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3 Ways Overseers Can Help or Hinder Your Safety Culture

May 25, 2016

safety-manager.jpgDo you consider yourself a ‘safety leader?’ If so, how would you describe your leadership style when it comes to safety? Take a minute to answer the following questions:

  1. Do you always trust everyone to do their job correctly once they’ve been trained?

  2. Does it seem like you’re always too busy ‘putting out fires’ to spend time coaching or talking with employees?

  3. Do you prefer to stay out of employees’ personal lives?

  4. Do you prefer to ‘go with the flow’ and be flexible instead of setting strict deadlines and goals?

  5. Do you hate micromanaging people?

  6. Do you believe in letting employees figure out how to do things on their own?

If you answered “Yes” to most of these, your safety leader style may be what we refer to as the “Overseer” style. Overseers tend to lead from a distance, trusting their people to do good work while they focus on other critical tasks or issues. Overseers excel at providing autonomy and trust to their team members, and try to be there when needed for support. In other words – they don’t micromanage their people! They also tend to be a little less personal with people and believe in setting some boundaries between work and personal lives.

Using our validated safety leader tests, we assess thousands of leaders each year, and our data shows that this is one of the most common leadership styles across industries, and even across levels of leadership (from first line supervisors up to executives). There are many potential factors that can influence this, but I believe that one of these factors is that in America, people highly value their autonomy.

One of the most common job satisfaction factors that causes people to leave a job is “being micromanaged.” We all like to be able to have discretion in how we do work and in our decision making. When we have a boss who tells us exactly what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, it’s just de-motivating. Research has shown that to be true time and time again for years. So, it’s no surprise that many employees tend to prefer an Overseer type of boss, who gives them great freedom to do things however they see fit. And, if you answered “Yes” to most of the questions above, you likely believe that this is a very effective and motivating leadership style.

So is an Overseer style effective for leading safety? Well, it’s not that simple. There are many types of leadership styles, and each influences safety in unique ways. Each style will also have its associated strengths that can enhance safety, as well as certain “blind spots” which can negatively impact safety.

Learn more about the safety blind spots that can lead to injuries by downloading our whitepaper.

Overseers can enhance the safety culture in the following ways:

  1. Trust. Trust is essential for a strong safety culture, and Overseers naturally trust people. By trusting their employees to work safely, they build a culture of trust which spills over into the general safety culture.

  2. Autonomy and Flexibility. Employees on the floor often tend to know the environment and the tasks better than anyone. They are in a great position to find hazards and identify safer ways of doing something. But if they are not given autonomy or flexibility to suggest these, the ideas will eventually stop coming altogether.

  3. Avoid negative reinforcement. Due to their flexibility and disposition, most Overseers tend to avoid fear or punishment as a means to reinforce safe behavior. While there should be accountability and consequences for clear, willful violations, negative reinforcement will usually only get you to a culture of compliance, rather than engagement.

However, Overseers can also increase exposure to risk in the following ways:

  1. Trusting employees to a fault. Trust is important, but Overseers can often trust too much. When there are complex processes, new employees, or rapidly changing conditions, it is important to be present, visible, and checking in on things. Overseers can often allow exposure levels to increase by making assumptions about people’s skills, knowledge or behavior, and be too detached to notice leading indicators of risk as they occur.

  2. Unclear expectations. Being adaptable and flexible is important, but in safety-critical situations, it is imperative to make sure that employees understand instructions and policies clearly and correctly. Often, Overseers will have team members who have unclear expectations about what constitutes “safe behavior” or what the top safety priorities are, and if they don’t speak up (as often is the case), this can lead to dangerous situations.

  3. Difficulty engaging others. What we often forget is that safety has to be personal in order to be meaningful. The Overseer style tends to be more reserved, detached or at times aloof, which can make it difficult to get to know people and engage them on a personal level. This makes it harder for team members to speak up in toolbox or pre-shift meetings, share honest concerns about safety, or go the extra mile for the leader on safety responsibilities.

As with any personality style or leadership approach, there are always potential strengths and blind spots we must be aware of. The best approach will often vary depending on the team members and the situation. What is important to realize is that we all have a predominant, or preferred, leadership style that we tend to “default to,” and our style can have a huge impact on our team members and the safety culture of our workplace. For those of us that tend to lean on the Overseer style, knowing how to leverage our strengths and how to compensate for our blind spots through simple habits and behaviors can make a very meaningful impact on employee safety.

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Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Safety Solutions at PSI. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.