The Three Leadership Laws of Physical and Organizational Motion

The Laws of Motion are an actual physical set of laws describing the workings of universal forces. Leaders can thoughtfully and strategically apply these to successfully navigate through the challenges of Safety leadership.

Many leaders are principle-driven, enlisting personal values and learnings toward guiding their actions that result in measurable improvements. In contrast, lesser leaders might be guided by out-of-sync principles that don't achieve superior results. Worse, lowest-echelon performers either ignore the results of their actions or, worse, make excuses to justify they're right and everyone else is wrong, typically blaming others or external factors. ("It's not me or what I did, it's them." "Our workers are lazy, don't care about their own Safety.")

Clearly, strongest performance most likely emanates from reality-grounded principles. Take the Laws of Motion, which are an actual physical set of laws describing the workings of universal forces. Leaders can thoughtfully and strategically apply these to successfully navigate through the challenges of Safety leadership, for moving toward much greater organizational/cultural and measurable Safety improvements.

Law 1: Inertia. Often known as "A body at rest tends remain at rest; an body in motion tends to remain in motion," it's the principle of momentum that applies to more than just inert objects; people and organizations also tend to keep on keeping on. This reflects why changing anything can be difficult—whether a cultural status quo ("We don't get many real suggestions for Safety improvements" or "People don't report near misses") or individual habits. ("They just don't lift the right way so we continue to have back injuries.")

"Tends to" means that overcoming this default requires input of extra energy to spark change. One way to accomplish this? By strongly inviting the input of long-term resisters toward solving problems, rather than their just complaining by default or staying on the sidelines. Or by shaking up the direction/source of communications, so that workers become primary change agents, rather than predominantly issuing edicts down the traditional pyramid pipeline.

Also, leaders plan to harness inertia toward rather than against change. First, they design changes in as bite-size pieces as possible. (Smaller changes generally result in smaller sized resistance.) Second, they might ask/direct people to try out the change for a short-term period, to see how it goes. Most people are more willing to try out a short-term adjustment rather than committing to changing permanent (in fact, a temporary change can actually stimulate energy and interest). For credibility, leaders should check back after the time slot elapses; using the new tools, procedures, or actions often becomes the norm, the new "body at rest." Even if more modifications are needed, inertia is unstuck.

Similarly, default physical habits are typically obstacles to safer performance. To overcome this, we show workers (and help them experience for themselves) that, for example, when pushing or pulling a heavy cart, the hardest thing is to start it ("a body at rest"), the next most difficult is to stop it ("a body in motion"), and how it's easiest to keep it moving once started. Knowing this, people can easily learn and apply simple but appropriate movements that are powerful and protective and targeted toward each of these three phases of the task.

Law 2: Force = mass x acceleration. This is the principle of how size affects movement. When a force acts on a mass, it creates acceleration—and the bigger the mass you're trying to move, the more force is needed to accelerate it. Where the First Law focuses on where to direct forces, this Second Law describes how to get something moving.

That is, it's easier to turn a small boat than an aircraft carrier. So leaders who understand this don't try to move a large (or widely dispersed) organization all at once from a central location. Instead they create and work through local on-site "deputies" to reach and continue/sustain the acceleration needed for real change. By employing this principle, many leaders have achieved significant results through selecting, training, and supporting the right peer leaders to become catalysts of safety improvements within their own shifts, locations, sites, or business units.

Organizationally and individually, it's easier to kickstart acceleration over a shorter time (then momentum comes in). To enable this, leaders entrepreneurially start up local pilot projects for Safety improvements spearheaded by peer leaders, then work toward deploying the most successful ones. Such incremental change when continued gains momentum, accelerating substantial improvements.

For physical Safety, the way to start moving/lifting an object is to use small motions where force is judiciously applied at the most efficient spot (often the object's center of gravity) at the right moment and in the desired direction. Again, it's no coincidence that Bruce Lee was most famed for his "One Inch Punch."

Law 3: "For every action there's an equal and opposite reaction." Basically this means that any time you push on an object—or organization—it/they push back. Best leaders are masters of: first, anticipating potential sources of pushback to directions or new procedures, and, second, doing what they can to head off too much pushback in advance. They can accomplish this by respectfully enlisting other departments’ and senior leaders’ input early; this often results in significantly greater buy-in and support. Similarly, enlisting peer catalysts in communicating Safety can sizably reduce "Anti-Corporate" or "Anti-HQ" pushback.

Further, leaders can plan to strategically redirect pushback positively, such as by actively and sincerely eliciting feedback to change, and then making it a priority to incorporate suggestions and ideas, rather than ignoring or even trying to squelch natural resistance.

Physically, manually handing materials always entails forces entering a worker's body. But, knowing this, they can employ best techniques that transfer these forces to safer areas, spreading them through the legs to reduce the potential for weardown, rather than having these concentrate in smaller, more vulnerable body parts such as the lower back.

A proven set of core principles such as the Three Laws of Motion can lead to significant improvements in Safety culture, leadership, communications—and injury reductions.

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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