What is safety leadership?
Definition: Safety leadership is the capacity to mobilize people around safety challenges, and influence behavior so that it becomes safer.
Manager vs. leader: a managerial transformation
Historically, the manager’s job consisted of planning, executing, checking and reacting, the famous PDCA – Plan, Do, Check, Act – cycle taught by management schools. But, more recently, companies have undergone a managerial transformation: the role of the manager now goes much further, this person has become a facilitator, a ‘coach’.
Companies therefore expect their manager-leaders to be able to, among other things, listen, be kind, make trade-offs, and embody the company’s values.
Safety leadership and leadership, the same battle?
Yes! Safety leadership is no more than another component of leadership in general. Companies, in the context of their recent managerial transformation, have established a sort of ‘leader’s charter’, a ‘manifesto’ that stipulates what they expect from their manager-leaders, what they should embody.
And the skills that are expected of these leaders go far beyond the safety domain – the ‘safety first’ era is over. Companies are well-aware that safety is only one of the many other challenges that they have to manage. As René Amalberti, Director of Foncsi, points out, “People can die from many other things that have nothing to do with an occupational accident. You can die because you no longer have any customers, because product quality has deteriorated, because you didn’t invest in research, because you have debts...”
But, like focusing on the fundamentals of an organization, safety is an excellent entry point for developing leadership. Because safety is one of the company’s challenges that is most likely to bring people together and get them to take action.
Managerial leadership and the involvement of everyone, the keys to a successful safety culture
There are 4 main types of safety culture. The holy grail is the so-called ‘integrated’ culture—the aim is to achieve a high level of safety, by bringing everyone, at all levels of the organization, onboard. It requires:
- A commitment from senior management, which is demonstrated not only by their words, but also their decisions, their managerial style, and spending time in the field,
- Strong managerial leadership, where each manager underlines the importance of the company’s safety policy to his or her team, and reports any problems with its implementation, hazardous situations and suggestions for improvement to the next level in the hierarchy,
- The involvement of employees, demonstrated by a high level of professionalism in their day-to-day work: compliance with applicable rules, raising the alert about rules that are not applicable, asking questions, shared vigilance, etc.
The managerial safety culture also requires a high level of commitment from managers... but, in this case, it is different. It corresponds to a more ‘old-fashioned’ model, advocating prescriptive rather than participative measures, and not really encouraging dialogue or co-construction.
Nothing influences employees’ behavior more than their managers own behavior. As Andrew Hopkins, sociologist and emeritus professor at the Australian National University notes, “If they are constantly asking about production, or performance, then they are indicating that these factors take precedence over safety. If they are concerned about safety, recording problems, and monitoring and measuring safety will send a clear signal about its importance”.
Moreover, the position of managers in the organization means that they have the greatest leverage to act on the various dimensions of human and organizational factors: workplace situations, groups, organizational processes, etc., and, consequently, to promote safer behaviors.
3 ways to improve your safety leadership
Your day-to-day actions:
- How do you see safety? How do you share your views?
- How do you behave when you spend time in the field? Do you lead by example?
- Is safety an objective consideration in your trade-offs and decisions?
The type of dialogue you create:
- Do you listen to feedback, questions, doubts?
- Do you spend time in the field to experience what really happens?
- How do you react to a safety deviation? Do you acknowledge good practice when you see it?
The technical or organizational resources that you dedicate to safety:
- Do you provide the necessary materials or resources?
- Are the rules clear, appropriate for the situation on the ground, and not too numerous?
There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it