Keeping Safety Leadership Moving Forward

Stopping to admire yourself quells momentum forward; becoming overly self-satisfied is one of the biggest enemies of moving ahead.

Ever watched a sports match where, in the middle of a game, it seems as if a switch were turned on and one team suddenly became more switched on, coordinated, clicking on all cylinders, playing at a higher level?

The team is said to have "momentum," which can appear out of nowhere and evaporate as quickly as it came. I've seen this being-in-the-right-groove sustained over a season and also watched it last for only a short time when a team made a run at its opponent that ultimately fizzled. The lesson? Igniting higher-level functioning is good, but sustaining effectiveness creates winners.

The art of Parkour is a physical and mental discipline for sustaining forward momentum and maintaining balance while moving smoothly over difficult obstacles. Practitioners such as my son Brian can be ardent about this discipline. If you've seen "The Prince of Persia," "District B13," the opening of "Casino Royale," or other movies, you're already familiar with some of the amazing movements people can make when traversing a path from one point to another. These impressive feats include running up a wall to get purchase on a ledge and then pulling their body up, leaping then rolling safely from seemingly bone-breaking heights, jumping toward and then sticking to a narrow beam -- and much more. All of these Cirque du Soleil-like results accomplished by regular people who, in a relatively short time, have learned mechanisms for continuing mental and physical momentum.

While continuing forward force may appear mysterious, if you understand momentum, you can nurture this positive energy toward safety leadership objectives. That is: to turn around safety disinterest into safety advocacy, to change an individual's "I'm clumsy and an accident waiting to happen" mentality to one of surefootedness and self-control, to change the cultural norm from lackadaisical, leery or left-out to confident, concentrated, and committed.

How can you apply this to elevating safety performance and culture?

1. Find the right path. Adam Dunlap, Chief Instructor of Revolution Parkour (http://www.revolutionparkour.com), emphasizes maintaining balance and coordination when on the move. He says that at times it's better and ultimately faster to select a slightly circuitous route than a direct line that would likely slow you down or otherwise stymie your efforts, causing you to lose momentum. In the same vein, wise leaders learn to bypass major pockets of resistance in their efforts to inspire change forward rather than running perpendicularly into a stone wall. (By the way, when Parkour adepts "wall run" to get over and around a lower-lying obstacle, they always approach the vertical surface at an angle, never straight on, applying the physical principle "The Angle of Incidence Equals the Angle of Reflection").

As implementers of movement safety systems, we've seen how small changes can make significant impacts in movement-related injuries of strains/sprains, slips/trips/falls, and hand injuries.

2. Mentally project yourself forward. Develop vision to simultaneously see foreground, midground, and background. That is, don't solely focus on where you currently are nor where you wish to be, but work on developing the ability to be able to see Now, Next Path, and Later Avenue (i.e., present, next steps, and the path forward) . Keeping visual momentum going is a principle taught by some skid-control driver training schools. ("Stare into the turn rather than steer into the turn.")

3. Maintain your liquidity. Don't get stuck on any one project or idea like this: A manager in a wood processing facility became fixated on everyone's wearing hearing protection, including office staff who didn't have exposure to noise beyond acceptable limits. By insisting on 100% compliance, this leader sidetracked the site's potential progress toward other safety objectives.

Especially, don't stop your progress by attempting to cram poorly understood policies or procedures down workers' throats. Strong leaders are careful not to incite active resistance that would drag and mire forward movement. Also, be sure to retire go-through-the-motions interventions that no longer motivate (which means "to create movement") positive actions.

4. Keep moving forward -- even if gradually at times. Pacing is important. You can further momentum by remaining fluid, continuing to move forward, not allowing static loading forces to mount and freeze you into place. Think of crossing a rushing stream by moving from rock to rock. Often you just have to keep going; stopping on one rock stills your forward progress and can leave you stranded midstream. The same is true for moving from one end of a row of monkey bars to the other side. You don't have to move quickly, just continuously.

Stopping to admire yourself quells momentum forward; becoming overly self-satisfied is one of the biggest enemies of moving ahead. I've seen organizations that made significant strides in safety culture and injury prevention get caught into a plateau mostly due to their being overly proud of their past accomplishments. Executives didn't want to hear they weren't world-beaters, so next-level managers shielded executives from any "unpleasant" news. Yet another organization placed itself at higher risk of shoulder strains from patting themselves too much on the back. In a sense, fixating on looking backward at how far they've come can lead some to no longer be able to effectively move forward.

And keep your workforce actively moving, even in small ways -- participating in pilot groups that demonstrate or test prospective tools, designs, or training; strategy sessions for considering new directions; safety committees that elicit grassroots feedback and help pave the surface for rolling forward more easily. Involve all in brief interviews and personal safety goal-setting -- and do this regularly, not just once as a "program."

5. Condition for moving forward. In addition to employing the above strategies, you have to develop a state of readiness for forward movement. Strengthen momentum musculature. Part of the conditioning for continual progress comes from drawing attention to the progress that's already been made -- this helps build a belief in people that they can continue to move forward and overcome future obstacles. But then help them look toward next steps, rather than resting on past laurels. ("Look what we've already accomplished; I believe this shows we can continue to reach even higher levels.")

You can strengthen your leadership and organizational results by developing positive organizational momentum, continually moving safety performance and culture forward.

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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