Taking Back Leadership

Perhaps the worker hadn't alerted anyone in the company that he had past back issues. If not, why?

Leaders are ceaseless problem solvers. Which means they're either frequently confronted with snags or actively uncovering them. Obstacles that others, who are not as relentlessly driven toward improvement, often overlook or sweep under the carpet. By their nature, nagging issues can be longstanding, complex, difficult, where different systems, procedures, equipment, and other resources have already been tried, either with minimal or mixed results. Or where diminishing returns may have set in as things have improved to a point that has becomes comfortable, accepted, or deemed too entrenched to change. This then leads to a performance plateau.

Strong leaders are the opposite of complacent. Leadership guru Warren Bennis explained, "The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it." Superior leaders are concerned that stasis--even when conditions seem "OK"--soon leads to degradation because nature tends toward increased entropy. For example, maintenance professionals know that parts housed on a shelf can fail just by sitting there, even without strong mechanical forces seemingly acting on them (think of an old rubber band squirreled away in a drawer). The lesson? You've got to continue to improve or risk fallback or failure because, for better or worse, things never really stay the same. Relationships erode without being emotionally nourished, worker morale rusts, attention to tried-and-true programs evaporates. The same-old approaches get lackluster results, at best.

This has cascading effects: frustration and failure foster becoming perplexed, blaming, or, later, abandoning efforts to improve. Leaders often throw up their arms with, "Why won't people just do as they're told?" "Act in their own interest?" "Bypass doing simple things that could help them work safer?" It would better if such questions were really formed in a dispassionate manner, looking for real answers; rather, they're typically angry, blaming, rhetorical exhortations.

Perspective comes from the Latin "perceive closely," and it signifies a person's bias or point of view, how he/she initially approaches something. Recall what Henry Ford said: "If you think you can or if you think you can't, you're probably right." When leaders do lose perspective, they typically "settle" for mediocre safety performance and culture. Note that the resulting aiming-just-to-hit-anywhere-near-the-target is rarely conscious. Many still talk about wanting to be world class but quickly make excuses about the limitations under which they are forced to work, denigrate the workforce, and look everywhere but at their own leadership strategies and actions. Or they want to get gangbuster results by doing what they've always been doing, no changes needed, thank you.

Understanding perspective entails realizing that how you look at a problem is the first step in moving toward solving–or excusing–it. For example, take back injuries, the plague of many companies, especially (but certainly not limited to) those with an aging workforce. I recently received a request for my view about an all-too-common incident. (I’ve made minor changes to protect anonymity): "Injured employee climbed up onto truckbed to get his gear bag. As he bent over to pick up bag he felt a spasm in his lower back. He climbed off the truck and tried to walk it off. Employee stated he could not bend over and it hurt to walk. He told his supervisor what had happened. He further said he’' previously had surgery on a disc in his lower back. When the supervisor asked if he wanted to see the doctor, the employee said he’d experienced similar pain several times before, that he would be ok with rest. He continued to hurt for days afterwards and then told his supervisor he still had severe pain and wanted to see a doctor."

My suggested considerations:

1. Many soft-tissue injuries stem from "the straw that broke the camel's back"--i.e., are cumulative in nature. Often, someone experiences soft-tissue pain and/or injury from doing a task they think involves relatively little force or one they’ve done without noticeable incident thousands of times before. For example, have you ever heard of lower back pain or injury flaring from someone tying their shoes? Or getting out of bed? Or merely picking up a piece of paper off the floor? I've heard hundreds of such anecdotal reports associated with mundane, even innocuous actions. Perspective is important; while some look at the last thing that occurred as the "cause" of the injury, it's often an action that may have "thrown them over the edge." But in and of itself, it may not typically be why the person got hurt. To control perspective, it's critical that leaders focus their efforts on helping people change how they perform even small tasks they might otherwise take for granted, to avoid tension/cumulative trauma building up everywhere (home and work).

2. Injuries, especially soft-tissue, often recur or become exacerbated. I've seen statistics that correlate previous incidence of lower back pain with 2-3x greater likelihood that the person will suffer similar pain future. Perspective: Perhaps the best time to help them readjust their decision-making and activities is when they're not in throes of mind-altering pain. The time to treat is often not the best time to emphasize prevention.

3. Some cultural perspective questions: Perhaps that worker hadn't previously alerted anyone in the company that he had past back issues? If so, was this an oversight? Or did he believe he'd be punished--or not hired--for revealing this? Was medical management at the company aware of his condition and, if so, had they worked with supervisor and employee on ways to reduce recurrence or helped him develop skills for transferring forces away from his vulnerable lower back?

Dr. John Sarno contends that, more often than it seems, disc problems are not the real source of lower back problems (as delineated in several of his books, such as "Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection"). He reports significant treatment improvements with "hopeless" cases of lower back pain with his mentally-oriented treatments. While this is definitely controversial--and I believe that both physical and mental contributors and skills apply--it can be enlightening to consider others' views and successes.

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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