top of page

The Role of Trust in a Safety Ownership Culture

When asked, most people list trust as the “must have” of personal and professional relationships. For most people, it is hard to overstate the value of trust. And in a safety ownership culture, trust is indispensable. In fact, nothing matters more!

In a safety ownership culture, trust has all the characteristics we usually associate with it --- and much more. Telling the truth, accepting full responsibility for one’s self, keeping ones promises and talking to others not about them are obvious ways of earning trust. But in a safety ownership culture the less obvious ways of earning trust are just as essential.

The less obvious ways of earning trust begin with a particular way of thinking about human interaction. Leaders who earn high levels of trust begin with an attitude which attracts others. It is a way of thinking about people which sees people for who they are: well-intentioned and imperfect.

And, speaking of “obvious” every leader knows this is not true of everyone. All organizations have bad actors --- team members who are not well-intentioned and care for nothing but themselves. They live and work in a world [real or imagined] where the only thing that really matters is politics. For them, the value of trust is questionable because their leaders are untrustworthy. Such organizations do exist and my experience is they carry the seeds of their own destruction. They will fail. The question is how long it will take them to fail. Why?

Because in a free society, businesses exist only as long as the public believes the business contributes to the common good. When the public decides a business is harming the common good, the business fails.

Leaders who earn trust embrace a particular way of thinking about people which begins with this philosophy: Life and work are a journey with many lessons to be learned. Sometimes the lessons are easy and sometimes the lessons are hard. I’m not looking for perfect team members.

I’m looking for team members who will demonstrate they have learned, can learn and will learn the lessons life and work will teach. This way of thinking about human performance has its own set of “lessons learned.” Lessons which allow leaders to appeal to team members’ highest opinions of themselves. All well-intentioned, but imperfect, people want to be the hero of their own story. They want to give their family, friends, and coworkers reason to trust and respect them. These “lessons learned” do just that. And they are foundational in a safety ownership culture.

Lesson One: Take full responsibility for your own life and expect others to do the same.

There is only one person who is responsible for what I think, say and do—me! People trust leaders who thoughtfully choose what they say and do. They distrust leaders who blame others for what they themselves think, say and do. This is a way of dealing with people and problems which makes it clear “My life is not a series of reactions to what other people think, say, and do. My life is a legacy of carefully choosing what I am going to think, what I am going to say, and what I am going to do. When my choices work out, I deserve the biggest chunk of credit for having made a good decision. If my choices do not work out, I do not blame others. I learn the lesson and move on.”

In time, accepting full responsibility for myself builds my self-confidence and self-respect.

But Lesson One goes even further. People trust those who want for others the self-confidence and respect they want for themselves. Because it is not just me that wants to be the hero of my own story. Others want to be the hero of their story as well. This is where expecting others to accept full responsibility for themselves comes into play. Having a team where everyone accepts full responsibility for what they think, say and do is essential in building a safety ownership culture.

Here is a fact of the human experience: You and I can give another person just about anything and everything we choose to give them --- money, a coat, a car, a meal and even a house. But we can never give another person self-confidence or self-respect. These things they must earn for themselves. And if I try to assume responsibility for someone who can reasonably be expected to be responsible for themselves, they will not only resent it, they will come to hate me. Oh, in the beginning they may welcome everything I give them. They may be happy to have me rescue them from their bad decisions. But sooner or later they will realize I have robbed them of the chance to be the hero of their own story. I have denied them the opportunity to earn the self-confidence and self-respect we all value. With the best of intentions, I have kept them from becoming the hero of their own story.

Lesson Two: People trust those who refuse to be a victim.

Everyone faces challenges they would prefer not to have. Everyone faces disappointment and frustration they would never choose for their life. And while I cannot always choose what comes to me, I can choose my response. I can choose not to be a victim of circumstance. I can choose not to be a victim of mine or another’s bad decision. I can choose to rise above victimhood.

In 1995, I met a man we will call Jay. At the time, Jay was a thirty-two-year-old electrician working with a paper mill maintenance crew. Jay was an outstanding electrician. He was also an opinion leader. Opinion leaders are informal leaders who have earned the trust and respect of their team members. Jay had earned the trust and respect of co-workers and management. As a result, there was a general assumption in the mill [an assumption which Jay also held] that Jay would be the next maintenance supervisor. So, when a supervisory position came open, Jay applied. Just about everybody thought he was a slam dunk: “There’s no need to apply, Jay will get the job.”

Jay did not get the job. Most people were surprised by the outcome. No one was more surprised than Jay. Seated at a lunch table with Jay a few days later he shared his frustration with me. “I’ have done everything the company wanted. I know the equipment. I get along well with everybody. Now this!”

Once Jay had vented his frustration, I asked a question. “Jay, is there anything the successful candidate can do that you cannot do?”

Jay immediately shot back: “He can read! Everybody knows that. I can’t read and I haven’t tried to hide it.”

I assured Jay everyone admired the honest, straightforward way he presented himself.

Then I asked a follow up question. “Jay, what are you going to do about it?”

