The First Two Steps in Safety Strategy: Self Education and a Behavioral Vision

Dec. 1, 2008
While safety leaders are strategy drivers by definition, the right actions to take as leaders of safety may not always be obvious. With this column, we begin to look at 10 actions that form a basis for strategic safety leadership.

So much has been written about “strategy” that the word has lost much of its distinctive meaning. Strategy, to us, means the plan by which an organization intends to accomplish the objectives for which it exists. Furthermore, strategy needs to cohere with the organization's core values and guiding principles.

Safety as strategy begins with two steps that create and disseminate an understanding of safety's strategic importance:

Step One: Educate yourselves on safety, organizational culture and culture change.

We know that leaders create organizational culture and climate. They do so by every action, speech, decision, request, promise and presentation they make, and by every response they give (or fail to give) to the behaviors they observe in the organization.

In addition to being definable and observable, the major attributes of organizational culture are measurable in a way that is predictive of safety outcomes. The desired organizational culture also is either reinforced or undermined by the safety enabling and sustaining systems.

The first task of senior leadership is to know the elements of this blueprint and the connections among them. Specifically, leaders need to understand:

  • Safety enabling systems. These systems and programs assure basic safety functioning. The safety leader needs to know what these systems are, how they are audited and how effective they are.

  • The connection between sustaining systems and enabling systems. Methods of selection and development, performance management, organizational structure, employee engagement and other management systems support safety enabling systems and assure their effectiveness. Leaders need to understand the relationship between the quality of their fundamental safety systems and what occurs in the working interface where people and technology interact, and where exposures occur.

  • How culture influences safety at the working interface. Effective leaders look realistically at culture and identify issues that could undermine safety objectives, such as low trust, poor communication or inconsistent management credibility.

Step Two: Develop a behavioral description of the desired future state and the “compelling case” for safety.

Every leader knows that bulleted “vision” lists in the lunchroom do little to alter the climate and create the required culture for safety. Instead, the behavioral vision calls for leaders to develop specific behavioral narratives that embody safety-promoting conduct from the boardroom to the working interface. One organization said in part and as an example:

“Employees and leaders identify hazards and mitigate or remove them before they proceed with work. They continually challenge each other on how to do things more safely. Our middle managers put safety first in every discussion, as does our board at every meeting. Our leaders at every level never walk past a hazard without taking responsibility — if you see it, you own it.”

This practical vision answers the question: what observable and replicable behaviors will define the future state of safety? Critically, the safety steering team and the senior leaders then lead by example so that safety initiatives become more than another project to be outlived by employees.


The behaviors of senior leaders define the living ethic of the company. The key to success, and the purpose of the 10 steps, is to establish a concrete structure through which leaders can drive safety improvement. In the first two strategies, leaders build a foundation for evoking the organization's commitment. In the next column, we build on this foundation with a communication plan and safety governance structure.

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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