No Fear Safety Leadership

The strategy of pumping up fear for better safety rarely works as planned.

If you're aiming for sterling results in safety performance and culture, it's high time to promote No Fear Safety. Sure, on a basic level, Safety is about reducing fears — such as anticipating losing something you currently have or being blocked from getting what you'd want in the future.

Yet many weak leaders ironically try to employ fear to drive fear reduction. "Work safe or you'll: a) get disciplined or written up, b) get called out and embarrassed, c) lose your job, d) not be able to see your children, e) live in lasting pain, or f) die." This strategy of pumping up fear for better Safety rarely works as planned. Sometimes people stop paying mind. For example, you may have heard of attempts to motivate workers to wear eye protection so they won't lose their sight, but every time someone performs a task without eye protection and nothing adverse occurs, in effect it reinforces the warning was unfounded. When these kinds of messages become neutered, guess whose credibility diminishes?

And I've seen some people go out of their way to take clearly unsafe actions just to prove to themselves and others they weren't afraid of either physical or organizational consequences (as if caught up in the child's taunt of "I dare you.").

Attentional reactions to fear include narrowing focus/ tunnel vision/target fixation, blindered awareness/ not seeing what's in front of you, short-term thinking, tensing up (and thereby diminishing physical balance), becoming easily startled and less able to react quickly and effectively to change. Just the opposite of the awareness and "mindfulness" many strong leaders wish to engender.

Other immediate responses run the range from anger, attack, and sabotage to withdrawal/disengagement/low morale and loss of trust. I suggest it's up to strong leadership to help people overcome fear rather than becoming cowed, unmindedly compliant, or complacent. To boost workers' sense of personal control and ability to respond effectively to surprising changes. To help them work calmly and with perception during times of crisis rather than panicking; become resourceful during periods of shortage. To restore, reorganize, and reconnect people to become less withdrawn when stress and uncertainty loom. To recognize reactions to fear and head them offat an early stage.

Leadership luminaries are of similar mind. W. Edwards Deming, the father of the Quality initiative, listed 14 points for elevating organizational effectiveness. His eighth precept is, "Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company." In the same vein, Andrew Grove, former chair of the Board of Intel, wrote in his excellent book "High Output Management," "Fear never creates peak performance, only minimal performance." So how might strong leaders promote a No Fear Safety culture? Employ these seven powers of "No":

1. No primarily motivating through fear. Instead, draw people toward positive actions and skills use through offering desirable and readily achievable personal benefits.

2. No hit and run communications that only promulgate "you shalls" or criticize without listening. No giving advice when people are too preoccupied to actually receive it effectively. Remember that feedback is helpful only when delivered in a timely fashion and helps the receiver improve; it's not an excuse for blasting or dumping frustrations.

3. No either-or thinking (as in "You either do everything we say or you're against Safety."). Rather, encourage thoughtful disagreement to help sharpen policies and procedures and to elevate buy-in.

4. No auditing to catch workers doing something wrong ("Now I've got you!"). I know of no leader who would want to receive clipboard criticisms. ("It took four rings before you answered that phone when you should have picked it up by the second." "You didn't smile with your eyes when you gave that award", etc.) Make sure external auditing is application- oriented and as positive as possible. Look to catch and reinforce people for taking right actions.

5. No Safety investigation witch hunts. The ultimate purpose of Safety investigations is to make sure this kind of accident and similar ones do not occur to that person or to others in the future. Railing against what the worker should have done doesn't change what happened and oft en creates a fear-based clamup culture where information needed for prevention isn't conveyed.

6. No blame reporting. Alaska Tanker Company CEO Anil Mathur insists upon no-blame incident and near-miss reporting. His company has seen a dramatic rise in near-miss reports while working more than 14 million hours without a lost-time incident (in a highrisk work environment).

7. No expecting others to act any differently than leaders. If they see leaders taking decision shortcuts, don't be surprised when workers take similar "quick and dirty" safety decision bypasses. CEOs who cheat, lie, and blatantly deny set the tone for everyone else to do the same, in ways within their power. No question that rule by fear works to a degree, but only for a short time. Do you see workers as opponents you have to back offand protect yourself from? Do you have a thin workforce that is effectively operating with minimal supervision and under threat of ferocious competition? Leaders who transmit watch-yourself-or-else messages create pushback, disengagement, and CYAssets behavior. Conversely, best leaders strategically see all organizational members as important to the business mission, not enemies to control with fear. If you want to develop a norm of commitment, alertness, creation, and high-level performance, work to develop a No Fear Safety culture.

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

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