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

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

Imagine you’re comfortably seated on a flight that’s going from Chicago to San Diego. Okay, “comfortably” may be a stretch these days with diminishing legroom and ever-narrowing seats, but try to imagine that anyway. Suddenly the pilot announces that you’ve been selected as “pilot for the day,” and invites you forward to receive the prize. Upon entering the cockpit, you discover an empty pilot’s chair and find the pilot motioning you into it. [content_protector password=”enable” identifier=”enable”]

He briefly explains that this is a new effort on the part of the airline to “empower” their customers. You stare blankly as you await instructions from the pilot, but no further instructions are given. Instead, the pilot turns and walks out the door, then slips quietly into your former seat—which you are now thinking wasn’t so uncomfortable after all!

Of course, that scenario would never happen because we all recognize the foolishness of attempting to fly a plane without proper training. No airline would put someone in the pilot’s seat unless that person is qualified to sit there. On a lesser scale, no company would put a front-line employee in the role of a director without the prerequisite grooming and training that person needs to perform the job well.

Yet, for some reason we seem to accept the notion that the “informal” activities around a culture change can be delegated to the inexperienced without proper training and skills building. As we saw in our last issue, when leading a safety-culture change we must recruit a volunteer force to help us lead the change, but we cannot expect them to succeed if they don’t know how to function in their new role.

Over the past several weeks we’ve been looking at ways to apply Kotter’s eight-step change-management method to a safety-culture change initiative. So far we’ve covered the first four steps. The fifth step (in Kotter’s original model as well as his revised) is to “enable” employees to take action. There are three primary concerns here. They include (1) how you are building capability into employees, (2) how you are removing structural obstacles, and (3) how you are aligning your processes and systems to the new vision.

Build Capability in Employee

If we want employees to take the reins and begin leading a safety culture, we have to show them what that looks like. And that’s best done through targeted skills training. For instance, do you want them to begin taking the lead with safety meetings, toolbox meetings, pre-shift meetings, etc.? Then you have to provide training that builds their confidence, their leadership presence and their facilitation skills. Do you want them to take the lead on coaching fellow employees? Then you have to provide training on how to have a non-threatening, non-confrontational conversation with a coworker, and provide a template for that conversation. Do you want them to begin making meaningful safety observations? Then you have to train them on how to observe conditions and behaviors in a quality way.

We often ask employees to step up and do these things without showing them how to do them or what “good” even looks like. I’ve found that most employees are willing to do them, but only if you are willing to show them how. Don’t assume they know how to do any of this by default.

Also, as I’m fond of saying, “training ain’t development.” Just because you’ve imparted some new knowledge or rational for how to lead a safety culture doesn’t mean they have the skills to do it. Your training should be skills-based training, not theoretical or philosophical training. Give them the opportunity to try out the new skills in a “safe” training environment, but don’t stop there. They’ll need to be coached on those skills afterwards once they are back in the workplace.

Remove Obstacles that Could Derail the Effort

Organizations with deeply siloed functional units can present a problem to a safety-culture change initiative. If we are telling employees that they are now empowered to “take action” to lead a safety culture in the organization, but they receive push-back when trying to do that across departmental lines, they may become discouraged upon discovering a lack of opportunity to lead that culture organization-wide. Stressing the importance of new organizational attitudes and behaviors, as well as a new approach to how the organizational structure is arranged (or merely viewed) is all part of managing a safety-culture change initiative.

While it may not be practical to revamp the company’s org chart, it is imperative that that org chart does not stand in the way of an employee-led safety culture. There is no one-size fits all here. Each company must discover for itself how it will handle its own organizational obstacles to a safety-culture change initiative.

Align Systems to the Vision

Just as earlier we noted the importance of aligning our communication to the vision, so we must also align organizational processes and systems to that vision. First and foremost are an organization’s HR processes. We’ll use recruiting, hiring and on-boarding as an example. What’s the criteria for hiring a new employee in light of the new safety culture? Facility managers who have experienced a significant incident or a fatality at their facility often take it upon themselves to change their own hiring criteria and interview questions to ensure they don’t end up hiring someone who wants to get the job done at any cost. This new attitude should be codified in official interview questions and hiring criteria.

Once we hire them, how are we on-boarding them and assimilating them into the culture? How are we changing our initial new-hire training to include safety-culture training (which is different from the required compliance training) so that we’re setting expectations right up front?

fctc-online-bannerBut let’s go beyond that. How are we incorporating their participation in a safety culture into our performance appraisals? How are we rewarding high scores in safety culture by tying them to compensation, promotions and succession planning? It’s a well-known maxim: “What gets measured and rewarded, gets done.” All of these processes must be aligned with the new safety-culture vision, else employees will fail to see how that vision connects to the things they perceive really matter to the organization.

We’ll look at Kotter’s next step in our next issue.  But 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.