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May 26, 2015

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Problems with safety leadership – working with resistance to change

By Dave Nicholls, global HSE manager, Wood Group PSN

As safety professionals you should anticipate resistance to change when driving improvements in safety leadership in your organisations. You will almost certainly be asking your leaders to change their behaviours in some way – it can get personal!

Let’s look at the type of resistance you might get and when it is likely to occur. In my experience resistance manifests itself in two forms:

  • Organisational – due to organisational constraints such as resource limitations (people, time, money), clashes with other significant organisational change (e.g. mergers); misalignment with business philosophy and processes; and
  • Individual – this may manifest itself randomly among your safety leaders (it really is personal!) or you may see resistance across a particular group of safety leaders e.g. supervisors.

When are you likely to face these forms of resistance? I would suggest at two stages:

  • Proposal – organisational resistance should be anticipated when you are trying to gain senior leadership approval for an improvement plan. You may also face individual or group resistance from your senior leadership; and
  • Implementation – this is where you are likely to face individual and group resistance. It is difficult to predict, the underlying causes can be hard to identify and it can be challenging to manage.

So what can you do to overcome resistance and maximise your chances of success at the proposal and implementation stages?

Engagement and communication are the keys. Engage early with your senior leadership. Let them help you understand the ‘bigger picture’ and use that information to develop solutions that are a good fit for your organisation. Engage with the stakeholders that are going to be affected by your proposals. Explain what you are trying to achieve and why it is important. Get them involved in developing the solutions. The more buy-in you can secure the more likely you are to succeed when it comes to implementation. This type of engagement can be time consuming, especially in large organisations and you may not have time on your side. If that’s the case simply do your best to maximise engagement in the time available.

Working with resistance to change can be frustrating but nothing that a bit of patience, tenacity and perseverance cannot overcome. But what happens when you hit a brick wall of resistance? In my last blog I mentioned getting stealthy with your tactics. Try focussing on making small incremental changes to existing practices. They are more likely to be accepted. For example: a safety feature added to a regular team briefing, safety elements added to a management walkabout, re-energise the safety committee. You may not have got your ‘big bang’ in safety leadership but these small changes all add up and are worth doing.

In my next and final blog I want to explore behaviours in relation to safety leadership.

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