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Commitment is the Keystone to Safety Leadership

Daniel J. Moran, Ph.D., BCBA-D, Senior Vice President, Quality Safety Edge

The 21st century has given us amazing technology and knowledge for increasing safety such as personal protective equipment and established management techniques. However, investments in flame resistant clothing, air-purifying respirators, and chemical resistant gloves are only useful if people make a commitment to wearing them. Similarly, technology can help you be a better leader with proven leadership practices but, again, they are only beneficial if you make a commitment to using them.

The key word is commitment. Commitment is a critical contributor to your ability to lead a workplace safety program, yet commitment itself is rarely addressed at a personal level. To make a personal commitment means “to act in the direction of what is most important to you even in the presence of obstacles.” Lots of people say that they are committed to safety outcomes, but the real question is “Will you continue to act safely and demonstrate safety leadership in the face of difficulties?” Sometimes leaders are faced with situational conflicts in the workplace that quickly sway behavior towards actions that go against the leader’s values. When leaders have clarified their own personal values and are aware of the situations that pull them in the wrong direction, they are better at keeping their commitments.

Leaders often struggle with following through on safety commitments because personal obstacles, such as distracting thoughts and unhelpful emotions, challenge their actions.  For instance, when a deadline is looming, it is not uncommon for a supervisor to have fleeting thoughts such as “We can cut corners on this one task to save time. Nothing bad will happen!” Whether or not the supervisor does the right thing depends, in large part, on whether his commitment to safety is stronger than his unsafe thought!

Similarly, a leader’s commitment can be tested by disruptive emotions, such as frustration, anger, or nervousness.  For example, when a safety officer on a manufacturing site observes a contractor not wearing the appropriate PPE he knows he should give that worker corrective feedback. But as he approaches, the safety officer notices that the contractor is 6’7” tall and has an intimidating look on his face. The safety officer might feel a great deal of anxiety as he considers talking to the contractor, and may actually yield to his own fear by turning around and walking away instead of having a conversation with the contractor. Again, whether or not the safety officer does the right thing depends on whether his commitment to safety is stronger than his level of anxiety.

In these examples, both the supervisor and the safety officer would say that they are committed to safety. In fact, most of the time their actions would demonstrate that commitment. However, when faced with personal obstacles such as time pressure or anxiety, they may act in a manner contrary to their stated commitment. 

During QSE’s Leadership Development workshops, we show you how to deal with unhelpful thoughts and emotions, strengthen your own resolve, and intensify your safety commitments. We also help you explore your own values and help you clarify how they contribute to acting safely. Our workshop guides you through a series of exercises designed to strengthen the three core components linked to following through on a commitment: performance design, values clarification, and situational awareness. Let’s take a look at each component.

A. Performance design helps you drill down to the critical objectives of your leadership actions. Being able to articulate the critical components to being more personally accountable for your safety targets helps you figure out what you should be doing on a regular basis. List three things you can do to have a significant impact on safety in your workplace. 

B. Values clarification you become more clear about your purpose and major motivations for dedicating your life to the pursuit of safety for others. When you learn why you are in pursuit of a goal, you can more clearly decide how to achieve that goal. Even further, when you have clarified what is vital and important to you as a leader (which we will call your “core values”), you are in a better position to channel your efforts toward those values, rather than get sidetracked by faulty thoughts and feelings. Consider the following exercise and write down your answer:  You can work in many different jobs, but you chose a job that requires you to pay attention to your safety and the safety of others. Why do you choose to act safely as part of your career? 

C. Situational awareness is the ability to maintain focus in a dynamic task environment. Leaders are familiar with how easy it is to lose focus when juggling many tasks at once. To make that problem even worse, research tells us that 47 percent of our thoughts are about something other than what we are doing! A central component to commitment training is increasing the skill of mindfulness. Everyone has a certain capacity for paying attention, but you can improve your abilities by learning how to be mindful of what you are doing. Take a moment right now to exercise your ability to pay attention with the following challenge: Pay attention to your breathing. Just notice how it feels to inhale and exhale. See if you can simply commit to noticing your breath. If your mind starts to wander or you start thinking about other things rather than your breathing, simply notice that happened, and recommit to following your breath. It might help to close your eyes and just notice yourself inhaling and exhaling ten times. Go ahead and try it!

Welcome back. Many folks find that kind of exercise relaxing, and other people say that it is actually very difficult. The purpose was to exercise a particular skill: being situationally aware. If you practice that exercise on a regular basis, you will improve your ability to be aware of your current situation. This will help reduce your distractions and will therefore improve your ability to follow through on your commitments.

To pull this all together, think about what you wrote down in order to design your own performance to improve safety. When you have obstacles to executing those actions, consider putting the other two exercises to work.

  1. Are your obstacles taking you away from what is important to you ... from doing the things that are vital to how you would want to live your life? Use your values to motivate your behavior in the right direction.
  2. Are your obstacles distractions, such as emotions or thoughts? Can you commit to doing the safe actions even in the presence of those emotions and thoughts, the same way simply notice your thoughts when you are doing the breathing exercise?

Increasing commitment through the improvement of performance design, values-clarification, and situational awareness has resulted in remarkable increases in job competence1 while also reducing work errors2. These commitment building principles have also been shown to increase a leader’s impact on productivity3.

QSE’s Leadership Development workshop has integrated these proven techniques and principles4 into an experiential workshop that improves safety leadership through stronger committed actions. This experiential workshop has changed leadership skills in many industrial sectors such as oil & gas, manufacturing, paper and pulp, construction, and sales (both domestically and internationally). Accelerating committed actions toward safety while reducing the personal obstacles to safety leadership is vital to any leadership initiative.

Read more about Commitment Based Leadership in the article Learn, Grow, Lead

References

  1. Bond, F.W. & Flaxman, P.E. (2006).  The ability of psychological flexibility and job control to predict learning, job performance, and mental health.  Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 26 (1), 113-130.
  2. Bond, F.W. & Bunce, D. (2003).  The role of acceptance and job control in mental health, job satisfaction, and work performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88 (6), 1057-1067.
  3. Bond. F.W. (2011). Using ACT to promote highly effective workers and workplaces.  Symposium at the Association for Contextual Behavioral Sciences convention in Parma, Italy.
  4. Moran, D. J. (2010).  ACT for leadership: Using acceptance and commitment training to develop crisis-resilient change managers. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, 6 (4), 341-355.