This question is often asked as organisations and leaders wrestle with how to improve safety at the individual, team and organisational wide levels. While the question may shed some useful insights it is potentially too narrow a starting question, limiting inquiry and reinforcing existing biases. Maybe we need to start with the broader question of how is safety understood and defined in the organisation? The answer to this question will help in thinking through what makes for effective safety leadership?
Safety has historically been defined as the absence of unwanted events, where the metric of success has been seen primarily as the reduction in the number of incidents and injuries. This has led to leaders to see the main objective of safety as placing more barriers, constraints and rules to prevent unwanted events. The focus is primarily about ‘unsafe’, how do we stop things from going wrong? While this makes sense when trying to limit serious injuries and fatalities but when applied more broadly it creates a considerable performance drag and drives a range of unintended behaviours from meaningless compliance to disengagement for those doing the work. Through this lens safety leadership becomes an exercise of directing and telling people the what and the how of what to do. Leaders are seen as the experts with the remit of challenging people’s attitudes and behaviours and increasing their commitment to safety.
There is an alternate view of safety. What if safety was viewed as building greater capacity rather the absence of unwanted events? What if safety was seen as a direct output of the way work is designed, resourced and lead rather than a technical compliance related activity? What if safety was more about understanding variability, the inevitable gap that arises between ‘work-as-intended’ and ‘work-as-done’? If leaders viewed safety through this lens they would find themselves asking more useful questions, such as what do people need more or less of to effectively deal with this everyday variability? How can I meaningfully contribute to improving resilience in the workplace?
Viewed through this frame effective safety leadership focuses on enabling people to successfully adapt and increase operational resilience. The goal becomes one of creating an environment where people can actively discuss and proactively address variability. One thing that might help in this endeavour is for leaders to become more curious. Edgar Schein a leading organisational culture thinker argues that leaders need to become ‘humble inquirers’, where their expertise and judgement is suspended in order to better understand the work and ultimately safety,
Here are two curiosity challenges you might like to take on
1. Choose a specific work process or task and spend some time asking people who designed, resourced and delivered the work two questions.
Try to resist the urge to answer from your own experience and knowledge, encourage people not to give you the answers they expect you might want to hear, and be willing to be surprised.
a. What does success look and feel like when the work is being undertaken?
b. What do you and others rely on for this work to be successful?
2. After taking time to reflect on what was discussed take the opportunity to ask three further questions:
a. In the work you do, where is the biggest gap between ‘work-as-intended’ and ‘work-as-done’?
b. When is this gap a concern and could lead to a gradual ‘drift to failure’?
c. What could I do to set you and your team up for greater success in this work?
As you engage in these conversations reflect on the thought that maybe your capacity to facilitate genuine curiosity, openness and mutual trust might be the keys to effective safety leadership.