collaboration is fraught with difficulties. It is almost always more time-consuming than unilateral decision-making, and it runs a greater risk of creating poor solutions. So what accounts for this apparent disparity between ideal and practice? More important, what can leaders do to improve the quality of collaborative decision-making?

Different perspectives, same goal

Collaboration is essential to safety, where leaders have to get people from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives working together toward the same end. The most effective safety leaders practice collaboration in their everyday work. These leaders work well with other people, promote cooperation, ask for and encourage input from people on issues that will affect them, help others resolve safety-related problems for themselves, and encourage others to implement their decisions and solutions. More broadly speaking, collaboration is an extension of a leader’s infuence style.

Formal group collaboration, where we involve many people in a decision, is one of the places where the rubber meets the road in collaboration. Done right, we broaden the quality and diversity of decision inputs. There are four basic steps to using collaboration successfully:

  • Determine the need. Your first job is to determine if the issue at hand warrants the investment that group decision-making requires. Consider a collaborative approach for those decisions that would benefit from the input of multiple perspectives or that require buy-in for the solution to be effective (e.g., addressing an exposure that exists in multiple locations).
  • Create the right atmosphere. Collaboration only works when all the participants are able to offer their input openly and constructively. This means establishing an environment of trust, respect and equality. It also means setting clear ground rules. Include expectations, such as the scope of the decision or issue you are asking people to collaborate on; how the decision will be made (consensus, vote or leader prerogative?); the timing (when does the solution need to be identified?); expectations for involvement; and appropriate meeting tools. Appoint someone with no stake in the outcome to act as a facilitator.
  • Own the process. Some leaders undermine their efforts at collaboration by removing themselves from the decision-making process entirely. One well-meaning management group did this when they turned over the decision for a new safety initiative to a team of hourly employees. Equally well-meaning, the hourly team selected the lowest-cost option, rather than considering some of the very real logistical and cultural needs the initiative would need to address. Just as the employee perspective is critical to reaching a balanced decision, a leader’s perspective adds needed breadth, expertise and support.
  • Keep communicating. Provide feedback to the group on outcomes, results, and decisions or actions taken. Ongoing communication demonstrates the value of collaboration within the organization and reinforces the good work done by the participants.

The ability of individuals at all levels to work together toward common goals is one of the best indicators of a highly functioning organization. Leaders are in the best position to foster this characteristic in their organizations, and do it best when they demonstrate collaboration themselves.

Tim Hoover is a Six-Sigma-certified safety leader with more than 20 years of operations and construction management experience in the chemical industry. As a vice president with BST (www.bstsolutions.com), he designs and supports safety improvement initiatives throughout the world.

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