The health & safety servant leader
The health and safety industry attracts talent for a number of reasons, from the ability to apply transferable operational skills to the psychology of behaviour change, but undoubtedly there is a significant moral driver amongst health and safety professionals to help others.
In The Servant as Leader, published in 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf describes servant leadership as follows:
“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first… The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”
Modern application of this servant leadership philosophy is alive and well, and I am very pleased to introduce you to a passionate advocate of this approach and the impact it can make to address health and safety within organisations in more meaningful ways. Clinton Horn is the Divisional Health, Safety & Wellbeing Manager for the BAM Nuttall Ltd and a member of the Acre Frameworks Advisory Panel. Clinton believes the role of H&S professionals transcends technical expertise, requiring a human-centred approach to create organisational change. Join me in exploring the application of servant leadership in health and safety through Clinton’s eyes, and equally how you can take these concepts back into your workplace to build better relationships and improve your ability to influence.
I started out by asking Clinton to describe in his own words what an ‘H&S servant leader’ is:
“For me, the role of the Health & Safety practitioner is not only to protect life, but also to enhance life, including physical and mental wellbeing. The servant-leader’s attributes of genuine care for others, as well as a deep empathetic approach to understanding the psychosocial factors in the workplace and how people interact within a system, can really prove effective to better understand the dynamic nature of risk, and the inevitable variability that is constantly “attacking” all of our well-intended safety risk management systems and procedures. I have long believed that in order to achieve true worker resilience, with improved organisational performance and resilience (to the variability) as a direct outcome, then we need to humanise safety.
“If we are serious about wanting to better understand these psychosocial factors in the workplace and the variability to develop smarter, more resilient systems to mitigate the effects of these “attacks”, then we also need to move away from a default position of looking for blame whenever the outcome is not what we had envisioned.
“If there is one thing that we can be certain about, it is that people adapt how they work depending on the local circumstances, environment and situation regardless of what our “paper safety” system says. If our starting position is one of looking for non-compliance or “at risk behaviour”, followed by the ensuing negative consequence/discipline in such situations, we are effectively closing the door on the learning that these situations have to offer – from a safety risk management perspective, that should terrify us!
“However, it is only by creating the conditions necessary to support this learning that we can really start to identify how work is actually done and, more importantly, the frequent disconnect between theory (systems and perception) and practice (how work actually ends up being carried out). This is where the servant-leader approach can prove really effective in unlocking learning. At the heart of such conducive learning conditions is a tangible sense of trust, value, respect, and empowerment that is then able to contribute to worker development, resilience, and more desirable organisational outcomes – whether it be job satisfaction, safety, wellbeing, sustainability, profit, customer satisfaction, and so on.
“We often see organisations trying to “procedure-out” all forms of non-compliance and “at risk behaviour”, which provides limited returns and does not typically address the more complex underlying psychosocial, organisational, and systemic factors that are shaping or influencing the reasons behind any non-compliance (to the system). Yet, it is precisely these factors where much of the variability “hides”, which we need to be taking far more of an active interest in, but unfortunately almost never do.
“The Health & Safety servant-leader employs a more humanistic approach that is both wise and empathetic to these performance shaping factors. In essence, by being willing to view and understand the place of work through the eyes of the frontline teams, we can learn from them and capitalise on their capacity to adapt to the constant variability.
“The better we get at this, the more we start to differentiate between the conditions more likely to support more resilient performance adaptations and those conditions more likely to result in less resilient performance adaptations. It then follows that the better we become at understanding these conditions, the more we start to see frontline teams as being a fundamental part of the solution to improved organisational performance, as opposed to the problem to constrain and control through a purely systems compliance driven approach.
“With the business world being increasingly economically constrained and commercially competitive, I see the servant-leader approach as being an essential part of the safety risk management strategy. By better understanding these performance shaping factors and the adaptive capacity of frontline teams, we start to see this capacity as an essential defence (resilience) to much of the constant variability, as opposed to something that is detrimental to organisational performance and therefore needs to be stamped out through overly onerous and bureaucratic systems. The irony of such a bureaucratic approach is that it actually does very little to address the more complex underlying systemic and organisational factors. This approach actually introduces additional variability into the organisation that frontline teams then have to deal with, rather than support the desired efficiencies organisations seek.”
The health and safety profession has historically largely relied on control and legislation to influence others to change behaviour. I asked Clinton what changes he would need to see in the profession to feel there was a culture of servant leadership emerging:
“Firstly, I do not believe in the notion of safety culture or behaviour-based safety, as that implies that safety culture and safety behaviour is somehow mutually excluded from organisational culture and organisational behaviour – that is simply not true. Safety performance, just as any other organisational function, is an outcome and a direct reflection of how the many component parts that make up an organisation interact, and therefore perform.
“In order to understand and address the common disconnect between theory and practice, we need to better understand the constant performance trade-offs between efficiency and thoroughness that frontline teams are having to navigate on a daily basis. This is often as a direct result of lacking, inefficient or ineffective resources (time, people, cost, equipment, materials, system requirements etc). In essence, the resources are inadequate to support the desired performance outcomes in the given situation.
“This is something that under a purely systems-compliance approach to safety risk management, we are generally not very good at seeking to understand and consider. In turn, these trade-offs almost always go unseen. However, for the most part, and in reality, these performance trade-offs, as a result of the adaptive capacity of frontline teams, are successful and contribute to successful (desired) organisational outcomes. We are just “blinded” to them because we have never really looked for them or understood them. We are also not taught about them in the health and safety education/qualification curriculum.
“By adopting a servant-leader approach, we can better understand what these trade-offs look like and how they manifest. If we capitalise on the learning potential from these performance trade-offs, we can then know how to better support this adaptive capacity to be more resilient, which lends a much needed and welcomed defence within our safety risk management strategy.
