Persuading Real Leadership Accountability

The best "accountability" is arrived at and embraced within, rather than pushed upon leaders from without.

I've heard a lot of talk, read many postings on how best to hold senior executives and managers "accountable for Safety." But there are far more effective approaches to elevate performance and culture.

The good news, Part 1, is many safety professionals are highly dedicated and don't brook what they see as any violation of policies or procedures. They may be the only people in an organization for whom Safety is preeminent. But for many executives, Safety is one of many objectives they're juggling -- along with quality, engagement, bargaining unit negotiations, productivity, investment/shareholder relations, and more.

When managers and supervisors are overstretched -- and where now is this not the case? -- even downward command-and-control leadership is limited because there's no practical way to closely and ongoingly monitor each worker's actions. It's even more toothless with senior managers, accountability over whom you don't have direct power.

Word choices set expectations. Anyone who makes what amounts to veiled threats (which, in my mind, "hold accountable" language does) loses credibility when they don't have the means to enforce these expectations. And even when it's possible to directly pressure someone into changing their actions -- and this can require significant amounts of energy -- you'll only achieve partial results. As Intel Chair emeritus Andrew Groves contended, "Fear never motivates peak performance, only minimal performance."

Further, even well-intentioned attempts to forcibly raise safety's profile can backfire and may cast professionals in a negative light. I've too often heard executives confide about a Safety professional, "He/she is really knowledgeable, but no leader." Ouch! The kiss of influence and career stasis.

As a charter member of the Personal Responsibility fan club, I invite you to expand your view of "accountability"; I think there are three types. Most default towards the first, "sanctions" (i.e., punishment for doing bad things or not doing good ones). The second is reinforcement for those exhibiting desired actions so these don't fall by the wayside. The third is transferring skills to those who are motivated to "comply" but just don't know what to do or how to do it.

The good news, Part 2? In working with senior executives in many large corporations, I've found that persuasion is more likely to create turnaround action than a "staunch" you-have-only-one-choice-approach. That is, if you approach it the right ways:

* Apply Personal Leverage. Because we have most ready control of ourselves first, I initially focus on where I'm accountable, what I could do differently to better clarify expectations, reinforce positive acts, transfer necessary skills. Taken further, if senior execs aren't actively and effectively leading safety, what is my part in this? What am I doing/not doing that contributes to this? Privately, I consider my own actions/inactions as the critical starting point.

* Select your terms. Make sure your language opens the gates to highest-level improvements. I suggest getting away from "hold accountable" type language, moving more toward "persuading," "influencing," "supporting," or "moving to a higher level."

* Focus on the downhill battle. I've found that, even in tight times (perhaps because of these financial straits?), senior leadership is often strongly interested in Safety -- much more overall than even five years ago. This is especially so when they clearly know specifically how to take action. But because many executives are accustomed to having control, my strategic key is to provide them with options, any of which is doable and leads to positive results. This, along with setting expectations for leveraging minimal time to effect significant improvements (rather than expecting them to put aside everything else to make Safety their main thrust).

* Enlist the four steps in any successful persuasion process. While, of course, there's no one magical way to reach everyone, I've found these stages apply well to both one-on-one conversations and executive briefings.

1) Get their attention. This can be accomplished many ways -- citing a recent issue in the news, a window of significant opportunity, competitors' approaches, etc.

2) Elicit their interest. Offer benefits to them as both leaders and for the organization (e.g., stand out as a leader in Safety to get a competitive advantage with customers).

3) Build their trust by fully preparing, showing your commitment to support their leadership, providing straight talk, giving them choices and respecting their scheduling limitations.

4) Invite their commitment, clarifying the small actions they can take that can make a real difference. Carefully and respectfully acknowledging their critical role as models, trendsetters and leaders. Reminding them how much influence they can have with relatively little time investment on their part.

Of course, how you do something is often more telling than what you do. Giving short shrift to any step -- or failing to be adequately prepared to make a strong case that is customized to executives' and the company's current challenges and concerns -- will weaken any attempt to effectively persuade.

The best "accountability" is arrived at and embraced within, rather than pushed upon leaders from without. With the right strategic approach, you can considerably activate senior leaders' commitment to safety.

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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