Usable Leadership

Begin by scoping out what actually works. Appearances can be deceiving.

Call me impatient. Few who know me would argue. I want to help organizations and people better work together, become more productive, safer, with great engagement -- as quickly as feasible.

My bias is that theories, to be worth their salt, have to result in positive change. As changemaster Kurt Lewin wrote, "There's nothing as practical as a good theory." While in vitro (artificial/laboratory) studies are interesting when done well -- and too few are -- my interest is in efficient and effective real-world improvements in processes and products, rather than getting mired in the tar of same-old thinking, whether this shows as can’t-do or pie-in-the-sky.

Yet we live in a world where many tout the "secret to success" and others proclaim "knowledge" that sounds good in theory but doesn't result in desired change (back-belts, anyone?). Perhaps worse, what's put into place can backfire, inflating unrealized expectations, diminishing precious credibility, or spurring pushback. And rather than taking positive actions, I've seen people being paralyzed by overanalysis and developing ever-loftier levels of contingency planning. As Joss Whedon's "Dr. Horrible" (which I highly recommend) said, "Don't plan the plan if you can't follow through."

In my change-agent mind, academic studies are ultimately like the spinning flywheel in my manual transmission. No matter how fast the engine revs, the car won't actually move until its clutch is engaged. So for others like me who are focused on significant and sustaining improvements, the key is to engage the clutch of action, starting by discerning what's "usable."

Begin by scoping out what actually works. Appearances can be deceiving. For example, when it comes to "usable strength," committed weightlifters know that some who don't appear largely muscled can move more weight than many others who are bulked up, and that even having sculpted muscles don't necessarily equate to being able to accomplish certain physical tasks over time. Remember that Bruce Lee was lithe and lean, yet an acknowledged great fighter. I know that people can quickly learn how to significantly improve their usable strength without necessarily having to work out.

Then there's the matter of usable change. Think of this as improvements that elicit positive attention (i.e., people want it), are easy to put into practice in daily tasks, are readily applied to both work and home, and simultaneously promote (rather than hamper) morale and self-motivation.

Compare this to change for its own sake. One global company was in the habit of reorganizing every few years, for no reason other than to shake up the workers and managers; this company wound up having significant safety problems. (Of course, there's no way to be sure whether meaningless reorganizations contributed, but it certainly consumed lots of attention and resources while exacting extra stress.) Similarly, be wary of going through the motions without first gleaning your underlying objectives. I've seen many organizations that employed "job rotation" to prevent soft-tissue injuries -- yet their replacement tasks enlisted the same muscle groups as the ones they were supposed to "relieve."

Pencil-whipping is another byproduct of unusable change -- supervisors pre-copying behavioral checklists in order to make their quota; training that's done as minimally as possible in order to just be in compliance, workers' boredom notwithstanding; insincere, the-lights-are-on-but-nobody's-there meetings that de-energize the culture and burn away trust. These are opportunity wasters at best, cultural safety deflators at worst.

Or getting people focused on incentives that in reality wind up incensing workers, or that create ever-rising expectations of tangible rewards. Or motivate them to cover up close calls and early injuries. Or, worst of all, shift focus away from Safety as something intrinsic to their lives and well-being toward metrics to be externally rewarded. Take away the prizes and desired worker actions become extinguished, and perhaps inadvertently promote a mindset of "Why bother to apply safety at home, when I'm not getting anything for it?"

Further, be careful not to fall into the (understandable) tendency of being too impatient, expecting instant cures that "should" yield immediate results from long-term, complex problems. Safety, like baseball, is both an individual and team activity. I've noticed that on teams where everyone swings for the fences, there are also a lot of strikeouts -- and that these teams rarely become champions. No different from soccer teams that seek to score goals from the far end of the field. Better teams work the ball closer to the goal, pass back and forth, find the opening as close to the goal as possible before attempting to score.

I think of the leader's role as catalyzing continuous upgrades. So how can they focus on usable change? Think, in advance, of planting interventions that:

  • build in growth rather than are one-shot
  • account for being sustained rather than here-today only
  • move forward in steps rather than attempting to "fix" problems all at once
  • catch the personal interest of everyone in the organization
  • gather buy-in by answering questions, giving heads-up alerts well in advance to all parties, eliciting and addressing concerns as well as ideas that can be incorporated into next-step adjustments
  • combine both "principle" (understandable theory of what you're trying to do) with "practice" (how to specifically apply new tools, learning, procedures, etc. to a range of their actual daily tasks)
  • apply to many areas of life -- both at-home activities and those at work.

Wise leaders don't allow themselves to be diverted or oversold by inappropriate "studies," sales pitches, or promises that don't really apply to their lives. Nor do they stay stuck in last year's thinking. Instead, they focus on making substantial, practical, "usable" changes that aim toward determined zenith performance.

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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