By Andrew Sharman
Traditionally, when it comes to workplace safety, we focus on the what – the processes, systems and activities, the audits, investigations and inspections, the reviews, checks and balances. Safety departments load up on action lists as they devise strategic plans that move them forward in their relentless pursuit of zero accidents.
In 2014 Simon Sinek gave a TED talk focused on the importance of working out the reason why we do what we do. His book, ‘Start with Why’, became mandatory reading on the lists of many business schools as leaders were compelled to find their ‘golden circle’ and hit on the real reason why they do what they do.
At around the same time there was an organisational resurgence of social conscience as safety policies, programs and campaigns re-positioned people at the heart of safety with slogans like ‘Safety first’, ‘Good Safety is Good Business’. Mirrors in washrooms declared that ‘YOU are responsible for safety’ and photographs of workers’ children adorned canteen walls reminding mummy and daddy to come home safely, as health and safety practitioners explained how safety could benefit the so-called corporate ‘triple bottom line’ of People, Plant and Profit.
Starting with why sounds good; Sinek may be on to something. But if, once we’ve confirmed why we’re doing safety – to keep our people safe and working efficiently – we revert back to doing what we’ve always been doing with those systems, audits and inspections, will it really get us to where we want to be?
In 1964 Ella Fitzgerald gently crooned “It ain’t what you do” (“…it’s the way that you do it”). Never regarded as Ella’s best work, the downtempo melody was enjoyed by some but largely fell away un-noticed by the masses. In 1982, Fun Boy Three and Banarama covered the song and it hit the top of the UK charts. Despite the popularity of the tune, I can’t help but wonder whether we missed something. Today, the original lyrics are still buzzing around my head and frequently feature in my discussions with leaders around the globe as they seek the ‘silver bullet’ to creating a step-change in their organizational safety cultures. Usually received with a dismayed grimace, I tell the leaders the same thing. There ain’t no silver bullet. It really is about how you do what you do that makes the difference.
Earlier this year, the HOW Report set out its manifesto for rethinking the source of resiliency, innovation and growth – it’s a brilliant piece of work.
The report begins with an apparently simple proposition – that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to align employees to deliver against the progressively complex and challenging objectives they are given. It argues that these objectives are presented to workers due to the growing challenge faced by business leaders – not simply to manage organisations and employees, but also to worry about the state of the economy and the society which envelopes their organisation as they lurch towards an ever-uncertain future.
As we contend with the dynamics of operating in a rapidly-changing globally interdependent world business leaders are constantly having to rethink the way the very nature of how they lead, how their organisations operate, and how their people work. Shouldn’t health and safety practitioners be doing the same?
The HOW Report studied 40,000 employees across 17 countries and revealed some fascinating insights. Top of the list was that self-governing organisations, those that go beyond classic models of compliance, are the ones that perform best in the marketplace, both locally and globally.
Every one of these organisations seem to have three things in common:
In our own work improving culture and enabling excellence in safety for organizations around the globe we find that these three things are there in every company we consider to be ‘best-in-class’ in terms of safety.
But how isn’t just a question, it’s the answer too. We’ve evolved through the stone age, the industrial age, the age of technology, and we’re now in the age of uncertainty. To be precise, we’re in the Era of Behaviour.
Trust, values and a sense of purpose form the currency of the working world– well, at least in those organisations who are thinking ahead of the curve – as they act as the glue to bind together leadership, governance and management systems and define corporate culture. In recent years we’ve learned that culture is the differentiator.
No matter where you look today, the defining factor is behaviour. It’s the single most important differentiator, and it alone allows organisations to outperform their competitors, and even their own performance plans.
Self-governance is rare across the globe with only 3% of respondents reporting a high level of self-governing behaviour within their organisations .
Whilst many organisations have at least some degree of self-governance, it’s rarely their main modus operandii. Command-and-control relationships between leaders and followers continue to dominate the working world and when it comes to matters of workplace safety manifest as rules and policies, safety objectives, and performance-based recognition and reward activities such as generating pre-requisite numbers of near miss reports or attaining certain injury frequency rates.
Self-governing organisations outperform other types of organisations across every important performance outcome.
Self-governing organisations consistently outperform competitors because they are more innovative, adopt best practice ideas faster and retain high quality employees by generating higher levels of job satisfaction. Further, they experience less misconduct, as a just culture encourages employees to report misbehaviour and feel free to speak up and share their ideas and experiences without fear of reprisal.
There is marked disconnect between senior leadership and employees
Time and time again executives paint a brighter picture of the organisations than employees do. Isn’t the same true in safety as managers conclude that accidents were the fault of an employee’s lack of intelligence, attention, competence, failure to follow rules, or just plain bad luck?
Trust, shared values and a deep sense of and commitment to purpose produce significant competitive advantage
Trust, values and purpose have twice the positive impact on performance as the HOW Report’s second tier of behaviours which included information-sharing, collaboration, speaking up, resiliency and operational efficiency. Where organisations have a solid foundation of trust, values and purpose this has an amplifying effect on the second tier behaviour which produces a much stronger impact on positive outcomes and in developing a robust, sustainable corporate culture.
So what does all this mean for safety? Well, culture as a deliberate, conscious, living long-term strategy can certainly answer the WHAT question – and be the key to organisational difference, opening the door to sustainable success in the 21st century.
Behaviour is the single biggest differentiator in business today, so the HOW comes down to the leaders’ ability to step through the door and pioneer new approaches on the journey to zero accidents, good governance and effective leadership. Some suggestions (tweaking those given in the HOW Report) for us as safety leaders might include:
And the WHY? Well, that’s entirely up to you. Just bear in mind Ella’s advice: “it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, and that’s what gets results”.
Andrew’s best-selling book From Accidents to Zero: A Practical Guide to Improving Your Workplace Safety Culture is available to SHPonline readers with an exclusive 25% discount. A new book Safety Savvy, co-authored with Dr Tim Marsh, is also available on this special offer. Use the code SHP25 at www.fromaccidentstozero.com to order your copies of both books now.