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Behavior-Based Safety Leaders Take Active Interest

by Jerry Pounds

The shelves of America’s largest bookstores are being continually stocked with new books about leadership. It has become a national preoccupation – management consultants, corporate trainers and public workshop providers are very busy selling leadership interventions. America is hungry for leaders and there is a leadership theory that fits every perspective. Companies seeking to turn managers into leaders will find a consultant or workshop that suits their taste.

There are so many choices, you don’t know which book to read and it is hard to decide if one or the other book is right or wrong. They all seem to make sense, but most of these books portray a good leader as someone who has skills, assets, traits and abilities that are superhuman. Can one realistically expect to learn how to do and be all these wonderful things – a superleader?

If you browse the bookshelves at Borders, you become mesmerized by the catchy titles and enticing themes of the books purporting to teach you how to become a “leader.” The intent of leadership development is to train people to deal with others in ways that lead to improved performance – to increase employee engagement. As mundane and uninspiring as that sounds, it’s true – and it’s not easy, even if it is not as noble an objective as learning how to be a transformational leader.

I have some good news for anyone confused and demotivated by all these choices and theories – perplexed by the overwhelming volume of advice about how to influence your employees – how to engage them. Several behavioral psychologists spent many months following and observing managers doing their jobs – in the field, on site. They shadowed them everywhere and recorded everything they did; they were trying to discover what effective managers did that ineffective managers did not do and visa versa.

The results will shock you with simplicity and boost your spirits. You can have a dramatic influence on employee performance – not by memorizing The Harvard Review, but by doing something so simple that we should have thought about it long ago; by talking to the people who work for you.

The activity that high performing managers and supervisors engaged in most frequently was what the behavioral psychologists referred to as “monitoring” – tracking employee progress—checking with employees to see how thing are going, asking about needed resources, eliminating barriers and discussing priorities. Think of it as “active interest;” simply taking the time to regularly stop by and talk to the people who report to you—and manage not to make them mad in the process. The things managers and supervisors discuss with their direct reports, the things managers take an active interest in, are the things that are valued by the organization and subsequently become employee priorities.

For one thing, active interest – stopping to talk with employees about work, give feedback and collect information – provides opportunities to make positive comments about the employee’s performance. There is a definite correlation between the number of times employees get consequences (positive statements about value added behavior and results or corrective comments about things they need to change or improve) for their work and how well they perform. You can’t say positive things about good work if you don’t know what people are doing. You have to be out in the workplace to see safe behavior, good customer service and quality work.

So what does this have to do with safety? Safety opens the door to discussion – it is the perfect ice breaker. If you want to develop your leadership skills, to become actively interested – if you want to improve your ability to influence the safety and performance of your direct reports – you can start the conversation with a topic that is relevant to everyone…all the time…safety. If it is important enough for you to stop and talk to them about, then it establishes its importance and the value that it has for the organization. The things supervisors talk to their employees about become the performance priorities that guide their job behavior.

Employees judge whether you value them and their work by the active interest you show in the daily issues that influence their performance. They judge the importance of safety and safe behavior using the same standard. The best safety leaders talk to employees – and safety is the topic that opens the discussion.

Jerry Pounds is Senior Vice President – International at Quality Safety Edge, and publishes a blog on positive leadership.