“What this looks like in practice is an empathetic sense of curiosity in everything we see and every interaction we are involved in, and where we see every event (successful or otherwise) as an opportunity to learn. Perhaps most importantly, we do not wait for the undesired outcomes in order to learn because, here’s the thing: In order to understand why things sometimes go wrong, we first need to understand why, for the most part, they go well (i.e how work is actually being carried out).”
The word empathetic emerged on a number of occasions in our conversation so I asked Clinton to comment on the importance of empathy as a leader:
“Quite simply, without genuine empathy and care (as lived values), none of this works and organisations will continue to feel increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in performance. Frontline teams are intelligent people and they can see right through any rhetoric and “management speak”; when they do, they simply close off and increase their survival defences, which is hardly surprising when we consider that they have been at the receiving end of much of the consequential discipline and sanctioning whenever things go wrong for generations.”
Now for a very important question regarding the future trajectory of the health and safety profession: How does Clinton believe the industry can engage more people in setting out to pursue careers in H&S as a first career choice?
“As a profession, we still need to do a lot more to eradicate the often-associated negative stereotyping of the health and safety practitioner with one that recognises and celebrates the fundamental contribution that the health and safety profession has to organisational success, worker wellbeing, and job satisfaction.
“I believe that it is the responsibility of every health and safety practitioner to both own and champion the change in how our profession is often perceived within the media and discussed within society by the way in which we engage with all whom we serve and support (remember the servant leader is a servant first!). In addition, effective health and safety professionals are pragmatic and avoid overzealousness in how they interpret the intent behind legislation; they truly care for and enhance the lives and wellbeing of those whom they serve, and always remember that a purely compliance-biased approach will not support the desired changes to how our profession is portrayed and perceived. This is where the non-technical skills are essential and should be given equal weighting to the technical skills.
“For too long, health and safety has been measured by the absence of incidents (negatives), which is a rather odd measure because, surely, the presence of health and safety is the presence of positive outcomes. As someone way smarter than me once said: “I don’t know any other profession that measures the presence of their subject by its absence!”
“I believe that this can be re-balanced through the health and safety education and qualification curriculum. The body of knowledge around health and safety risk management as well as organisational and cognitive psychology has evolved substantially over the years and it would be great to see this new knowledge finding its way into how we prepare the next generation of health and safety practitioners. In addition, and in order to better equip and prepare the next generation of health and safety practitioners, it is important that all of those essential non-technical skills are included and given equal weighting to the technical skills – in itself, this will be a step-change.”
Clinton has recently committed to a big step in his own personal development – a doctorate programme. He explains what led him to pursue this path and what he aims to achieve through his studies:
“I may be a sucker for punishment, but I am genuinely excited about embarking on my PhD journey and all the rigours that PhD research entails. Being honest, if it was not for the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed my MSc postgraduate experience and discovered just how much I enjoy (yes, enjoy!) research, I almost certainly would never have thought of myself undertaking PhD-level research.
“However, I am certainly not putting myself and my family through a 6 year part-time PhD for fun! My decision was largely born out of a genuine interest, curiosity, and belief in the constantly evolving body of knowledge around how we approach and contextualise health and safety risk management. To satisfy my increasing curiosity in this space, and to be able to meaningfully contribute to the body of knowledge, PhD-level research was the natural way forward.
“I have been offered a placement at the highly acclaimed Loughborough University where my research will seek to provide a much richer understanding of the factors that influence the adaptive capacity of frontline teams within the construction industry, what differentiates the outcomes from these performance adaptations from one frontline team to another, and to evidence its contribution to organisational resilience. Nervous, yet excited about this next phase of my journey, comes to mind!”
To wrap up our interview, I asked Clinton to talk to me about purpose. Clinton comments on why he chose H&S as a career and what continues to motivate him to work in the profession:
“Like many in the profession, Health and Safety was not a first-choice career for me. I actually wanted to study to become a chiropractor when I graduated from school and although I did not end up pursuing my first choice, what the chiropractic and health and safety professions have in common are practitioners who are passionate about making a difference on people’s wellbeing. I cannot help but think that this is why when the opportunity presented itself I was naturally drawn towards Health and Safety.
“What continues to motivate and drive me as a Health and Safety practitioner, my “why”, is the satisfaction I get in building and nurturing those relationships, which allows me to contribute to people’s development and success in the workplace. In return, I grow and develop both personally and professionally through a much deeper understanding and appreciation of what success looks like from one person to the next.”
Clinton Horn is the Divisional Health, Safety & Wellbeing Manager for the BAM Nuttall Ltd Major Projects Division with over 15 years of health, safety and wellbeing experience within the construction industry. Clinton’s operational experience spans the likes of major strategic infrastructure projects in the UK, such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, the London 2012 Olympic Build, Tottenham Court Road Station Upgrade and the High Speed 2 rail project, as well as on major infrastructure and building projects in Australia. In his current role, Clinton supports the project health, safety and wellbeing teams on Hinkley Point C (KBJV), Crossrail (BFK), Tideway West (BMBJV) and HS2 (Fusion).
Through his own operational experience and knowledge within the industry, combined with his ongoing academic research in organisational psychology and resilience modelling, Clinton combines experience with the evidence-base to inform his approach to risk management. His approach is founded on the fact that, contrary to popular belief, an organisation’s safety performance is not somehow mutually exclusive from the rest of the organisation; instead, it is very much a reflection of how effective and resilient the many component parts of an organisation are at anticipating, adapting, and learning from the inevitable dynamic nature of risk and variability.
Hollnagel, E. (2009). The ETTO Principle: Efficiency-Thoroughness Trade-Off. Farnham, England: Ashgate.
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