Nowadays, a key shift in focus came when we discovered the relationships between safety performance, leadership, culture, and organizational performance generally. Organizations have saved millions of dollars by improving safety performance alone. Trust increases, engagement is more consistent, and leadership improves. Safety excellence is that safety performance leads business performance.
SAFETY BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER
When we talk about safety, we are talking safety in every sense, including personal safety, process safety, product safety, patient safety, and health. Safety represents a basic human need. Nobody is against safety, and everyone has a stake.
In the early days of behavior-based safety, clients used to ask us whether union organizations had different outcomes compared to non-union organizations. The prevailing belief at the time was that adversarial relationships between managers and workers in unionized companies would dampen the benefits of a safety initiative that depended on employee engagement. Yet in a study comparing the improvement in safety performance between 77 union and 75 non-unions sites, the results showed no difference. To be sure, we certainly did observe strained relationships between managers and workers in some of these organizations, but safety was important enough that they found ways to work together.
Indeed, safety brings people together across all levels and functions to contribute to a common goal. Each person in an organization is responsible for safety, and every individual is uniquely positioned to identify, create and mitigate exposure for himself and others. When people start looking out for one another’s safety, it brings them together in other ways. They start talking to each other, communicating more, and identifying and resolving problems together. Dealing with common safety issues provides opportunities to interact, influence and participate that might not otherwise occur within an organization.
SAFETY CULTIVATES LEADERSHIP
When workers and first-level supervisors get involved in safety, they often find themselves in positions where they need to influence without authority. We find that they learn to build support through social and interpersonal means instead of relying sorely on political or positional authority. Social influence is a powerful skill to have, and safety provides the means and opportunities to develop this aspect of leadership.
We have worked with corporate HR departments to compare, contrast, and align their general leadership competencies with the safety leadership best practices and behaviors introduced through our work together. In every case, there has been near-perfect alignment between what they wanted generally in leadership and what we were asking for specifically in safety leadership. Where there were differences in leadership goals, we found organizations that combine managerial and technical competencies (which are more about interpersonal influence). Yet even in these cases, the safety provided ideal opportunities to cultivate and practice the desired leadership skills.
SAFETY LEADERSHIP IMPROVES ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE, AND CULTURE ELEVATES PERFORMANCE
Safety engagement improves performance through two distinct mechanisms. One mechanism is direct: More effective efforts to identify and manage exposure lead to fewer incidents and injuries. The other mechanism is indirect: Stronger engagement and more visible leadership create a stronger organizational culture, which in turn leads to improves efficiency and effectiveness overall. The importance of this second pathway cannot be overstated: More effective leadership and stronger culture connect excellent in safety to excellent performance generally.
Decades of research published in peer-reviewed journals have demonstrated that the same cultural attributes that correlate with safety performance also correlate with business performance. Two such attributed have been discussed widely in this research literature: one is referred to in the studies as Perceived Organizational Support (POS) and the other as Leader-Member Exchange (LMX). POS predicts employee performance and organizational communication, organizational citizenship behavior, organizational commitment, turnover intention, job satisfaction, pay satisfaction and strain. LMX also relates to several indicators of business performance including team performance, task performance, teacher effectiveness and teacher performance, and supervisor rating, objective job performance, and errors. When POS and LMX improve for safety, they improve throughout the organization. Relationships like these have been demonstrated for a dozen cultural attributes.
LEAD WITH SAFETY
Nobody understands and champions these relationships between safety and organizational culture better than the former Secretary of the US Treasury, the honorable Paul O’Neil. The first author was privileged to meet O’Neil when he was President at International Paper Company, and continued to consult with him after he became CEO and Chairman of Alcoa in 1987. O’Neil served as CEO until 1999, and retired as chairman at the end of 2000. His tenure at Alcoa was a major success. In 1987, Alcoa’s lost-time incident frequency rate was 1.86. In 2002, it was 0.12. Meanwhile, Alcoa’s market value increased from $3 billion to $27.53 billion.
Safety played a central role in O’Neil’s business strategy. In his very first address to Alcoa shareholders, he emphatically committed to safety as the first order of good business. Two decades of results bore him out, and in a 2009 address to healthcare CEOs, O’Neil discussed his strategy and his view of the irreducible components of leadership. He said, “First of all, I think it’s necessary for a real leader to articulate what I call unarguable goals and aspirations for the institution that they lead.” For O’Neil, zero injuries are one of those unarguable goals. “In a really great organization”, he said, “the people in it are never injured at work.” Who can argue with that?
Notice that O’Neil, a former Secretary of the Treasury, didn’t lead with finance. He didn’t set the goal of increasing market value by 900% over the next 14 years, although that is exactly what he did. As he told the healthcare CEOs, “In a truly great organization, finance is not an objective, it is a consequence. It is a consequence of being greater at what you do than anyone else.” O’Neil knew that if he could get the safety part right, he could use that to build performance excellence across the organization. As Alcoa became a world leader in safety, they were increasing their capacity for growth and prosperity.
In sum, the relationships between safety, engagement, leadership, culture and performance make safety an ideal catalyst for improving every area of business. When safety improves significantly as the result of getting employees engaged, that not only makes the numbers better, but it also strengthens culture. And a strong culture makes it possible to achieve performance excellence in all area of business.
If you are a leader and you have the insight about this matter, it will transform your relationship to safety. You will start to see opportunities to improve rather than problems to address. Your role as a decision-making leader will change. Your thinking will change, and the decision you make with change. You will be willing to give time and energy and attention to safety. Not because someone told you to, not because it is a big thing in your company and you will be rewarded for it, but because it is something you think is important. You recognize that you do this. And that is pivotal.
– 7 Insights into Safety Leadership by Thomas R.Krause and Kristen J.Bell –
SEN provides a range of services designed to help those in leadership roles to become effective safety leaders. SEN works collaboratively with clients, building an emotional and personal commitment to leading positive change in safety culture.