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Ownership at Every Level: Transforming Safety Culture through Leadership and Responsibility

In the field of workplace safety, the difference between a thriving culture and a struggling one often comes down to a single crucial element: ownership. Through examining various organizational accounts, including those of a manufacturing facility battling with water supply issues and major construction projects, a consistent theme emerges. This theme is the keen impact of leadership and individual ownership on safety outcomes and overall performance.

Construction Manager and team reviewing safety plans
Safety Ownership through Leadership

The Reality of Responsibility

At a struggling manufacturing facility, a critical lack of ownership was demonstrated when employees at the plant were left without drinking water due to a city issued "boil water" order. The task of securing bottled water was delegated to the purchasing manager, but as hours stretched into a full workday and still no bottled water, it became evident that this wasn't a minor oversight. It was a symptom of a culture that prioritizes checkbox compliance over actual results. The lack of ownership and a pervasive attitude of doing the bare minimum instead of caring about outcomes directly influenced the facility's performance across all metrics, from safety to productivity. It was a place where employees resigned to the status quo, mirrored the lack of initiative shown by their leaders, leading to an environment where problems were met with complacency rather than action.

In contrast, leaders who refuse to accept conventional safety risks are setting unprecedented safety standards. Through their leadership, they challenged and changed the entrenched belief that workplace accidents are inevitable, demonstrating that high expectations and full ownership of safety can lead to remarkable outcomes.

The Ownership Imperative

Ownership in safety is not an abstract concept but a measurable, observable quality that significantly influences organizational culture and performance. It's the difference between passive compliance and active responsibility. Ownership means recognizing that systems and processes, while crucial, are insufficient on their own. They must be complemented by a workforce empowered and motivated to exercise good judgment and take proactive steps towards safety.

When leaders set and embody high expectations, they can elevate their teams to achieve unprecedented safety standards. Their successes highlight the necessity of building a culture where safety ownership is not just encouraged but required at every level.

Bridging the Gap

For safety professionals, the journey towards promoting a culture of ownership begins with self-reflection and extends to setting clear, high expectations for their teams. Leaders must navigate the subtle balance of giving control and demanding accountability. This entails moving beyond mere compliance to encouraging an environment where every team member is personally invested in safety outcomes.

The challenge often lies in narrowing the gap between what is wanted and what is expected. Leaders must ensure that their expectations are not only understood but also shared across the organization. This alignment is critical in avoiding the "Zone of Inaction" where unacceptable conditions are tolerated due to a lack of ownership.

Leading by Example

Building a culture of safety ownership requires leaders who are willing to lead by example. Leaders who challenge industry-standard norms and demonstrate unwavering commitment to safety show that leadership is about more than setting rules; it's about inspiring change through personal accountability and high expectations.

In essence, cultivating a culture of safety ownership is about embracing the hard work of leadership. It involves setting a vision, embodying the values you wish to see in your organization, and holding everyone, including yourself, accountable to those standards. Safety leadership and ownership culture are indispensable to achieving excellence in workplace safety. Through the power of ownership, organizations can transcend traditional safety metrics to create environments where every individual feels responsible for the safety and well-being of their colleagues. This approach not only ensures safer workplaces but also fosters a sense of purpose and engagement among employees, driving organizational success.

Ken Chapman, PhD and Tony Orlowski

Co-Authors, Safety Beyond the Numbers


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