The A-B-Cs of Leading Safety Culture

The A-B-C's of Leading Safety Culture | Call to Action!A few months ago I published an extended series of articles on building employee engagement using safety leadership styles.  Soon afterwards I was contacted by ASSE, who asked me to contribute an article representing an abridged version of that series to their “Leading Thoughts” section of Professional Safety journal.

As many of you no doubt already know (because you’re subscribers of the journal), that article appeared in the December 2014 issue of Professional Safety.  Below is a reproduction of that article.  [content_protector password=”sls-07″ identifier=”sls-07″]

The A-B-Cs of Leading Safety Culture

Copyright © 2014 ASSE. All Rights Reserved.

One common misconception of newly minted front-line supervisors (and even some veteran leaders) is the notion that leading people equally is the same as leading people fairly. The mantra goes something along the lines of, “I want to be fair, so I treat everyone the same.”

While that sounds right on the surface, it is actually a huge mistake. Fairness is not about equality—it is about equity. It is about identifying current levels of engagement and performance, then leading people accordingly.

Workforce Differentiation

All organizations interested in achieving high performance (and this includes safety) must make distinctions between high and low performers and between engaged and unengaged employees. If I lead my disengaged, low-performing employees the same way I lead my engaged, top performers, I am not going to lose my low performers—I am going to lose my top performers.

Why? Because top performers know the difference between the effort they put into the job and the effort everyone else puts into the job. If I am not leading them differently and providing them opportunities I do not offer anyone else, then they are going to look elsewhere for a leader who will.

One common way to differentiate employees is by performance levels:

  • A players or top performers. These are your star players who could probably do your job.
  • B players or middle performers. These are solid contributors who are absolutely essential to getting the job done, but will probably never rise to the top tier.
  • C players or lowest performers. They are either new employees who are learning the job, or disengaged employees who have no commitment to the organization, or its values or goals.

Performance levels indicate how an employee is performing but do not explain why the employee is performing at that level. For that, we must look at levels of engagement.

  • Engaged employees think and behave like owners. They are enthusiastic about their job and fully committed to it, and they put discretionary time and effort into it. In terms of safety, they are willing to help lead the culture.
  • Unengaged employees have a low commitment to the job and expend a moderate effort. In terms of safety, they are personally compliant but do not lead the culture.
  • Disengaged employees have no commitment to the job and expend only a minimal effort. In terms of safety, they may be taking shortcuts and, therefore, are a liability.

How to Lead Employees in a Safety Culture

I often use a modified version of the popular six styles of leadership model (pioneered by Goleman) to illustrate the differences in the way we might lead employees in a safety culture. For the sake of simplicity, we can pair them into three general categories:

  • Directing styles (coercive and authoritative): Use when an employee needs a lot of direction, correction or hand-holding in a safety culture.
  • Motivating styles (affiliative and democratic): Use when an employee needs an extra push to get to the next level in a safety culture.
  • Deploying styles (pacesetting and coaching): Use when an employee is ready to take an active role in leading a safety culture.

Leading Disengaged C Players

C players (or disengaged employees) need more supervision than other employees. It is important to provide lots of direction, so use a directing style such as coercive or authoritative. Your role here is regulator—someone who enforces compliance.

Leading Unengaged B Players

B players (or unengaged employees) may need training on how to do the job more effectively, more tools to do their job in better ways and perhaps an extra push to reach the next level of performance. In this case, use a motivating style like affiliative or democratic. Your role here is enabler—someone who provides needed resources.

Leading Engaged A Players

When leading A players (or engaged employees), consider how to hand leadership to them. They desire opportunities to apply their talents and to make a difference, so give that to them. Adopt a deploying style like pacesetting or coaching in these cases. Your role here is liberator—someone who deploys them to help lead a safety culture.

Changing It Up

This is just one of dozens of scenarios that may require you to adjust your leadership style to lead effectively. While we cannot anticipate every situation, these basic guidelines will help you select which leadership styles are appropriate to each situation. The goal is to continue building a stronger safety culture, and building levels of ownership and engagement in employees is the best way to accomplish that.

Well, there you have it. The A-B-Cs of leading safety culture.  That’s it for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS.  Until next time.



About the Author

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.