The Emerging Role of the Safety Professional: Part 2

Become a change agent for your own good and that of your organization.

As the business landscape continues to change, safety professionals are faced with rethinking their traditional role. Staying relevant as the organization changes means learning how to leverage your knowledge, skills, and experience in new ways. This article, the second in a series on the changing role of the safety professional, presents the case for transitioning from technical expert to change agent and outlines the core competencies of this new role.

The Technical Expert Trap
Safety today is increasingly treated as a business function with tangible business impacts, rather than as a discrete function managed by a handful of people. More organizations are expecting safety thinking and engagement from employees across levels and functions, including senior leaders. Alongside broader engagement, organizations also are identifying a wider scope of systems outside traditional safety silos that influence safety functioning.

These developments, while undoubtedly positive, pose a challenge to safety professionals. Simply put, a wider role for safety in the organization will mean an increased need for strategy and change management expertise and an increased demand for complex information about hazards and the factors that create them. For even the best safety professionals, being pegged as a “technical expert” without strategic capabilities can increasingly limit options and opportunities. Ultimately, it affects the ability to shape EHS functioning within the business.

If you are a technical expert in EHS, the good news is that you already have the skills and knowledge to contribute to safety strategy. The hard part will be gaining fluency in organizational change management and recasting yourself as an agent of change.

Core Competencies of a Change Agent
A change agent is in the business of advancing performance by identifying how to get there and enlisting others in that endeavor. Change agents in safety do not leave their technical expertise behind; they simply leverage it to develop strategies for sustainable, high-level performance. The difference between technical expert and change agent here is akin to the difference between a manager and a leader. One is concerned with the “what” of the safety objective and in executing the particulars, the other with the “how” of the objective and with guiding the strategy.

There are a number of elements that create effective change agents: remaining ever curious, continuous learning, and building fluency in the behavioral sciences, consequence management, exposure recognition and reduction, and other tools for safety improvement. At its core, the competencies of an effective change agent come down to three things: knowing and maintaining focus on the safety objective, understanding behavior, and understanding culture and safety climate.

Knowing the focus
As a technical expert, you have a focus on safety that probably has been on the particulars: what hazards exist where and what systems are needed to mitigate them. As a change agent, you need to develop a view of the performance target that is high and broad. The ultimate goal of any safety effort is to reduce exposures. Rather than concentrate only on finding and removing exposures, a high and broad focus looks for how exposures are created by organizational systems and the interactions of people with technology and processes.

Organizations striving to create a zeroinjury culture need this view in order to identify previously unknown or underappreciated exposures and to ensure the mechanisms they install are effective at controlling them. By providing this view, you allow your organization to move away from “chasing injuries” to managing risk within the fabric of the business itself.

Understanding behavior
Safety professionals are often drawn into discussions about behavior: namely, how do we get people to do the right things in the right way? From an on-the-ground perspective, the solution to a safety-related behavior—for example, employees not intervening when they see a peer working at risk—might seem simple. Develop a checklist, put people in a training session, and tell them we expect them to do it. This might work if the only barrier to the behavior was a lack of awareness or feedback skills. As a change agent, however, you need to know exactly what factors are driving this behavior in order to forward the right solution.

A very helpful tool for safety professionals is ABC Analysis, a method that helps decipher what influences organizational behavior. We analyze the behavior by defining an example of it. (For example: “An employee does not stop a co-worker who is about to start grinding without a face shield.”) Talking to employees, we might find that the antecedents (triggers) of this negative behavior are:

• I am afraid it will start a conflict. • I am too busy.

• The person has more seniority than me.

• They should know better.

• No one else intervenes.

• It is the supervisor’s job.

• The person wouldn’t listen to me anyway.

• I didn’t think they would get hurt.

• I do it the same way.

• I am not really sure how to do this.

These particular antecedents tell us that the triggers are primarily culture and climate. We only find one system issue (lack of skill) and no conditional issues that are triggering the behavior.

The next step is to identify the consequences— defined here as what the person actually receives as consequences, not what we think they are going to get or consequences to the organization. For this part of the analysis, you can ask, “What’s in it for the person to do this behavior?” The answers could be:

• I avoid conflict.

• I get my work done.

• I don’t look like I am “sucking up” to the boss.

• I stay friends with the person.

• I don’t embarrass myself.

• I could get in trouble.

• I feel guilty if they get hurt.

Consequences vary in power based on timing, consistency, and significance. Consequences that happen quickly after the behavior are more powerful than those that have a delay (sooner versus later). Consequences that are more likely to happen “this time” are more powerful than those that are unlikely (certain versus uncertain). Finally, consequences I view as positive are much more desirable to me than a negative consequence. So consequences that are soon/certain and positive (S/C/+) are more powerful. Here, the analysis might look like:

I avoid conflict S/C/+

I get my work done S/C/+

I don’t look like I am sucking up to the boss S/C/+

I stay friends with the person S/C/+

I don’t embarrass myself S/C/+

Not intervening becomes OK S/C/+

I feel guilty if the person gets hurt L/U/-

I could get into trouble L/U/-

In this instance, there are six very powerful consequences reinforcing the undesired behavior. The “train and tell” approach we might have attempted before the analysis would clearly not produce sustainable improvement. In fact, this analysis suggests that an intervention higher up in the organization, where culture is created, might be more productive. The particulars of your analysis, the nature of antecedents and consequences— and, therefore, the remedy—will change depending on your organization and the behavior you investigate. The point is that when you are able to dig into what shapes a behavior, you gain a better understanding of how to change it.

Understanding culture and safety climate
Finally, change agents are versed in the organizational factors that shape outcomes. In the ABC analysis above, we gained an insight into how attitudinal, climatic, and cultural factors can have a strong influence on individual behavior. Culture here refers to the shared values and beliefs of an organization. Climate is the prevailing influences on a particular area of functioning (such as safety) at a particular time. One can think of culture as background influence on the organization, while climate is foreground. Climate changes faster than culture, often very quickly after a significant incident. Without significant and conscious effort, however, the underlying culture is likely not to change sufficiently to prevent further incidents. As the saying goes, “When strategy meets culture, culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Culture is a creation of leadership. To become an effective change agent, the safety professional must understand the ways in which leaders are shaping culture (through their behaviors, decisions, and influence styles) and what effect that is creating on safety functioning. As a change agent, you must alert leaders when they are taking the short view, challenge a strategy that is not going to deliver sustainable improvement, and provide sound recommendations for how to proceed.

Putting the Pieces Together
Transitioning from technical expert to change agent does not happen overnight; the competencies outlined here take study, practice, and persistence. While there will always be a need for technical expertise, assuming a strategic capability positions you to become an invaluable asset to your organization, enhance your professional satisfaction, and ultimately advance your mission as a safety professional: protecting lives and livelihoods.

Read the entire "Emerging Role" series: Part 1 Part 3 Part 4

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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