The Role of “Vision” When Leading Safety-Culture Change

The Role of "Vision" When Leading Safety-Culture ChangeImagine you are attending a social event with a large group of people at an outdoor courtyard, when suddenly someone you don’t know comes out and announces that you will be moving.  Which of the following statements is more likely to move you into action:

Statement 1: “I’d like everyone’s attention for a moment! Look, I need you to stop talking and follow me, and I need you to do it now. Let’s go!”

Statement 2: “Hey everyone, may I please have your attention for a moment? We’re going to move the group inside. Please line up alphabetically in a single-file line and proceed through the north doorway to the room at the end of the corridor. And please be quiet and refrain from talking until we are all gathered in that room.”

Statement 3: “Welcome to the event, everyone! We’ve just been informed that rain is on the way, so they’re setting up our group dinner inside. Why don’t we move to that room by proceeding through the north door and all the way down the hall, and let’s get something to eat. Also, please be aware that we’ll be passing by a room where another group is holding a memorial service.” 

SBI-coach-article-adIf you’re like most people, you probably prefer the third statement.  The first statement is too coercive, and provides no specifics and no rational for the action (Why am I doing this again?).  The second statement is certainly more amendable in tone and does provide specifics in what it’s asking. But like the first statement, it suffers from a lack of rational for that action. Moreover, the specifics appear rigid and inflexible (e.g., Why form a single-file line and why no talking?).

The third statement provides a rational for taking action by identifying a crisis to avoid (I avoid getting wet from the rain) as well as a “what’s in it for me” benefit (I get to eat). But it also provides a rational and incentive for remaining quiet along the way (so as not to disturb the other group), and it does so in a flexible way, apart from coercion and apart from identifying specific behaviors. I remain an autonomous decision maker who gets to decide (on my own) what the appropriate behavior should be based on the information I am given.

We’ve been looking at Kotter’s eight-step change methodology and how it applies to safety-culture change.  So far we’ve looked at the role of crisis in a safety-culture change, as well as the role of a guiding coalition.  Kotter’s third step is to develop a vision and strategy. Here we’ll focus primarily on the “vision” part of that combo.

What Does a Safety-Culture “Vision” Look Like?

10 Things You Absolutely MUST KNOW About Reinforcing Your Safety Culture By Building EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENTA vision is simply a picture of the future state.  All safety-culture initiatives need to be guided by a vision, and that vision must encompass the characteristics of the third statement above before it will guide an organization in the right direction. Here are some of Kotter’s keys to a good vision statement.

Imaginable: Whatever the vision statement, it must paint an accurate picture of the future state and provide a rational for why we need to get there.  In my scenario above, the rational for taking action is the impending crisis of rain and the prospect of food.

Feasible: A vision statement must also be reasonable and realistic. Vision statements that reflect a “pie in the sky” approach usually appeal to idealists but few others.  In my scenario, while there is some inconvenience and discomfort involved in my having to move to a room inside the building, it’s realistic to do so based on the stated conditions.

Desirable: A vision statement that seems to bark orders and coerce employees into conforming is usually met by overwhelming resistance. One that provides a rational and communicates both crisis and benefit allows employees to internalize it and move on their own terms. Always remember the WIIFM principal (“What’s In It For Me?”). If that’s not part of the vision statement, it’ll take a lot more time, energy and effort to get people on board.  In my scenario above, the desirability mirrors the rational.  I prefer to stay dry and to satisfy my hunger, so it is desirable to allow myself to be persuaded and guided by the instructions to move inside.

Focused: A vision statement must be specific enough to make sense and act as a guide for individual decision-making. If it’s not specific enough in describing a future state, people will wonder why change is even needed.  In the scenario above, the announcer provided enough detail for me to make a good decision that was aligned with the announcer’s goals.

Flexible: On the other hand, it should not be so specific that there is little room for innovation and individual contribution, or contingency actions based on changing conditions. A vision statement that is overly specific will stifle ownership and appear as though you’re trying to micromanage activities.  In the above scenario, I was allowed to make my own decision about my behaviors while passing by the memorial service.

Communicable: Any vision statement you develop must be simple, easy to understand, and you must be able to communicate it in five minutes. Call this your “elevator speech.”  If you can’t communicate what the vision is in that amount of time, then it’s probably too complicated.

fctc-online-bannerFinally, to actually create the vision statement, you (or someone else) will need to take a stab at a first draft.  That draft should then be submitted to the “guiding coalition” (see my previous article on this) who will then massage it and modify it till the team is happy with it.  Bear in mind, it could take many months before it reaches its finished state. The process is a messy one, and it will involve both progress and regress before it meets with the entire team’s approval. And the finished state, whatever else it looks like, must appeal to both the head and the heart.

We’ll look at Kotter’s step # 4 and how it applies to a safety-culture change in our next issue.  But that’s it for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS. Until next time.


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Eric Svendsen

Eric Svendsen, Ph.D., is Principal and lead change agent for safetyBUILT-IN, a safety-leadership learning and development organization. He has over 20 years experience in creating and executing outcomes-based leadership development and culture change initiatives aligned to organizational goals, and he personally led the safety-culture initiatives of a number of client organizations that resulted in “best ever safety performance” years for those companies.

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