Leadership: Dust and Rust and Trust

Stronger leaders voraciously seek and disseminate cutting-edge knowledge of newly-surfaced factors that quietly weaken workers.

When it comes to leadership and to Safety, too many have their radar set too high, so miss too much that's incoming. They just don't see what's affecting the organization.

Nature tends toward entropy, breaking down over time unless well maintained -- both with physical and human nature. Just as with objects, dust settles and builds with time, morale clouds unless regularly polished.

Similarly with rust, the integrity of even the strongest iron will oxidize over time. Maintenance professionals know that oxidation is often easier to prevent than repair; once damage goes past a certain point, in fact you lose the repair option -- and problems created may even spread to other areas. This especially happens when the climate/surround system is laden with the moisture of small, disregarded dissatisfactions. Or when previously acquired skills aren't applied.

  • Snags or gaps can block execution. We've seen companies spend significant time and resources rolling out what they plan for a full-scale intervention, only to see for-want-of-a-nail-the-war-was-lost actions derail momentum. Such as the scheduled training room being locked with no way for anyone from the gathered groups to enter. Or months of many people's planning come to naught because a key signing person was away when a time-urgent contract had to be finalized.
  • Trust/morale/disengagement erode. Recent studies reveal confidence in leadership at an all time low (Korn-Ferry) with employee engagement simultaneously plummeting (Hewitt Associates).
  • Integrity is critical to trust; once trust is weakened, it's hard to effectively patch it. A shortcoming of many leaders is their believing they must appear to have all the answers. But providing quick and dirty -- and often inaccurate -- responses will weaken others' respect for them. Sometimes it's better to say, "I don't yet know what we'll do but will tell you as soon as I can."
  • Inaction when action is needed. Of course, many leaders are pressed too hard, schedules drawn tight. But too many fumble errors of omission that subvert their own mission -- by not providing clear directions when delegating a task, not participating in setting leading indicators for evaluating success of an intervention, doing going-through-the-motions performance appraisals, not delineating what direct reports are expected to do, squandering others' time by being unprepared for meetings or arranging why-bother come-togethers, not speaking out when nexus events occur that everyone stops to watch, or failing to strongly recognize extra or most-desired efforts.

Below-the-Radar Issues
There are also specific below-the-radar Safety issues:

  • Unchecked cumulative trauma builds. Just as oaks grow from acorns, small amounts of pooling forces from seemingly "insignificant" actions can lead to long-term injuries, from disabling strains and sprains to irreversible hearing loss. In our injury-prevention interventions, we physically demonstrate how "Small changes can make large differences." The right small adjustments in position, direction of attention, or transfer of forces through difficult-to-externally-monitor shifts of "The Alignment Nine" (fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, spine, hips, knees, or ankles) can dramatically reduce strains/sprains and hand injuries or greatly improve balance for preventing slips/falls.
  • Unaccounted-for small changes in elevation -- from a slightly puckered carpet to elevator thresholds not exactly aligned -- can result in devastating slips and falls.
  • Unnoticed changes in the environment (a piece of equipment with slightly displaced handle, machine guard out of true) can contribute to significant injuries.
  • Accepting as "OK" (or "That's the way it is here") conditions that are not safe. For example, a machine whose periodic blockages "could only" be cleared by its throwing heavy product randomly about. So operators got into the habit of "clearing and running." While this is an extreme example, we've seen many not-OK problems due to a culture of accepting an egregiously high level of risk as "normal."

So what can leaders do?

Keep their finger on the pulse of worker morale and engagement. And you don't necessarily have to contract for thorough culture perception surveys; much of this info can be illuminated by other closer-to-the-floor means.

Experience shows that when executives are involved in the early design of a culture-sensing mechanism -- whether interviews, computer-based responses, observation, or others -- they are more likely to be influenced by the results of these measures and then more likely to take positive action to make step improvements.

And wise leaders understand there are usually direct correlations between levels of engagement, Safety performance, productivity, and quality. Weaker leaders tend to complain about others' complacency; stronger leaders set the tone by practicing and modeling ongoing change awareness.

Continue to bring into light of day obstacles that block high-level safe performance. Recently, many people have been horrified to discover they may have been sleeping with barely visible bed bugs insidiously lying in wait to vampire their blood. But this is not a new problem; many are just more sensitized to it.

Stronger leaders voraciously seek and disseminate cutting-edge knowledge of newly-surfaced factors that quietly weaken workers. Remember that "invisible" can still equate to dangerous. For example, in the early 20th Century, female workers painting radium on watch faces to create glow-in-the-dark illumination became sick and died at alarming rates. These losses served to reveal the potentially lethal results of radiation poisoning.

So strong leaders uncover problems that weaken their crew, and then stem even trickles of bleeding. By closely watching trends, they catch problems at the earliest possible levels, hopefully in time to prevent needless tragedy.

Prevent rust by providing time for low-risk development of better automatic pilot mechanisms. Just as there's a learning curve when new computer hardware or software is brought online, so may there be slowups when staff initially apply new safety methods. But best safety systems return this, multiplied, in a relatively short time. The objective is to raise the level of everyone's default autopilots so they operate both more efficiently and safer in the near future.

Best leaders strengthen trust, safety performance, and culture by "seeing the unseen" of changing forces and worker engagement and by lowering the threshold of their internal company vision.

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

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