What Leaders Do to Drive Safety-Culture Change

What Leaders Do to Drive Safety-Culture Change

Leading a safety culture is, first and foremost, an exercise in managing change. And as with any change-management initiative, if it’s not guided by a solid plan, dogged persistence, tenacity, fearlessness, persuasion, assertiveness, and an understanding of how people may respond to that change, it’s not likely to go well. [content_protector password=”resist” identifier=”resist”]

If there’s one thing a change agent learns very quickly, it’s that the most difficult part about change is not the process, and it’s not the new program or initiative that you’re tasked with driving.

The most difficult part about change is the people you have to persuade.

Nothing New

What accounts for this? Simply put, it’s a natural resistance to the idea of change. And it’s nothing new. As far back as 500 years ago, one writer put it this way:

“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” (Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, circa 1513).

Put into modern parlance, it might sound something like this: “We’ve been doing it this way for thirty-plus years, and you want to come in a change it? Well good luck with that!” 10 Things You Absolutely MUST KNOW About Reinforcing Your Safety Culture By Building EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

Many years ago I was part of a seasoned change-management team whose responsibility it was to create and roll out a leadership-development program for managers and supervisors of an oil and gas company. There were four of us on the team, and each one was assigned to one of the four business units of the company.

When it came time to announce and communicate the upcoming change initiative, all of us did a pretty good job in managing communication and expectations to the field locations of our respective business units — all, that is, except for one.  We’ll call him “Mark.”

When Mark approached the field locations in his assigned business unit, he was immediately met by resistance. His response? He panicked. He sent the rest of us an email that read to the effect: “Guys, we need to put this program on the shelf. They’re not ready for it. All the supervisors in my area are complaining about it!”

Part of the problem was that the field locations assigned to Mark were more remote than most of the others. Unfortunately, remote locations usually develop “tribal” ways of operating that are sometimes more difficult to break through.

But the bigger problem here was the lack of tenacity on the part of the change agent himself. While Mark had lots of experience in the learning and development world, he had very little in managing change. As a result, he was taken aback by the level of resistance and quickly buckled under the mounting pressure.

fctc-online-bannerThe program ended up being a runaway success (we had supervisors and managers placing themselves on waiting lists for the chance to attend the initial training).  But there is no question in my mind that if Mark had lacked the help and support of the rest of us, the new program would never have made it out of the gate in his area.

Back to Mark’s email. My initial response to it consisted of four words: “Fear tastes like chicken.”

I saw that on a T-shirt about 30 years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. Isn’t that what people usually say when they try describing the taste of some new or exotic source of protein? Frog legs come to mind. Ask anyone who has eaten them and they’ll probably tell you it tastes kind of like chicken.

The saying is meant to convey the fact that there’s nothing to fear by trying something new. That not only is it not as bad as it sounds, but it’s actually pretty darn good.

The same is true of managing change. High levels of resistance make us want to quit. After all, who in the world wants to deal with all that? If they resist my ideas, then if I persist with them they’ll eventually direct those negative sentiments toward me personally. I don’t want them not to like me, so I’ll just give in.

It’s a common story, but it’s one that can easily be avoided by applying some simple principles of change management. We’ll start looking at some of those principles in our next issue.  But that’s it for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS. Until next time.

~ES [/content_protector]

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.