Which of the following management activities best describes “management commitment to safety” to you? (Note: by ‘management’ I primarily mean Supervisors)
Participating actively in safety meetings and safety training events
Investing time and resources on effective safety improvements
Talking frequently about safety with employees
Role modeling safe behavior at all times
Whatever the company defines as “commitment to safety”
If you were waiting for the predictable “All of the above” option, sorry. If that had been a response option, it would have been a good answer, and correct, by most standards. All of the behaviors listed above are good ways for a supervisor, or any leader, to show that they are committed to safety. However, the behaviors listed above fail to account for an important factor – what does management think they are supposed to do in order to show they are committed to safety? This is largely determined by the objectives and expectations communicated to them by their bosses - senior and executive leadership in the company. It’s quite simple – how can we expect our supervisors to show they are committed to safety if we don’t clearly show and reinforce to them what commitment to safety should look like at our company?
During recent conversations, the VP of Global Safety for a multi-national organization with nearly 150,000 employees asked me, the simple question “What does management commitment to safety LOOK like?” Specifically, he made the point that in his organization, supervisors are in fact committed to safety…but they just don’t quite show this commitment in the most effective ways. He went on to comment that, often, supervisors at his organization tend to spend a lot of time doing what they think is important, but these activities actually add limited value to safety improvement.
Here are some of the typical activities he mentioned:
Telling employees to wear their PPE
Starting pre-shift meetings with a safety moment
Tracking employee participation in safety training
Reminding employees that they have true “stop work” authority
Using the discipline process fairly when employees violate safety rules
He went on to share that their supervisors really do believe in the importance of these activities, and go about doing these diligently every day, because they are committed to safety. But these activities did not fully capture what he defined as true commitment to safety. As you read these, what do these leader activities have in common? Do these activities demonstrate commitment to safety in your eyes? Whether they represent commitment to safety or not, their leaders do these things largely because that’s what they are instructed to do and that’s what gets measured.
So if we tell our supervisors that we expect them to only do “A,” why should we really expect them to do “A, B, and C?” In the case of this VP, he was hoping for something extra – something more genuine or significant – from his supervisors, but this has not been really formulated or communicated to them by upper management. This is actually something we see quite commonly with many of the companies we work with, where senior leaders never really communicate a clear, specific vision of what first-line and middle management should focus on.
Now, even if senior management does clearly explain and reinforce what safety commitment looks like for a supervisor – what happens if they do not have the ability or skillset to demonstrate that level of commitment? That is a whole other issue which can make this challenging. Depending on what our view of “commitment” is, we cannot expect our leaders to demonstrate it if they simply lack the capability to do so.
So, what can senior leadership do to ensure that supervisors and managers are showing the type of commitment that is impactful and adds the most value? Here are three simple steps.
Define and communicate what commitment to safety should look like in your organization
As described earlier in this post, you have to define and communicate expectations if you want your people to meet them. Properly define what you think commitment to safety means to senior leaders, and to others in the company. Write clear examples of commitment – is it putting safety above production? Is it being more visible on the floor and providing more support for safety? Whatever it is, get a consensus and write a formal description, and then communicate it from the top level of the organization right down to every hourly employee: “This is what management commitment to safety means and looks like at this company.” Then, keep on communicating this over time.
Measure capability, then train your leaders to show the specific commitment behaviors you define
Once you’ve communicated the desired behaviors, you have to ensure your leaders can demonstrate them. They may have great intentions and the desire, but if they lack the skills, it’ll be very challenging. First you have to see where they are at currently. Psychological assessment tools can provide an in-depth look at the specific personality traits, interpersonal skills, and abilities that are necessary for effective safety leadership. Once we get into the specifics of how to demonstrate commitment, we start getting into behaviors that are influenced by these traits, such as risk propensity, accountability, leadership style, adaptability to change, and many others. By measuring where your supervisors stand currently on these important traits, you can then provide targeted training, coaching and feedback to them which will help them execute the broader range of behaviors that is necessary to take safety commitment to the next level.
Recognize and reinforce commitment behavior when you see it
Last but not least, you have to recognize and positively reinforce the desired behaviors when you see them. If you see a supervisor take the time to coach an employee on safe behavior in a great way, or if you see a supervisor start getting a lot more personally involved in safety processes (and these are things you’ve identified as commitment behaviors), then do not miss the opportunity to reinforce it. You should do this as soon as possible after seeing or hearing about the behavior, and then point out to them the specific, detailed actions that you are praising them for, along with why they are important. This will ensure that your positive reinforcement hits “home” and tells the person exactly what they did right.
These are just three simple best practices that can help your organization better define what management commitment to safety looks like, and that your leaders are putting their time and efforts into the right activities – the ones that add the most value and best align with your company’s vision for safety.