His response was even angrier. “There’s nothing I can do. I’m thirty-two years old. The school should have made sure I could read. My parents should have helped me. There’s nothing I can do at this point.”

I closed our conversation with a final question: “Jay, are you sure that’s true? Is there nothing you can do?” Jay looked thoughtful as I headed for an afternoon meeting. Fast forward about twelve months. I bumped into Jay in the lobby of the mill’s administration building, Jay asked me if I had a book in “that brief case” as he put it.

I said, “Yes.”

Jay said, “Take the book out and hand it to me.”

I did what he asked. Jay took the book, opened it to a random page and began to read. Jay had taught himself to read! He did not stop there. He read every paper mill manual he could find. He taught himself algebra, calculus, and the laws of thermodynamics. Jay chose not to be a victim.

In a perfect world, Jay would have learned to read as a young boy. Sadly, important adults let him down. He might well have spent his life as the victim of the bad decisions made by those adults. By refusing to be a victim, Jay made himself the hero of his own story. Jay would retire twenty-three years later. When he retired, he was not only the mill manager, he was one of the most trusted people in the industry.

A safety ownership culture produces lots of stories like Jay’s story. Team members are provided the feedback, support and clear expectations needed to become owners! They learn to accept responsibility for themselves. They become owners of their role and responsibilities. Most of all, they become owners of their own safety.

Lesson Three: Remember where you came from.

Take note of the experiences you and team members share in common. This lesson refers to all the usual things we associate with this saying: the family and street where you grew up, the people you’ve known, the problems and disappointments you’ve faced, and the lessons you’ve learned. And it refers to much more. You see, people trust those who make the effort to empathize with them. Empathy means putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. The easiest way to do this is to remember what it was like to be in their shoes. When working with a new team member, remember what it was like to be a new employee. When guiding a team member struggling to learn a task, recall the time you struggled to learn a task. When listening to someone vent their frustration, connect your own moments of frustration. And, when dealing with a team member who is angry because they feel the world is unfair, consider sharing when you thought the world was not a fair place. Though be sure to caution against thinking of one’s self as a victim. Being frustrated at times is understandable.

Victimhood is not.

People trust those who remember, recall, connect, and share life’s common experience. That doesn’t mean you have to share everything. It does mean you have to share something. People distrust those who present themselves as above the struggles of other human beings. They trust those who own their humanity.

Lesson Four: Take your own advice.

There are countless ways to lose trust by giving others the impression you are all about “Do as I say, not as I do.” If your advice to a team member is to work toward a better work/life balance, then demonstrate you are working toward a better work/life balance. If you would urge an employee to be patient with their peers, then demonstrate you are patient with your peers. If you would never allow a team member to work a dozen fourteen-hour days, don’t allow yourself to work a dozen fourteen-hour days.

Most people work from a fairly reasonable assumption: The truth about a person is found in their behavior. Any disconnect between what we say and what we do erodes trust. Common sense tells me I should only pay attention to what someone says when it matches what they do. Taking my own advice not only builds trust, it tells others I think it such good advice I take it myself! A wise leader will earn trust by making it clear, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Lesson Five: Accept that the big challenge of adulthood is to remain reasonably sane.

This statement is not a bad effort to be witty. It is, a statement of fact. There is much about life and work which wears on a person. There are frustrations. There are disappointments. There is no shortage of truly sad stories. If you are looking for what is sad and unpleasant, you will have no trouble finding it.

People always find what they are looking for. This means we have a choice. Am I looking for the sad and bad or for the good and hopeful? People trust those who make the effort to rise above the negative. They are drawn to the leader who sees the negative but reaches for the positive. Most team members know all they care to know about negative attitudes. They have worked with at least one co-worker who made an eight-hour shift feel like twelve.

People want to believe things will work out. They will trust the leader who comes at every problem with the same “Can Do” attitude: “Yes, this is a tough one. Even so, come with me, we’ll find our way to a good outcome.”

Lesson Six: Share the lessons you have learned.

Invest in the success of others. Share your war stories. Let people in on the lessons you have learned the hard way. You may be wondering how best to do this. You don’t think of yourself as a teacher and you certainly don’t see yourself as particularly wise. Make this work for you.

Share your war stories with humility and a bit of humor. However, be careful. Avoid stories where you are the only hero. And, if you are, in fact, the hero of a particular story, give generous credit to others. Sharing lessons learned is best done with humility. Make it clear it was a lesson you needed to learn. Have a sense of humor. Present yourself as a person who believes: Life and work are a journey with many lessons to be learned. Sometimes the lessons are easy and sometimes the lessons are hard. I’m not looking for perfect team members.

I’m looking for team members who will demonstrate they have learned, can learn and will learn the lessons life and work will teach.

The role of trust in a safety ownership culture is foundational. If you want a culture where team members “own” safety, quality, efficiency and pride of association, place trust at the center of your efforts. Focus on giving your team reasons to trust you. Chances are they will return the favor.

Ken Chapman

Co-Author, Safety Beyond The Numbers

Copyright © 2023


bottom of page