Making safety a priority: the role of leaders
People are not stupid. Everyone knows it but in management it’s easy to lose sight of the fact and to act, even inadvertently, as though they are.
In another post on safety culture we looked at the importance of talking to people in terms they understand and that resonate with them, cutting through jargon. That’s important, but even more so is showing them by your actions that you mean what you say. Especially if you are one of those setting the direction of an organisation.
Safety is everyone’s responsibility
The progressive “death of deference” triggered by social changes in the second half of the 20th century put paid to people’s tolerance for the idea that those above them in a hierarchy were genuinely a different order. The social stratification that was summed up in phrases such as “knowing your place” and the warning not to get “ideas above your station”, dissolved. Futurist Peter Cochrane once described the class system that replaced it as a simple division between those who spend money to save time and those who spend time to save money. The reality may be a little more complicated, but the important distinctions are certainly economic.
That’s true of business too. Anyone working at an operational level knows that a manager is paid more than them and that an executive is paid a lot more. But, they don’t inhabit separate universes; the days of the executive washroom – and in many businesses, the corner office - are past.
Those at the top of businesses don’t operate according to a completely different set of rules. That means that in building or maintaining a strong safety culture, senior staff have to be seen to be modelling the behaviour they ask of everyone else
The trope of senior managers failing to wear safety helmets on visits to construction sites is a well-worn one – old hat, you could say, but the point it encapsulates is an important one. If managers don’t wear PPE, or stay on pedestrian routes in depots, everyone who is there to see will take their cues from that, whatever they have been told. “Do as I say, not as I do,” is a direction that doesn’t even work with children, with adults it’s disrespectful and it’s treating them as if they were … stupid.
Similarly, there is no value in starting meetings with a mandatory “safety moment” if it’s clearly treated as a distraction, something to be got out of the way before the important stuff. It’s easy for these things to slip over time and become stale but it’s the safety practitioner’s job to find new ways to make them fresh and relevant.
The impact of safety from top to bottom
Keeping leaders committed to their roles in building safety culture, in walking the walk – sometimes literally, in turning up for site safety tours and having proper conversations with local staff about their work and the risks involved – is a sales job. It involves selling them on the idea that safety is not a priority, subject to shifting levels of attention, but a value, something fundamental to the way any business they would want to manage should work.
Of course, the best way to get that message through the C-suite and department heads is by convincing their boss, since that’s who they take their biggest cue from. That may be a tough ask for a safety professional but this is why the safety and health membership bodies put so much weight on the need to develop influencing skills as well as keeping on top of the technical parts of the job. But it’s a tougher ask trying to develop and maintain a strong safety culture without tone at the top.
Inspire a culture of safety
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