Leading to Safety: How to Become a Strong Safety Leader

By Jerry Pounds

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

Leadership gurus have made a fortune defining what leadership is because most men and women aspire to be identified as representative of the elevated stature associated with being a “leader.” Leaders have followers: leaders are purportedly charismatic and transformational. Managers have subordinates: managers are transactional and influence through the authority provided them.

One recognizes that a transformational leader may also function as a manager, but average managers cannot hope to attend a “leadership” course and learn how to be charismatic–how to inspire others to “follow” them. I hate to be cynical about something that on the surface appears to be a noble objective, but it is difficult to overlook the facts: Over the last 30 years the role of manager has been defined and redefined by authors, consultants, and academics as facilitators, coaches, mentors, team leaders, servants, and now leaders. The emphasis on leadership is likely to change its theme at any time.

I have been a behavior-change consultant for more than 35 years, and during that time I have seen many trends, fads, and fashions in the world of management training and development. The most interesting phenomenon is the corporate naiveté demonstrated by a willingness to buy every new leadership analysis, profile, style, inventory and assessment product that hits the market. The more expensive, complex, and inaccessible the product, the more likely senior executives are to pay for it.

A few such well-known products include Blake and Moutons “Managerial Grid,” the “Myers Briggs Type Indicator,” the “Keirsey Temperament Sorter,” and the “Hogan Personality Inventory.” Every leadership theory, business school, and consulting company has its own proprietary product that will place your personality snugly in its well-defined, assessment criteria. Fortune 100 companies, for example, spend hundreds of millions of dollars on personality inventories hoping to predict the leader/manager performance of their employees.

Most of us are not transformational, inspirational leaders; we are men and women who have authority thrust upon us by virtue of our performance, experience, and skill sets. So, to begin with the cold, hard truth, I don’t think any of us are going to become charismatic leaders no matter how hard we try.

I do think we can learn to change our own behavior and the behavior of others—in fact we do that all the time, but we don’t do it consciously and constructively. We are constantly inadvertently reinforcing (encouraging) behavior in others that we abhor and extinguishing behavior in others that we would like to see more frequently.

Because behavioral principles are rather boring (except for the principle of positive reinforcement that has been abused and hyperbolized until it is dismissed as complimenting people to try to get them to do things for us), people rush to the aforementioned materials and approaches (personality tests and temperament tests) or to the theories of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Abraham Maslow, none of which can be easily utilized in the office or on the shop floor.

In my many years of management consulting in the field of behavior and organizational change, I’ve made one or two simple observations that explain why Safety Leadership has become such a big, complex industry.

1. Contemporary senior leadership has no training or education in the basic principles of behavior change—how to arrange consequences to affect the frequency of specific, individual behaviors. They typically think that the phrase “positive reinforcement,” was invented by Human Resources as a euphemism for “being nice to people to encourage them to work harder.”

In business school, these leaders were taught some personality-driven, explanatory models for human behavior—old, outdated stuff by Maslow and Frederick Herzberg—that they quickly dismissed as effete, academic, and divorced from the realities of cost and profit. These cognitive models usually culminate into one takeaway: You can’t change people. Their personality is hardwired from genetics, early learning, and neurological predisposition. In fact, the dissonance and contention between schools of psychology in regard to the causes for human behavior encourages distrust in the very change models they promote.

Senior leaders don’t approach individual or organizational behavior change from a set of principles or a science; they use personal experience to guide them. Failing, making mistakes, appearing stupid, losing position to a peer competitor, not getting a promotion or raise, not being the smartest guy in the room—they work hard to avoid all the negatives. For many people, nobody (not even their parents) ever praised them or gave them positive feedback to encourage them in any specific way.

I’m not being cynical; I’m pointing out the philosophical and psychological realities of the business world which is that when someone has a “job,” you can use programs and incentives to get them to do more. However, when someone has a “career,” you don’t have to use incentives to get them to do this or that because they are self-driven; they will bust their butts to do as much as they can  within the limitations of natural talent and cerebral endowment.

So most senior leaders don’t really believe that someone’s behaviors can be changed using differential consequences: positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement. (Please don’t confuse negative reinforcement with punishment; there is a big difference.)

2. Most senior leaders don’t know how to make change initiatives work. Organizational change—evolving an organization’s effectiveness by capturing information from its market environment—is a poorly perfected art. It is certainly not a science, because organizational change initiatives are not implemented using scientific methodology: data-basing change, using empirical evidence in pre- and post-analyses to determine if training, development, education, processes, models or methods have really improved human performance.

Many leaders seem to think that supporting an initiative means writing a check to pay for the consultants.

Behavior-based safety (BBS) leadership means behaving in ways that demonstrate that the value of safety and the importance of a BBS initiative are primary to the business—for good business and because the health and well-being of the people who work for you are more important than getting something done unsafely to make more money.

It sounds simple, because it is! The difficulty is that it is hard for anyone to tell leaders what to do. Everyone in the organization knows that leaders communicate their values by what they talk about, listen to, laugh at, promote, bonus, demote, and fire. So if they do all those things in regard to safety and your BBS initiative then everybody knows that it matters and they get on board.

Leaders reinforce, encourage, strengthen, and cultivate the behavior and results that they attend to in a favorable way. They smile or ask questions, or tell stories, or make decisions that favor, or bring up the subject often in public and private. Of course they can more formally include some language about it in the mission statement or in the annual report or in the CEO’s newsletter, but those platforms are generally considered to be rhetorical incubators which are meaningless compared to the  leader’s actions.

So if you want to be a strong safety leader who creates a legacy around safety you have to demonstrate the same obsession around the topic that you have for productivity, quality, profits, (or golf), by doing the following:

  • You attend meetings (sometimes at early or late hours) of safety committees and training classes.
  • You make decisions that favor safe equipment, materials, engineering, and purchases.
  • You do a behavioral observation.
  • You look at the safety data, and you make sure that you keep your eye on the safety process.

One other point—you measure your own behavior, just as you do in the behavioral observations of employees at work. With your peers, sit down in a leadership meeting and come up with a list of things that you will do each week to support your company’s safety management system and its behavior-based safety initiative; actions that will ensure everyone knows that safety is a primary value. “I will attend a safety committee meeting at the plant next week.” “I will go out on the shop floor and talk to people about our BBS initiative and encourage them to share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas about it.”

Make a list; attach points to each item; weight them if you want to prioritize an item or two, and then agree to review your list and your score with your peers each month. Hold yourself and your peers accountable for doing the  behaviors that will communicate that safety is the most important responsibility of your job as a leader and that of your managers and that of your supervisors.

I know that it is more fun to take a personality inventory and review the findings. You want to know how you are diagnosed by one of these pseudo-clinical tests; much more fun than getting up at 4 a.m. to attend a BBS safety committee meeting. But, there is comfort in knowing what works and what doesn’t; more satisfaction in distinguishing what is real from what is theoretical. Stand up, show up, and speak up about safety. And by the way, cancel the charisma workshop.