Leadership Leverage

Practical training for supervisors and managers should both inspire and provide them with tangible skills for making real change occur.

All of those who work in the land of too little time, shrunken resources, and high expectations could use more leverage to make big things happen. "Leverage" is an interesting term. True, some equate this with force or intimidation, as in "I have leverage over that person," or just having an extra edge. Finance-oriented people may define leverage as using borrowed funds to realize much larger gains.

Physically, leverage means employing the right mechanics (often with lever and fulcrum) to be able to move something that's too heavy or bulky to maneuver with direct force. The common thread in all cases? Leverage means increasing your power to get the most from the least.

For wise leaders, well-applied leverage entails influencing people toward getting positive results with minimal effort – high-grading leaders' ability "to change the future" beyond where it was heading.

Leverage is key to boosting "productivity," as defined by the mathematical formula of output divided by input: P = O/I. From this perspective, you can raise productivity in four ways:

1. Raise output with the same input. Increasing the numerator means getting more out of existing resources. It might equate to “working harder” with the same staff, equipment, and/or timelines or using preexisting safety programming to break through static plateaus of performance.

2. Lower input while maintaining output. Decreasing the denominator could translate into cutting staff or their budgets while expecting them to take care of the same workload as when fully staffed.

3. Lower input while simultaneously raising output. Raising numerator and lowering denominator, in other words, reducing budgets and/or staff while they are expected to get even more done. This might sound theoretically compelling (only to those not actually doing the work), but in my experience this is non-sustainable over the long haul. Sure, many people are able to work harder with fewer resources and support for a limited time. But after a while with no relief in sight, they often fatigue, get distracted, become disillusioned, or burn out. Injuries, presenteeism (they’re there in body but not fully in mind), absenteeism, disengagement, quality issues, and accidents soon rise.

4. Raising output proportionally higher than raising input. This typically means investing in changes (in equipment, procedures, training, etc.) where the payback outpaces the investment. For example, purchasing PPE for a fraction of the costs of the injuries they help prevent or releasing time for critical staff to plan a more effective safety intervention, where release time is minimal compared to improvements in engagement, safety performance, communications, and smoother flow of production.

For many companies, this fourth strategy can be a realistic approach to leveraging productivity.

In his classic book "High Output Management," Intel founder Andrew Grove pointed to three types of leadership leverage for attaining maximum output from minimum input:

1. Influencing one person over a period of time. Examples of this might be a focused performance review, meeting with a worker to set clearer expectations, anchoring praise for a job well done, etc.

2. Influencing many people at once. A typical example of this “batching” approach would be broadcasting information to many at the same time via email, conference call, or in person.

3. Influencing many people over time. This includes effective training that changes skills and actions; creating policies and procedures that many can use into the future; hiring a lead, supervisor, or manager who changes the approach or culture; thorough safety investigations that are realistic and internally publicized; and more.

In addition to Grove's three approaches, I propose a fourth: Simultaneous Thinking, which is accomplishing multiple objectives at the same time. Such as making plans and taking ensuing actions that simultaneously elevate safety communications, safer actions, worker engagement, managerial commitment, and quality.

There are several ways leaders can heighten their leverage. One is to activate others. I think of leadership as "making positive things happen by working through others." It's less what a leader does himself or herself that makes the largest impact on the organization; it's what he or she can bring about. Or, going back to Grove, "Activity does not equal output." The strongest leaders make things happen.

Practical training for supervisors and managers should both inspire and provide them with tangible skills for making real change occur, for passing the message and methods on for better and lasting performance. We've worked with another practical and proven way to accomplish this: developing and then working through peer change agents. Ranae Adee, former safety manager at a Pfizer plant, carefully chose employees to become trained in a safety system, then provided the time and support to catalyze improvements in daily actions. Results were highly successful on multiple levels. Ranae said, "It was like we added 14 people to the safety office."

Leaders also can heighten leverage by changing their "position." No, I don't mean being on both sides of an issue like a gladhanding politician (this will backfire, reducing credibility); I'm referring to employing the Proximity Principle (similar in physics to the Moment Arm Principle and the Universal Gravitational Law). In other words, the closer two objects are, the more pull/influence they exert on the other. On an injury prevention level, getting closer to an object you wish to move/push/pull/lift (within limits) both increases ability to exert strength and reduces forces concentrating in the lower back. In terms of leadership, making "closer" contact and communications heightens influence.

Artfully selecting, applying, and sometimes combining Grove's three leverage approaches with working through others and shrinking communication distance can help leaders create more and better output with minimal time and input.

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

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