New Rules of Safety: The savvy safety leader’s guide to spotting a wrong ‘un

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By Andrew Sharman

During our safety leadership workshops I’m often asked “What are the key traits or behaviours of a great safety leader?”

No matter where I am around the world, the question always pops up from both operational leaders and H&S practitioners, apparently keen to improve. My reply tends to based on a list of attributes of people I deem to be great leaders, which have become noticeable over a period of time.  It typically includes things like passion, integrity, dedication and selflessness. I can’t help but wonder though, if it’s time for a change of perspective.

Let’s flip it. “What are the characteristics of a bad safety leader?” I suggest, this is as important as the first question, but almost never asked.  Why?  Perhaps because we tend not to enjoy asking about negatives.  But here are some of the things bad safety leaders do well – just so that you can spot them from a distance and hopefully steer clear of them.

They always have an excuse – Leaders who never take responsibility for safety, are skilled at avoiding actions ascribed to them. Worse though, when held accountable for lack of action, or poor safety performance they always have an excuse, or find someone else to blame.  By contrast, great safety leaders admit to their shortcomings, mistakes or delays in action and seek to learn from these.  This of course is nigh impossible for those leaders who believe it was never their fault in the first place.

They talk nonsense – Practitioners who bamboozle with regulation citations or technical abbreviations, or managers who point to systems, rules and policies without having read them. Usually because they aren’t sure themselves of what they’re doing and need a crutch to prop them up.  If a leader can’t explain in plain language why safety is important, or what needs to be done to keep people from harm, be prepared for the worst.

Nice to see you – Great safety leaders from time to time need to make tough decisions. Whilst stakeholder management is important, leaders who spend hours striving to be liked and avoiding conflict at all costs will sooner or later find the game is lost and they’ve focussed on the wrong thing.

Obsessed with the size of their package – Hopping from organisation to organisation to scale the hierarchy as quickly as possible, chasing pension pots, better company cars and bigger bonuses. Great safety leaders have heart and soul, not necessarily a heavier payslip.

Chasing status – VP, director, department head, regional lead, or champion. Being a safety leader is a privilege not a title.  The fundamental reason behind working hard on improving safety is not the kudos but the satisfaction of knowing you make a difference to other people’s lives.

Business illiterate – Every manager in every business needs to understand how to manage risk and ensure their people are risk literate and work safely. Even if they have a great safety practitioner on hand they must be capable at assessing risks and influencing behaviour.

There’s no ‘I’ in team – It’s said that leaders can often be loners, but safety is a team game. If a leader cannot engage, encourage, and empower others to get involved the chances are forward progress will be marginal.  The best safety leaders are surrounded by enthusiastic and willing followers who simultaneously ‘get it’ and want to be part of the game.

Not practicing what they preach – The safety leader of a major global chemical company picked me up from the airport deeply engaged in a hand-held mobile phone conversation whilst driving. Realising he’d taken a wrong turn he stabbed his fingers at the GPS whilst steering with his knees.  The wellbeing manager for a household name left a two hour meeting no less than three times to go for a smoke.  Employees who had given a project manager the nickname the ‘safety cop’ complain that she never wears a hard hat when she visits the construction site.  Leadership is not just everything you do, it’s everything you don’t do, too.

It’s political – Some leaders use safety as a playing token, gambling with lives in order to progress their own careers. Short-term performance gains like apparent reductions on accident rates aren’t sustainable by leaders like this.  Great workplace safety sidesteps office politics, and keeps people at the heart of what’s going on.

I’m sure that readers will have their own horror stories of bad safety leaders to add to this list. Perhaps by highlighting what to avoid we can develop great leadership that benefits not just safety, but more broadly throughout our organisations.

