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Does Promoting a Safe Employee Equal Safety Leadership Success?

June 22, 2016

iStock_23071694_MEDIUM.jpgImagine you have an employee who follows all the rules, is highly detail-oriented, and overall is very
safety-oriented.  This employee has been with the company for 5 years now and has proven to be very effective in his current role and has demonstrated his ability to work safely in many situations.

This employee sounds like the perfect person for promotion into a leadership position, right?  In particular, given his high level of engagement in safety activities, he may be good to guide others to be more safety-oriented.  Well, not so fast…Oftentimes these star employees will be promoted to leadership positions based on their current performance and, once in the role, will not be successful.  In other words, these leaders derail.

What is Leader Derailment?

Leader derailment occurs when leaders fail to reach their expected level of achievement.  Essentially, leader derailment involves leaders not reaching their full potential as determined by their previous excellent work history.  While leader derailment is pretty complex, one of the major reasons for its occurrence is that skills and competencies needed across positions and leadership levels may differ. 

As in the example above, one of the employee’s strengths—executing work in a safe manner—was essential to performance as an individual contributor.  However, in a leadership position, execution may take a back seat while strategic thinking and motivating others to work safely may come to the forefront.  However, since these competencies were not essential for the previous role, there was no way of knowing whether the employee would excel or fail at these competencies by only looking at his/her performance review.  Therefore, these possible weaknesses were hidden in the previous role.

This can be a big deal as we know around 50% of all leaders fail.  Leader derailment can have a huge impact on the organization.  Not only is it a big financial burden when taking into account the costs of selection, recruitment, on-boarding, and training, but it can also disrupt employee morale, the safety culture, and public perceptions of the organization. 

In particular, leader derailment and the relationships these leaders have with their subordinates may trickle down to influence the subordinate’s safety behavior.  If the leader is not:

  • Acting as a safety role model
  • Holding employees accountable for safety
  • Inspiring them to fulfill the strategic vision of a safety culture

Employees may be more motivated to cut corners in an effort to be more efficient.  This can lead to more incidents and significant costs to the organization.

What Can You Do?

The probability of leader derailment can be reduced through two distinct yet related processes: selection and development. 

First, good selection systems can focus on the competencies that are necessary to be successful in leadership roles.  They take into account what’s needed to be successful in the leadership role for which someone is being considered as a potential for promotion, as opposed to what’s important in their current role. 

Intrapersonal qualities, such as self-awareness and integrity, are particularly important because insight into their own errors can prevent overconfidence, a common problem of derailed leaders.  Social skills and empathy are necessary for building trust and relationships with colleagues and key stakeholders.  The ability to navigate and understand the business realm is critical for running safe and successful operations. 

All of these skills, among others, relate to the importance of leadership skills: the ability to effectively staff, direct, and motivate others to perform in a safe manner.  Derailed leaders often:

  • Lack self-awareness
  • Have difficulty working and communicating with others,
  • Are unable to think strategically or deal with ambiguous situations,
  • Struggle to build a strong safety culture. 

Strong selection systems that focus on these core intrapersonal, interpersonal, business, and leadership skills are better able to identify those least likely to derail once in a position of leadership.

Another way to prevent leader derailment is through development.  By taking a leadership assessment and creating a developmental action plan using the assessment data, efforts can be focused on identifying, understanding, and combating derailing tendencies.  Becoming more aware of one’s strengths and areas for development is the first step in ensuring progress and success in one’s role.  Based on the results, goals can be set to target developmental opportunities to better prepare for the road ahead. 

While leader derailment cannot entirely be prevented, the likelihood can be reduced significantly by taking these simple steps.

improving safety


Alissa Parr, Ph.D. Alissa Parr, Ph.D. is a Senior Consultant at PSI. Her areas of expertise include the development, implementation, and evaluation of assessment processes. Alissa has experience managing entry-level through executive level assessment and selection efforts across a number of different industries including government, financial, military, education, healthcare, and manufacturing.