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What Can the Cleveland Browns' Failures Teach You about Safety Leadership?

October 19, 2016

football-fail.jpgPlaying quarterback for the Cleveland Browns is a dangerous occupation. I fear for their personal safety, and I don’t think Browns leadership is providing a safe environment at all for the most important position on the field.

This recent blog presented some interesting data showing that they also allow more sacks per game (over 2.5 per game, on average) and had allowed the fifth most sacks of any team in the league, as of Week 6 of this season. While a few other teams this season have allowed more sacks on their quarterback, interestingly, those quarterbacks seem to stay healthy, whereas Browns quarterbacks have been injured much more frequently. On average, they are injured or are leaving the field once every 9 hits this season. And this trend spans well beyond this season. In fact, the Browns have the unfortunate distinction of being the only NFL team (by far) to have four straight seasons where they start three or more quarterbacks in a season.

Their overall futility spans most of the past 30 years, as the team has not won a playoff game in 22 years and has had only 2 seasons above .500 since they rejoined the NFL back in 1999. So it should not come as a big surprise that their quarterbacks routinely spend time running for their lives, getting hit and taking sacks.

So how has this once proud (remember Paul Brown, Otto Graham, and Jim Brown?) franchise ended up in this perpetual state of failure, making the quarterback position so perilous right now? There are many opinions and theories, but here are the main ones that come to my mind. And as we go through each one, I cannot help but see parallels to workplace safety leader pitfalls which lead organizations to harm their people and put them at unnecessary risk on the job.

Root Causes For Browns Failures

Safety Leadership Parallel

Revolving door of head coaches and quarterbacks. The Browns have started 26 different quarterbacks since 1999. No other team has had that many starters in so little time. When you have that much turnover in such a critical position, it’s nearly impossible to have any kind of sustained success, especially in today’s passing-driven league. The inability to have a consistent and stable starting quarterback has clearly had a negative impact on the team’s performance.

Flavor-of-the-month safety initiatives. Too often, companies try a new safety program for a while, fail to see results, and then ditch it. This pattern is repeated over and over again with little success, and injury rates rise again or stay the same. Leaders often lose patience too quickly and don’t stick with a process long enough, or give it the proper effort, for it to be successful. It does not take employees long to realize this, and they soon lose interest and motivation to buy into the next flavor that comes along.

Poor draft choices. Have all their draft choices been poor? No, they’ve certainly drafted some nice players like Joe Haden, Alex Mack, and Joe Thomas, for example. But boy, have they drafted some busts, especially at the QB position – party boy Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden, and Brady Quinn were all first-round draft picks who flamed out very quickly at the position.

And most recently, this season they came under some scrutiny for not drafting Carson Wentz, who is flourishing as the new quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Hiring unsafe employees. Hiring new employees is like the draft – you get to pick amongst different candidates and use data to make your decision on who to pick. Bringing the wrong person into your company can have huge ramifications for safety.

Research shows that 20% of employees account for nearly 80% of all injuries and safety incidents. When companies do not pre-screen, test, or interview for safety in the hiring process, they open themselves up to great safety risks. Pre-employment tests can now accurately and legally predict if a candidate is likely to take unnecessary risks, violate safety policies, and be injured on the job. If you could know this ahead of time, why would you not use this information before you let someone into your safe working environment?

Hyper-reactive ownership. In addition to burning through quarterbacks, Cleveland has also had a long series of coaches over time. Last year, their coach Mike Pettine became the third coach to be fired in the past four years. They have had 18 head coaches since 1969. By comparison, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had a total of 3 in that same timeframe.

Yet every pre-season, ownership and senior leadership talk about how winning is a top priority, how they feel great about the changes they have made, and how they will lead to success on the field. The head coaching job in Cleveland has to be the hottest seat in all of professional football. Good luck staying in it for more than a year or two. It’s too bad, because this points to very short-sighted and reactive thinking rather than a long-term vision and strategy for success.

Reactive, rather than proactive, safety leadership. We hear it all the time – supervisors and managers being unable to really be proactive about safety because they are too busy “putting out fires.” Or complaints from employees about “knee-jerk” reactions where companies put in major safety policies because one person made a stupid decision.

Many times, these decisions are not thought out well, and senior leaders do not seek input from the people out on the floor, who best know the hazards and risks. These quick, impulsive changes and changes in direction have negative effects on safety perceptions of employees, and they can erode people’s trust in leadership. Employees want to feel secure, knowing that senior leadership has their best interests in mind, and when leaders always change directions without telling people why, it’s hard to take leadership seriously.

Prolonged culture of losing. An entire generation of fans has lived without seeing post-season success by the Browns. Regardless of who they hire to play or to coach, it seems like they just cannot figure out how to win, or how to perform like winners. Years of sustained losing has an impact on a team’s psyche, and eventually a culture of losing is perpetuated.

Low expectations then become the norm, and it can be an ongoing cycle of expecting failure. How does a team like the Browns create a real “winning culture”? I think it goes beyond just the players or the offensive and defensive schemes. This prolonged culture of losing will eventually permeate everything the team does on the field and in the locker room, and until it’s truly changed and the team learns what it means to be a winner, it will be very difficult to have a winning season, let alone win a championship.

Not addressing the safety culture. When injuries occur at an organization, the common reaction is to focus on the outer symptoms rather than the underlying problem, which is the safety culture (or lack thereof). We often see companies respond to serious injuries by simply writing more safety policies or putting in more engineering controls to prevent people from hurting themselves.

However, this does not address one of the major root causes – a safety culture where unnecessary risks are the norm, where you don’t “really have to” wear PPE unless the supervisor is watching, or where we say Safety is the top priority, but everybody knows that Production is king. Every company has a safety culture – whether it’s good, average, or bad. And that culture will drive behaviors every day no matter how good your policies are or how high-tech your PPE is.

So, we can learn a lot about safety leadership from pro football, and especially about what NOT to do when building a safety culture. When safety leaders show patience and consistency, hire low-risk employees, and proactively focus on improving the safety culture, they can create and sustain an injury-free workplace.

By avoiding many of the leadership miscues that Browns leadership has committed over the years, we can all gain some simple yet powerful lessons on how to keep our employees off the injured reserve list, and on the field winning games. The only difference is, in this case, the players are our employees and the game is actually their lives, where every day is a must-win game.

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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.