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Andrew SharmanTamara ParrisTamara ParrisAndrew MacCuishPeter Mears Recent comment authors
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Matt
Matt

Good article and interesting perspective, with reference to the following paragraph: “Obsessed with the size of their package – Hopping from organisation to organisation to scale the hierarchy as quickly as possible, chasing pension pots, better company cars and bigger bonuses. Great safety leaders have heart and soul, not necessarily a heavier payslip” In today’s workplace it is sad to say that if one wants to get on in the world and largely their career loyalty and hardwork is rarely renumerated at the same level as moving from one project / role to another, and therefore i would disagree. You… Read more »

Andrew Sharman
Andrew Sharman

Hi Matt Thanks for your comment, yes, I agree, it is a sad state of affairs where personal development and success if not rewarded within an organization in the way it is when we transition to another. I’m not suggesting ambition and experience is a sign of a bad leader (in fact I’d agree with you and argue the opposite), but I do wonder whether constant bed-hopping (in a work sense!) does actually build the depth of experience that is often needed in safety and business more broadly. I propose that there’s a balance to be had between building experience… Read more »

Peter Mears
Peter Mears

An excellent article that perfectly sums up a specific group of so-called leaders – Politicians!

Andrew Sharman
Andrew Sharman

Hello Peter, thanks for your positive feedback. There is certainly plenty of ‘bad examples’ in the political arena right now. Each one a gem for learning how we can be better leaders!!! 😉

Andrew MacCuish
Andrew MacCuish

“It’s political – Some leaders use safety as a playing token, gambling with lives in order to progress their own careers. Short-term performance gains like apparent reductions on accident rates aren’t sustainable by leaders like this. Great workplace safety sidesteps office politics, and keeps people at the heart of what’s going on.” I see the above more and more and not just with safety professionals but across whole organisations. Safety is no more about people but rather performance on statistical information. It saddens me that there is such desire to get the numbers down at all cost. With no thought… Read more »

Andrew Sharman
Andrew Sharman

Hello Andrew, thanks for your comment. It’s a sad story you tell here – I think we need to get away from stats and find ways to bring the focus back to people. I’ve spent this morning working with a team of execs at a large multinational corporation where it took over an hour for them to agree on what exactly a Lost Time Accident was.

How have you successfully managed these challenges? What leading indicators are you using to re-personalise workplace safety?

Please do share your ideas here. With thanks in advance, Andrew

Tamara Parris
Tamara Parris

Really enjoyed your article Andrew, our community would enjoy your post and a discussion around this topic! I think being able to on alter for poor leadership traits is what helps create a strong value drive leader. especially enjoyed the points; – improving safety is not the kudos but the satisfaction of knowing you make a difference to other people’s lives. – manager in every business needs to understand how to manage risk and ensure their people are risk literate and work safely. – safety is a team game. If a leader cannot engage, encourage, and empower others to get… Read more »

Tamara Parris
Tamara Parris

*** I think being able to be on alert for poor leadership traits is what helps create a strong value drive leader.

Andrew Sharman
Andrew Sharman

Hey Tamara, thank you for your positive feedback, and for your further discussion on leadership traits. This is an essential part of the safety mix, and I hope that by reflecting on ‘bad leadership’ it encourages us to think more about how to avoid that, and to build great leadership amongst ourselves and our peers. Cheers, A

Author Bio ▼

Andrew Sharman

Andrew is the CEO of RMS Switzerland, a global consultancy specialising in safety behaviour, culture and leadership. With offices in the UK, and Switzerland.  RMS has an enviable track record of improving culture and enabling excellence for NGOs and blue chip organisations around the world through industry sectors including aviation, automotive, mining, construction, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, and FMCGs. Find out more at www.RMSswitzerland.com

Andrew is also Professor of Leadership & Safety Culture at the European Centre for Executive Development in Fontainebleau, France, and Professor of Risk Management at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.  He is a Chartered Fellow and Vice President of the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH); a Fellow of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management; and a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership & Management.

Far from being risk-averse, he loves adventure sports including climbing, free flying, sea kayaking and swimming with sharks. He uses these pursuits to re-energise the language, perceptions and functions of safety and risk management and align the disciplines with broader organisational issues driving positive impact and enhancing the performance of individuals, teams and businesses.

Read Andrew’s New Rules of Safety series on SHP here.

Andrew’s book From Accidents to Zero is one of the fastest-selling books on safety culture of the 21st  century, find out more at www.fromaccidentstozero.com and enter code SHP 25 to receive an exclusive 25% discount for SHPonline readers.

June 8, 2016

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