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What Are the Traits of Proactive and Reactive Safety Leaders?

January 11, 2017

proactive-safety-leader.jpgIf your workplace has ever experienced a serious injury, then you may be familiar with the following types of questions:

  • How could this happen?

  • Why weren’t we aware of that situation?

  • Why wasn’t that fixed a long time ago?

  • What was the employee thinking?

  • Why didn’t anyone say anything?

The list could go on and on. Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to be a “Monday morning quarterback,” second guessing decisions and actions after the fact. We hear a lot these days about needing to be more proactive when it comes to safety, but it’s often easier said than done. Why? Because people are busy, plans change, and there are always new potential risks that can emerge in our workplace. This is just the reality of the modern-day work environment, and these days, leaders are being asked to do more and more, with safety becoming an increasingly large part of that.

Those are situational factors, but what we often fail to think about is how much we bring to the table when it comes to being proactive versus reactive. There are specific personality traits and abilities that can highly influence whether we are proactive versus reactive, and it’s important for safety leaders to know what these are and how they can influence their actions and decision making.

A reactive safety leader

Recently, I was coaching a Maintenance Supervisor at a manufacturing plant and we were reviewing his safety leadership personal assessment results. He had scored low on what we call “Process Focus,” meaning that he tends to be unstructured in his management style, can struggle setting clear expectations for employees and does not have a strong focus on results and deadlines.

While this is not necessarily a bad thing (there are also benefits of scoring low on this factor), it can lead to some behaviors that increase exposure to risk for one’s team or department because risks can go unmitigated, employees may not be held accountable, and at-risk behaviors may not be addressed or corrected by the supervisor. Over time, the result is that risk grows like a giant snowball rolling down a mountain, picking up more snow and speed over time.

Anyway, back to our coaching session. The dialogue we had that day was very interesting. After viewing his assessment results, he admitted that he probably needed to spend more time and effort on planning the “safety side” of the preventative maintenance work at his site. I then asked him to tell me what he currently was doing as far as planning with respect to safety. His response was quite telling. With a very straightforward look, he calmly said that his usual approach for planning safe tasks was to just say ‘Now, make sure you don’t get hurt out there today, OK?’ And, that was about it for planning safe work. And at that point, I could tell that this supervisor’s assessment results were probably pretty accurate.

Related: Four Behaviors of Safe Leaders - The L.E.A.D. Model

Sadly, he was dead serious and absolutely comfortable with the fact that his entire game plan for planning safe work procedures each day was to just remind his team members to ‘not get hurt today.’ Unfortunately, we all know this is not nearly enough, and the concerning thing is how often we see this out in the field when we start talking and working with supervisors one-on-one.

Many supervisors simply lack the knowledge and skills necessary to be proactive and planful about safety, and for many, this skill deficiency is exacerbated by their unique personality traits, which makes it even harder for them to do this successfully. Finally, when an injury does occur, you will often hear this type of safety leader say things like, “I’ve been meaning to get that issue taken care of,” or “I meant to talk to him about that a while ago,” or “It’s just been so busy!” They try to step in and take action but by then it’s too late. Their reactive tendencies get the better of them and lead to risks that put people in harm’s way.

Individual traits of proactive safety leaders

So what are some of the individual traits that influence proactive safety leadership? How can we identify leaders who may struggle to be proactive? Here are some of the key personality characteristics that impact this behavior:

  • Initiative – Are they a self-starter? Do they wait around for direction, or are they willing to take action on their own and resolve issues with a sense of urgency?

  • Conscientiousness – Are they dutiful and responsible? Does it bother them when hazards or risks are left unresolved? Do they prefer to be prepared ahead of time, or do they like just “winging it” at the last minute?

  • Locus of Control – Do they feel like they are in control of what happens to them, or do they believe that outcomes are the result of luck or chance? Those with an internal (rather than an external) locus of control tend to be more proactive about things because they believe their actions do make a difference.

A person’s standing on each of these traits can make it easier or harder for an individual to be proactive. The good news is that being proactive can be learned and trained over time. Experiences and lessons learned ‘the hard way’ can certainly help us be more proactive about things.

If we wish to develop tomorrow’s successful safety leaders, it is imperative to see the importance of being proactive, vigilant and having a sense of urgency about exposure to risk in the workplace. But in order to help our leaders be proactive, we must first help them understand which traits impact their tendency to be reactive and understand how this influences their decision-making and actions with respect to safety.

Does Leadership Affect Safety Incidents? You Bet it Does!

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.