Welcome to our newest awesome Author, Dennis Millard. Dennis has a very practical background and extensive safety experiences in industries dominated by hard core safety dictatorships. Dennis is now one of many on an unlearning and learning journey and shares some stories here on how positive things can still be achieved despite a toxic safety culture.
Safety Journal – Leading in Safety
I have recognised similarities through the language we use in industry and what the actual discourse for safety really is, when it comes to management trying to lead in the safety world.
Many Managers are so focused on compliance and legislation when it comes to how they want safety run in their business, statistics mean everything, “what can’t be measured can’t be fixed” is the general speak. This also then cascades down to the safety teams.
The Safety people tend to go straight to the old ways of safety, straight to the legislation, straight to leading as if the context doesn’t matter, then they tend to go straight to the Australian Standards 4801, straight to the codes of practice as if leading doesn’t matter. Every company I worked with talked about leading with safety but all they were really doing was leading with systems, and trying to get people to fit within the systems; so the people are really not considered. I believe we are over inundated with complex safety systems created by Australian Safety Standards, Businesses missions and any other safety expectations that may be forced upon us in a client / contractor situations. This alone is bounding the rationality of the Supervisors and their teams and what they do and do not focus on, which in turn impacts on the workers day to day activities where they are exposed to risk.
The commonality in the approaches to safety is one that is mechanistic; safety systems, standards, equipment and people are seen as fixable objects, this I believe is true as they measure them all, including workers behaviour. The reason behaviour is measured, is to help the company’s change the behaviours of workers they feel are at risk of harm, still trying to fix not understand the human kind.
A few of the companies had Mission Zero, Zero Harm, Safe Home Everyday mission statements, which the Management teams seemed to be proud of and wanting to uphold for their company. Unfortunately the managers failed to see what the field employees really thought of the company missions. Every training session I ran always aired the dirty laundry, the people from the frontline would tell you, they thought it was a load of crap and impossible to achieve, they would say, “we are human, aren’t we”? The frontline workers understood we as humans are fallible, where as the leaders on the other hand would bring the person who “stuffed up” in to discipline, as they must have done it on purpose or not followed the rules (breached company policy and procedures). This approach is the kind for “absolutes” one who thinks they can fix and or have an answer to everything.
My observation was becoming clearer as time went on the leadership styles in safety were all about dictation and direction of the safety systems. The Safety Gestapo would start their crusade, making sure everyone was wearing their gloves and not using Stanley knives in case they cut themselves, make sure the “Life Saver Rules” were not breached. I remember thinking this is such a de-humanising mentality and felt for the workers involved. Yet when the leadership was challenged on the matter, they would say, “it’s for their own good” and leave it at that.
Great intentions were meant perhaps, and probably to help gain their business trajectory, however with a horrible by-product, such as people doing the total opposite or just hiding what they do to get the job done. I felt that we were pushing people so hard not to think that even the simple things became a challenge, one of those was communication and engagement. Every incident had the contribution of the lack of leadership and or communication and engagement. Just confirming to me that people are not and cannot be robots, the businesses are caught up in a state of dissonance.
Understanding this, I developed a modulated leadership communication training process, which was hands on in the field, rather than classroom lecture. This was to help the leadership teams understand what leading with communication looks like and how it may be carried out and allowed them to do it in their own style. We did this in small-modulated sections in the field, so the leaders were not inundated with too much information, (Helping their learned intake). It was well received, by the field supervisors when I first trailed the modulated learning process, however was soon to be undone when the client wanted to make a procedure and training power point presentation telling the leaders how they were going to communicate.
Interestingly it really keeps taking me back to embracing the followers expertise and learnt knowledge, it’s what is called the followers gifts. Then it is really up to the leader to understand what the company’s aim is and using what valuable information they have received from their team to gain success, rather than try to think and do it all themselves. Is it why we employ personnel with qualifications, to use them and strengthen the company’s knowledge and skills?
Is leading all about understanding the social arrangement of the work groups and how they engage, embrace each other, understanding how we all see the world differently? Or is it it all about power and authority to make safety work?
Is respecting each other’s ‘world views’ (critical reality) so important when we are to tackle wicked problems such as safety? Or should we just go by the legislation, codes of practice Australian standards and forget people’s views?
When I was given the opportunity to lead a Safety team in commissioning compression stations, I had the guys focus on striping down the amount of documents we were wanting in safety with consultation of the workforce, we went from having 6 safety documents per day per person to having only 2. This freed up the leaders time and made the workers happy that someone was listening to their ideas. We then guided the leaders to focus on opening up team discussions on risk management with the tasks at hand, in return it seem as if we were seeing less injuries, is this because of collaborative engagement and thinking?
It felt like it was teaching the leaders not to be dictators through power and authority but to become leaders through embracing, engaging and respecting their followers. Do leaders need to understand: Followers → Leaders → Leaders → Followers = knowledge of risk, or is it better to have a Leaders → Followers = obedience approach, to gain compliance?