Leadership: Leading with Safety

What motivates leaders to improve safety?

Throughout the 1990s, many organizations focused their safety efforts on the front-line employee – and many became good at engaging the field and the shop floor in active safety roles. In recent years, we've seen the focus shift to the safety leader – including the safety manager, the plant manager, the head of health, safety and environment and even the CEO.

If safety excellence requires the engagement of employees at every level of the organization, what motivates an organization¿¿s leaders to improve safety? This article looks at the question of motivation from the unique perspective of a leader committed to safety.

Approaches to Motivation

The two basic approaches to motivation include the transactional and the transformational. The transactional approach offers something in exchange for each person's contribution to safety improvement. At the front-line level, transactional motivation includes offering bonuses for group performance or incentives for performance of safety activities. At the leadership level, we may include safety as a metric in performance and compensation.

In our experience, transactional motivation (especially safety incentives) produces mixed results. At the hourly employee level, particularly when the contingency is incident frequency, it can actually create more harm than good: Outcomes-based incentives reward me (or punish me) for things over which I have little control, such as the practices of a work group on another shift. Even when the incentives are tied to inherently worthwhile activities (for instance, safety observations or hazard reduction), offering an exchange can undermine the long-term integrity of these tasks, since we treat them as something extra, rather than as routine parts of the way work is performed.

At the senior level, safety incentives work to a certain extent: Leaders are more often in control of the means to achieve outcomes and are ultimately responsible for them. Even here, however, transactional motivation can foster an overemphasis on tactical thinking. If I am measured and compensated on a specific metric (for instance, recordable rates), I am more likely to focus on that area to the exclusion of larger issues, such as exhibiting the values and behaviors needed to be an effective safety leader. While often it is desirable to hold leaders accountable for specific outcomes, relying on these measures alone misses an important opportunity to motivate leaders at an intrinsic level.

The second, and more effective, transformational method of motivation calls for the engagement of the employee, leader or group in the process of improving safety. Engagement motivation focuses on getting people at each level aware of and connected to the safety processes of the organization, having them feel ownership and involvement and regularly engaging them in advancing safety improvement. Engagement is more difficult to cultivate initially. It is not as simple as devising a program or writing a list of accountabilities. It is, however more self-sustaining because it appeals to the intrinsic drives, interests and perspectives that leaders have.

Before we can know how to engage them, however, we must first understand what safety means to them.

What Safety Means to a Leader

Senior-most leaders are concerned with fatalities first and foremost. Some more than others, some from experience – the hardest teacher. But as a group, senior leaders are moved by fatalities in their organizations. Most find it unacceptable that fatal accidents are preventable and continue to happen in their organizations. For those who aren't yet motivated, the key question is: Are fatal accidents a part of doing business, or can they be prevented?

In addition to preventing fatalities, senior leaders also are concerned with getting things done in a competent manner. When safety managers say they have trouble getting "leadership support," they often mean that they have failed to demonstrate their competency in really making a difference. The senior leader holds back more from fear that resources will be used ineffectively than from lack of interest in real prevention.

On a personal level, leaders are motivated to improve safety because deep down, they realize it's the right thing to do. For them, it is an ethical consideration. Safety also enables the leader to promote sustainability, creating an organization that cares responsibly for its resources. Engaging (and motivating) senior leaders requires showing them how they can improve safety outcomes directly through their actions, decisions and beliefs, and indirectly through their support.

A Bigger Question

The motives that drive safety leaders are essentially ethical considerations. In the next column, we address the connection between ethics and safety – and the unique opportunity for safety leaders at all levels to build an ethical culture.

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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