The Challenge of Balancing Core Safety Leadership

It takes a lot to be a great leader and even more to be an exceptional employee.

All the best leaders are dedicated to ongoing improvement, never standing back on any accomplishments. They don’t rest on any laurels for several reasons. This also strongly applies to safety leaders in particular, whose charge is to both continually help others, upgrade their mindsets, expectations and skills while simultaneously maintaining a mindful awareness of both ever-present potential risks and emerging, suddenly developing new exposures. This applies externally to attuning to hazards in the environment while still paying attention to internal contributing factors to potential injury such as balance and physical conditions that can change daily such as congestion (that might obscure scent of leakages or adversely affect balance), physical weakness from even minor overuse, accumulation of tension that can lead to wear-down and much more. It’s challenging to not have these obstacles under control during the job.

Some leaders approach their mission by defaulting to focus on what’s less than perfect, perhaps under the assumption that complimenting workers’ performance would only lead to their letting down their efforts. I’ve seen many operational leaders-of-people who continue to convey such dissatisfaction and disappointment. While this might spur some to boost their performance, my experience is this doesn’t work so well with most others, many of whom either give up trying in frustration – or who resent “it’s-never-enough”/perpetually-out-of-reach bar-raising, as well as those who disengage out of feeling unappreciated for the efforts they’ve extended. Keeping the heat ever turned up high is more likely to burn people out than it is to warm up their creativity, receptivity and dedication to safety. Former Intel CEO Emeritus Andrew Grove wrote in High Output Management, "Fear never creates peak performance, only minimal performance." Yet how much of Safety “motivation” is based on elevating or employing fear to attempt to get workers to act safe?

As in most things, I’m suggesting there’s a balance between applauding even small accomplishments with calls to ever improve. Robert Jarvik, M.D., inventor of the artificial heart, contended that the best leaders should be perpetually dissatisfied with the status quo. I suspect Dr. Jarvik was referring to continually upgrading a technological device designed to be the gateway between sudden death and a longer active life. But people aren’t machines to ever be redesigned.

The best leaders balance celebration of even small movement towards desired outcomes/bite-sized successes with a thrust for getting even better. I agree with Dr. Jarvik’s implication that, on one side, being overly satisfied lulls away the drive to seek improved safety processes, tools, PPE, procedures and skills. However, I’m also definitely not suggesting going to the opposite extreme. Best leaders don’t convey an ever-sour dissatisfaction with other people. Nor over-dwell on the downside of performance. They do not over-focus on what’s not totally perfect and most definitely do not wallow in depression or negativity.

Communicating to any extreme is easy--but extremely limited.

Here’s my self-leadership challenge: can I simultaneously convey:

*Thanks and approval for the efforts people have put in and the results they’ve achieved—even if this is only the “quarter-full” part of a cup.

*That this is a work in progress, that there’s no “perfect” safety performance or culture. That all change is incremental, there’s always something more to be done to improve.

*My belief that they can even further build on what they’ve already tried, learned and done

*That what we’re really shooting for, the highest level of anything—and very much so for safety—is not merely the absence of negative events but also the presence of positive actions and consequences

Ultimately, safety is not just about preventing injuries or making the company “look good” but about each of us living and working with energy, health, well-being on all levels, feeling good about ourselves and what we do, strengthening our peace of mind and getting done what’s important to us, both at work and at home.

I know that being overly self-satisfied is the beginning of sliding backwards towards plateaued or even diminishing performance. That even if I (rightly) campaign against worker, or executive, complacency, I have to also guard against my self-righteousness and hypocritically take for granted a desire to push others without respite—or fail to offer them tangible hope that they can indeed improve their lives. Not for my sake or that of their employer, but for themselves. Here’s another relevant Robert Jarvik quote: “Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them.”

It’s not easy to balance expectations of high performance with celebrating the movement towards improvement and offering thanks and support for accomplishments. The best leaders, however, don’t fear this balanced challenge and are more than willing to take it on. That’s a core attribute of the highest-level safety leaders and cultures I’ve seen.

This article originally appeared in the June 1, 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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