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Promoting a Culture of Safety Ownership: Lessons in Leadership


In today's fast-paced industrial landscape, safety is not just a priority but a critical component of sustainable operations. The tales of Jack and Josey from a manufacturing plant underline a poignant truth: the culture of safety within an organization hinges significantly on leadership and the stories leaders choose to endorse.


Safety Leadership: The Jack and Josey Paradigm


Jack, a general manager with a deep need to be liked, and Josey, a safety manager whose primary concern was self-preservation, together fostered a dysfunctional safety culture. Jack avoided necessary confrontations and difficult decisions, favoring a narrative that kept him comfortably liked rather than respected. Josey, on his part, manipulated this weakness to avoid accountability. This combination led to a decline in key performance indicators, including safety, creating a workplace where near misses became a legendary norm rather than alarming exceptions.


Their story serves as a classic example of how the incorrect stories we tell ourselves can compromise the very essence of workplace safety. It wasn't until a review by a new corporate safety vice president that the extent of their mismanagement was unveiled, highlighting the sheer luck that prevented fatal accidents.


Manager providing safety training
Construction Safety Training

The Foundation of Incorrect Stories


Leaders like Jack often fall prey to various cognitive traps that skew their perception of reality:


  • Manipulation: Leaders may be manipulated into accepting tailored stories that cater to their biases or fears.

  • Accommodation: Leaders may forego the correct narrative to maintain personal comfort or relationships.

  • Convenience: Leaders might avoid tough decisions, opting for easier, less confrontational paths.

  • Elitism and Condescension: Some leaders believe they must "save" their teams from themselves, which can lead to patronizing decisions that do not empower employees but rather enforce dependency.

  

Embracing the Correct Story


The path to genuine safety leadership involves embracing and disseminating the correct story. This means rigorously aligning one’s actions and decisions with reality, not personal or collective wishes. Leaders must:

1.     Observe objectively: Look at situations as they are, not as you wish them to be.

2.     Interpret cautiously: Analyze circumstances based on facts and unbiased judgment.

3.   Feel appropriately: Allow your emotions to reflect the reality of the situation, not distorted perceptions.

4.    Act decisively: Make decisions that address real issues, not just symptoms or personal comforts.


For example, if an employee named John caused a forklift accident due to haste, an appropriate approach would be to acknowledge his negligence and address it directly, rather than excuse it based on time constraints. In addition to setting a precedent for accountability, this approach also boosts a culture that values and promotes safety.


To foster a culture of safety ownership, leaders must:


  • Hire wisely: Select candidates who demonstrate a capacity for honesty and self-awareness.

  • Lead by example: Exhibit a steadfast commitment to reality, encouraging the same in team members.

  • Cultivate openness: Encourage transparency and humility in admitting mistakes, which strengthens team trust and cohesiveness.

  • Enforce accountability: Ensure that safety protocols are followed meticulously and that lapses are addressed promptly and fairly.

  

Leadership in safety is more than enforcing rules or conducting training; it's about cultivating an environment in which every team member feels personally responsible for their own and others' safety. As safety professionals, we must tell the correct story to build a robust safety ownership culture that can significantly reduce workplace incidents. This approach is not just about preventing accidents; it's about empowering each employee to own their role in creating a safer workplace.

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