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Leadership Practices Critical to Behavior-Based Safety

by Terry E McSween

Everyone agrees that leadership support is critical to the success of BBS or any other organizational initiative. In my experience, the two most important things that leaders can do to support BBS are (1) create alignment and integration with other management systems, and (2) reviewing the BBS process. When I have seen BBS initiatives fail, it is almost always a failure in one of these two areas. In this article, I will discuss each of these issues in greater detail.

Create Alignment

Leaders need to create two types of alignment: alignment of personal behaviors and alignment of systems and processes. The first of these is making sure that, as a leader, your personal behavior demonstrates that you value safety, that you “show the way” in what you do. Alignment means that the behaviors and actions of leaders within the organization are consistent and demonstrate the importance of safety in the organization. Actions demonstrate that safety is “on the radar screen” for you and other leaders. Alignment is as much about your actions and decisions as it is about what you say. This includes things like wearing appropriate PPE when you visit a field location or go out into your facility, not talking on a cell phone while driving, or even going to the cross walk at an intersection to cross a busy street.

Alignment and integration of management systems is often the more significant issue, and the area where many organizations are weak. A lack of integration or alignment with management systems often creates conflicting demands within the organization. The result is that employees get pulled in different directions. A common example is employees who want to conduct safety observations but cannot leave their workstation. In essence, the existing system creates barriers to participation that leadership must often help remove for BBS efforts to be successful. Another example is the difficulty pulling the safety committee together for regular monthly meetings to review the observation data and develop action plans. While such meetings are chaired or co-chaired by an employee, management often has to take the initiative to address logistical issues and ensure that employees can meet together.

The formal systems within an organization often direct reinforcement within the organization. Performance appraisals, compensation, promotion decisions, and even job assignments can either support participation in safety observations or they can support activities or approaches that conflict with safety. These formal systems also often affect the informal systems, particularly through their impact on supervisors and managers. For example, if the appraisal process emphasizes the importance of production over safety, then managers and supervisors are likely to act accordingly and attend more to production issues, leaving BBS to the employees on the Safety Committee, with little ongoing attention and support.

We often talk about alignment as removing barriers to participation, but it may be more accurate to talk about ensuring that the formal and informal contingencies within the organization support employees conducting observations and other elements of the process. When people say, “We have a mandatory process, because in our culture, no one would volunteer to participate in a voluntary process,” what they mean is they have not provided enough reinforcement to sustain observations, and they do not want to bother taking on this task which obviously requires a significant, ongoing effort. Employees will participate if they have a good reason. We have two options for providing the motivation: negative reinforcement (the threat of punishment if you don’t meet your quota of observations) or positive reinforcement (something good will happen if you do).

One company incorporated BBS participation into their appraisal process in an interesting way. If you wanted to be rated as “average” on participation in safety initiatives, then you did not have to participate in BBS observations. However, if you wanted to be rated “above average” then you had to get actively involved and average two observations per month, and if you wanted to be rated “exemplary” then you had to average four observations per month.

Because the participation of leaders is so important, we recommend observations be a job expectation for managers and supervisors (the formal leaders) and employees on the safety committee (the informal leaders), but remain voluntary for other employees. 

Review the Process

Your goal is for BBS to part of the way you do business. During the implementation and once the process is up and functioning, the leader’s most important role is to monitor the process. A variety of mechanisms, both formal and informal, should be used to monitor the process both during implementation and in maintaining the process. Formal monitoring may include regular updates during staff meetings, focus groups, and surveys. Informal monitoring might include conversations with participants during the course of normal activities and asking employees, particularly Safety Committee members, how the new process is working.

Monitoring the process is probably the most important practice in sustaining BBS. Too often, once a new safety process has demonstrated a reduction in injuries, leaders in the organization turns their attention elsewhere. Monitoring helps sustain the BBS initiative. If the process fails to sustain, your organization may experience several potential negative side effects:

  • Loss of confidence about the organization’s commitment to safety
  • A feeling of a “flavor-of-the-month” regarding safety programs
  • Resistance to change — employees learn that the initiative will go away if they hold out long enough

Effective leaders will have an accurate understanding of how well their BBS process is functioning. That understanding will come about through their formal updates during regular staff meetings and informal conversations that take place in the hallways and workplace safety committee members, key leaders, and employees.

In short, effective leaders pay close attention to the BBS process in their organization! Through dialogue and converstations with employees, they seek to understand how the process is working and what they can do to help create a safety workplace.