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Safety Leadership — Showing an Interest

Terry McSween, Ph.D.

For the past couple of years I have talked about the importance on monitoring as one of the critical practices for leaders. However, the term “monitoring” has always created some discomfort for me as it has some baggage associated with it, bringing images of “bird dogging” or the video cameras that creates so much stress at some of the U. S. Post Office facilities. While monitoring is the terminology used throughout much of the leadership literature, I have never been comfortable with it.

Over the past couple of months I have begun to talk about “Showing an Interest” as a replacement for monitoring. I tried various others using terms such as “Pay Attention” or assessment, but “Showing an Interest” seems to fit best thus far and I have recently added it to our model of leadership. The response of customers thus far has been positive.

We use a simple diagram to clarify our expectations regarding what leaders should attend to:

The implication is that effective leaders pay attention to each of these areas. To improve their effectiveness, leaders should spend more time paying attention to each of these as they relate to the improvements the leader is targeting. Even though we are promoting proactive measures of safety, leaders should know the safety results, or outcome measures, for their area of responsibility. That is, they should regularly review safety performance data from their areas and know where employees are most likely to be injured and what tasks are most likely to create injury. This information tells effective leaders where in their facilities they should spend their time.

Beyond knowing the results for their areas, leaders should conduct behavioral observations that have a balanced focus on process and behavior. The behavioral component is simply conducting behavioral safety observations using their checklist as most employees in their organizations have been trained to do. Beyond that, however, leaders need to visit with employees and discuss process safety related issues. The idea is to add a bit more discussion regarding process to the debrief conducted after the observation. Or, in some cases, it may involve having a dialogue with others not involved in the formal observation. In a chemical plant, for example, a leader might conduct a behavioral observation of a maintenance crew pulling a pump out of service. Then after the feedback discussion, swing by the control room and visit with the operators. The discussion might include such things as what instruments are not functioning properly, frustrations with maintenance or engineering support, alarms that have gone off during the shift, documentation of events in the log book, communication at shift change, etc. Such discussions add value to the typical behavioral observations by balancing the focus on “hard hat” safety with process safety. Issues that surface during such discussions are recorded in either the comment section or in a special process safety section of the of the observation form. The goal, obviously, is to prevent both employee injuries and catastrophic process failures.

To help clarify the expectations around leadership observations, I recently created an acronym that I hope will prove useful:

“Leaders show an interest by making a DATE!”

This captures important aspects of showing an interest. First, the term itself suggest that we want them to schedule time, actually write on their calendar when they are going to conduct an observation each week. Second, the acronym:

D – create a DIALOGUE

A – ASK good questions

T – schedule a TIME

E – offer Encouragement

The D stands for dialogue. One of the critical elements of the observation is that it should result in a two-way discussion with the implication that the leader is listening to what the employee has to say.

The A stand for asking good questions that prompt employees to talk about their performance and process issues that may be important to safety.

The T stand for scheduling a time and having the discipline to follow through on a weekly basis – rescheduling for another time if something else imposes on your intial plan.

The E stands for encouragement. The discussions should be a positive experience in which you are encouraging employees to work safely, rather than discouraging or criticizing areas of concern. The idea is to foster healthy relationships that will ensure that the lines of communication are open so that employees are comfortable talking with you about safety issues or concerns.

Certainly, as Jerry Pounds points out in many of his writings, leadership is not so simple. It often involves a complex set of social skills, such as those described so succinctly in Marshall Goldsmith’s book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Current leadership practices can be effective or ineffective depending on the history a leader has with the employee in question. In other words, today’s relationship is a function of yesterday’s interactions, so sometimes the best you can do is go forward doing the work of building a more positive working relationship that will provide a springboard for effective leadership.

Terry McSween is President of Quality Safety Edge. A version of this talk was presented at the OBM Network’s Behavioral Leadership Conference 2009.