Leadership: A Blueprint for Leaders

How safety leadership assures improvement.

by Thomas R. Krause, Ph.D.

In my August 2006 column, I presented the case for leading with safety. I argued that leaders today have an unprecedented opportunity to enhance organizational functioning by creating safety excellence.

Some would argue (rightly) that safety happens at the floor level of the organization; it is ultimately about the worker interacting with the technology. What, then, connects organizational leaders to safety mechanisms and controls such that they can assure safety improvement?

There are a multitude of factors that go into making a successful safety leader. In our experience, however, these leaders all begin with an understanding of a set of core concepts that define organizational safety functioning as a whole.

A Multi-Dimensional Model

Conventional safety thinking has focused largely on what we call safety enabling systems; mechanisms that directly seek to reduce or remove exposure to hazards in the workplace. They include hazard recognition and mitigation, training, regulation, procedures, policies and the like. Some systems are arguably more effective than others, and many (such as the hierarchy of controls) are agreed to be essential.

This focus, which tends to exclude attention to broader organizational elements, produces a rather flat picture of safety functioning. Supply the right systems, the thinking goes, and results will follow. Studies and experience, however, have shown this vision to be flawed. Different sites with practically identical enabling systems are known to report very different incident frequency rates, even when weighted for technology and work forces.

Effective leaders seem to be distinguished by their ability to take a "big picture" view of how safety performance occurs. They see enabling systems not as the sole determinant of safety outcomes, but as an important piece of a larger picture. This model encompasses five key elements, and provides leaders with a roadmap for applying their influence to assure safety improvement.

1. The Working Interface - The configuration of equipment, facilities, systems and behaviors that defines the interaction of the worker with the technology. This configuration is where hazards exist and safety excellence is directly related to how effective the organization is at controlling exposure. Each of the other four elements plays a critical role in optimizing this interface for safe performance.

2. Safety Enabling Systems - The basic safety systems or programs that assure adequate safety functioning. The effective safety leader knows what these systems are, how they are audited and how effective they are. More importantly, the leader sees enabling systems as part of a larger whole and does not rely on them exclusively for safety improvement.

3. Organizational Sustaining Systems - Those processes that sustain enabling systems and assure their effectiveness. They include mechanisms such as selection and development, performance management, organizational structure, employee engagement and other management systems. Effective leaders understand the relationship between the quality of their sustaining systems, their safety systems and what occurs in the working interface. For instance, is the structure of the organization such that safety is given adequate emphasis? Does the performance management system meaningfully address safety leadership issues (not just through lagging indicators?).

4. Organizational Culture - Refers to the driving values of the organization - "the way we do things around here." Unlike climate, which refers to prevailing influences on a particular area of functioning and is quick to change, culture is deeply embedded and longer lasting.

Effective leaders look realistically at culture and identify issues that could undermine safety objectives. Cultural attributes such as low trust, poor communication or mixed management credibility can neutralize even the best enabling and sustaining systems.

5. Leadership - Drives both the culture of an organization as well as the functioning of enabling and sustaining systems. In this configuration, leadership refers to seeing the right things to do to reach objectives and motivating the teams to accomplish them effectively. Safety leadership is exercised by decision-making, which is related to the beliefs of the leader and demonstrated by his or her behavior.

Building with the Blueprint

These five elements provide a systematic way to think about the design of intervention strategies for safety improvement. It explains what many leaders already know from experience: Exposure reduction requires more than the right set of safety systems, it takes a highly functioning network as broad as the organization itself.

As with all blueprints, these elements are derivative. The live workplace is complex. Technology changes, organizations change, operation pressures exist, culture factors may not be ideal and so on. In the real world, improvement takes leaders with both a commitment to safety excellence and a vision of how to get there.

Psychologist Thomas Krause, Ph.D., is chairman of the board of BST, a global safety performance consulting firm. Krause has conducted research and interventions in the use of performance improvement methods for accident prevention, culture change, leadership development and other targeted applications. He has authored several books and articles on safety and leadership.

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