Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Why don’t employees follow the rules?

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 world-class safety performance.

Getting employees to follow the rules – even those that keep them safe – is more difficult than simply having the desire to avoid injuries. Culture, leadership, organizational systems and other factors make up a complex system that interacts with, influences and guides workplace behavior. Aligning these factors is key to developing the behavior reliability needed to ensure the systems and rules already in place are used as intended. It’s essential to create an adaptable workforce that can recognize risk and respond appropriately when it changes. After all, rules cannot account for every variable in a dynamic work environment.

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To achieve this level of performance, leaders need to build a culture of commitment – a workplace that supports and encourages engagement with the organization’s values and creates an environment in which discretionary effort flourishes.

To start building a culture of commitment, leaders should ask themselves these questions:

  1. What is our real goal? What is the commitment we are asking people to make? The real goal is not whether you want to be “injury free” or reduce injuries by 25 percent in a year. These distinctions are important, but they sidestep the core element of commitment: the “big picture” view of what safety means to us. How we think about safety, how we see its role in the organization, and what defines success – these things shape everything we do and say. As a start, consider how you define success. Do you judge safety performance based on the absence of failure? Or do you use a balanced mix of leading and lagging indicators when assessing safety performance?
  2. Do we understand the state of our culture as it is now? What does our culture encourage? Culture is an important element of safety success. Organizations that have strong, adaptive cultures also tend to have low injury rates. An extensive body of research identifies measurable cultural characteristics that, in addition to predicting safety outcomes (e.g., level of safe behavior, injury rates and event reporting), have been shown to predict variables indirectly related to safety (e.g., turnover, citizenship behavior, trust in the organization and co-workers, innovation, and creativity). Under the demands of day-to-day activity, safety systems will be used rigorously only if the culture supports it.
  3. How good is our safety leadership? Line employees cannot change the culture of the organization; that power resides with leaders. A core set of safety best practices, as well as leadership’s transformational style, has a predictive relationship to the culture of an organization and its safety results. Once we understand the strengths and gaps in our safety leadership behaviors, we can reinforce what we’re doing well and improve the areas that need help. It’s easy to believe others judge our intentions based on our words, but what others see and judge are our behaviors.
  4. Have we earned the right to engage the hourly workforce? People will treat the organization the way the organization treats them. As leaders, we need to develop relationships with employees as real people – not economic units. We need to show that we really care. Earning the right to engage employees is critical to any new endeavor.

Creating a culture of commitment requires us to take a step back and look at the big picture. We need to ensure site leaders, organizational decisions, and processes and procedures are creating a value for safety. We also need to empower people to exercise good judgment. Focusing on the ways leaders can build a robust culture is the first step to developing an environment in which people not only follow the rules, but live them.

Dennis Jackson is vice president and director of sales at BST. Jackson works with senior executives, leadership teams and other key client leaders to help them create and work toward a vision for their organization's future.


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