Leading from within: Developing your personal connection to safety

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 Jim Spigener

Leaders lead with everything they do and say, whether they intend to or not. In our work, we’ve seen reality put many leaders far outside their comfort zones. Safety leadership isn’t only initiatives and numbers. It’s personal. As many leaders have learned, people remember most what you do in situations involving people and principles – for example, whether (and how) you approached employees working at-risk or challenged decisions that increased exposure.

Developing the strength to do the right thing in these moments (and in all the other ones) comes from having a clear and unshakable emotional commitment to safety. In other words, to lead safety well, you first need to care about it. The good news is the value for safety is something we all inherently have. It may be dormant or poorly defined, but it is something we as leaders can awaken and use to drive our decisions, actions and communications.

Guided by what we value

There is a lot of good advice on what a leader needs to do to be a great safety leader. We’re told to give more feedback, to create the right involvement opportunities, to demonstrate credibility, and so on. These are all great things – and research shows that leadership practices do matter. But what we intend and what we do seldom stay aligned for long when they go against our personality. Conditioning and personality act like gravity on our behaviors, pulling us back to where we’re comfortable when we’re busy or juggling multiple priorities. So if we’re an introvert, we may default to email rather than face-to-face conversation during busy times. If we’re highly detail-oriented, we may find comfort in micromanaging instead of attending to the big picture. Overcoming the inertia of our own personalities requires a strong motivator – and few things are stronger than our personal values.

So how do you define your own value for safety? While this value is something that takes time to fully develop, start by asking yourself three basic questions:

  • What does safety really mean to me? Not, what do I think safety should mean, but what does it actually mean? Is it each person looking out for one another? Making sure every person goes home the same way they came to work? Looking out for others the way I would want others to look out for my family?
  • What do I want people to know about my belief in safety? In other words, when I act, what do I want people to take away from that action? Do I want people to know that I’m sincere and passionate about safety? Do I want people to know I really care and that I “have their back”?
  • What do I want people to know about their out-of-bounds behavior when it occurs? Imagine walking into a situation where people are ignoring an exposure – either explicitly or implicitly. What do I want people to know about why I’m intervening? What values do I appeal to in the people I’m addressing – a sense of shared responsibility, the importance of looking out for each other, or something else?

When we cultivate a deep emotional commitment to safety, we provide ourselves with the tools to navigate the hard moments well. Most important, we engage the hearts and minds of others in a way that no best practice ever could.

Jim Spigener is a senior vice president with BST www.bstsolutions.com and advices senior leaders around the globe on safety performance.

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