Autopiloting Leadership and Safety

Safety goes beyond what you think or say; it’s revealed when there’s no time to

Leaders know how important developing strategy is to setting the course. But if you aspire to highest levels of performance, you’ve got to go beyond just focused thinking. Martial arts adepts know this. When the attack comes unannounced (or shifts unexpectedly), there’s really no time to assess, analyze, or weigh options. Think too much and you’ll get hit— or worse. Does the adrenaline rush or fear control you, or are you able to harness this energy toward helping you move faster and more efficiently to the safest place?

Further, consider the ancient samurai expression, “To know and to act are precisely the same.” On one level, this implies you’ve got to do something, not just think about it. Additionally, actions don’t only speak louder than words; they reveal a person’s real knowledge, abilities, and values. I frequently hear people say “I understand” but continue acting in same-old ways that further entrench them into something that’s unworkable.

Things keep changing, whether we like it or not— surprising, even potentially blindsiding us, both on a leadership level (economic, regulatory, or political changes) and to on-the-floor personal safety (machine breaks down, weather suddenly changes, seemingly sudden physical changes of balance, and more). So what do you do when the unexpected happens?

This is where your default training comes into play. Think of developing an autopilot program that builds in best responses to a range of unexpected changes. But how can you plan to react reflexively to what’s in the future?

Start by looking ahead. Use forward thinking to envision potential scenarios. Then set your reactions in advance. What if a forklift suddenly appears when I turn a corner in the plant? If a car in oncoming traffic swerves into my lane out of the blue? What if I’m carrying something on the stairs and I begin to stumble down? Or if an aggressive bee flies through the window when driving on the freeway—and you’re allergic (true story)?

Without presetting reactions, the around-the-corner or traffic surprise or potentially deadly bee can lead to freezing, locking up, being a victim to whatever transpires when the better reaction would be to move.

When transiting a worksite, an executive who espouses the importance of safety can count on being constantly watched to see if she’s really practicing what she speeches. So what do you do when a worker catches you not wearing prescribed eye or hearing protection? Get defensive? Tell them you were only in the exposed area for a short time? If so, you’ll lose your (and Safety’s) credibility. Rather, set a reaction to first say, “Thank you.” Then, you might continue, “In fact, I’d appreciate your watching to see if I ever miss safety rules in the future. I strongly believe in Safety and want to do everything I can to protect myself.”

Here are other methods for developing autopilot/default safety and leadership reactions:

Mental Rehearsal is a powerful tool used by world-class athletes, martial artists, and global-level leaders to set their actions and reactions. Simply take a few moments to visualize yourself acting in your most desired manner. Include as much detail as possible when you mentally rehearse. This method works equally well with making high-profile presentations (preparing to be calm and focused even if interrupted by a challenging question), to reacting in the safest way if you begin to fall, to instantly, without thought, putting yourself out of harm’s way if a vehicle swerves toward you.

Self-monitoring. Experience working in the areas of preventing strains/sprains, hand injuries, and slips/trips/falls shows building the skill of internally directing attention is essential to be able to control your physical reactions. By monitoring rising internal stress, you can recalibrate yourself before you’d otherwise lose control or do or blurt something that might backfire.

Directing attention includes sensing weak spots in the body (e.g., temporarily unstable ankle) so you rather rely on the strong side of your body when you have to quickly move. Self-monitoring also involves adjusting physical balance, as well as discerning how force transfers in the body (i.e., feeling how a weight in the hands puts pressure on a vulnerable part of the back so you then make the best self-protective adjustments).

Autogenics is a medical technique for setting the autonomic nervous system. It combines deep, relaxed breathing with self-messages. For example, you might try sitting with eyes closed and, on inhaling, say to yourself in a silent voice, “I instantly move my hands away from machines . . .” and, on exhaling, “whenever I see or hear something unusual.” Or, similarly, “I remain calm and alert . . . when hearing negative news” or “I back off and readjust my pushing position . . . if I feel a slight twinge in my back.”

Granted, no one method fixes every situation. But strongest leaders know that real Safety goes beyond what you think or say; it’s revealed when there’s no time to think, when someone is distracted and he has to react, or when he knows he’s not being externally monitored. Best leaders set high-level safe and effective autopilot programs and help others do the same.

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

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