Energy Matters in Leadership

Here's the main key: To rocket results, Safety has to be compelling, not just compulsory.

If there's anything I know, it's that energy is essential for fueling highest-level performance and culture throughout an organization. Time and again, I've seen how the right kind and sustained level of energy can propel momentum and actions to previously unforeseen heights. Of course, I'm not suggesting that enthusiasm can substitute for laying the best Safety groundwork, having a base of policies and procedures, supportive structures, and consistent attention. But without vitalizing energy these organizational elements alone will only take a company so far. To be sure, sparkling improvement and results require, well, sparks and current.

However, in thirty-plus years in the field, I've only occasionally seen real energy woven into organizational Safety. That is, Safety's too frequently repetitive, uninvolving, rule-based rather than interest-driven, with messaging that hasn’t changed in years—and too often (mis)perceived as an obstacle to getting work done.

Keep in mind that it's not just employees who require energy for inspiration and propulsion. Executives are also influenced by either an infusion or lack of energy. For instance, time and again senior managers have changed "set in stone" plans in midstream when they were stimulated by opportunities presented from unexpected energetic responses. There are few forces more persuasive and change-provoking than sincere enthusiasm. Yet, despite this, many professionals solely revert to the old saws of "making a business case for Safety" or "do the right thing" as their main approach for eliciting executive support for Safety; both are important but frequently not enough to dislodge predetermined mindsets.

To further clarify, here are four common myths. Effective leadership energy is:

Myth 1: NOT empty motivation of the poster or slogan kind. ("You can do it!" "Think Safety!" "Safe Productivity," "Think before you act.") By "empty," I mean that's all there is—bursts of words without the specifics and practice on what to do and how to actually accomplish these objectives. In contrast, people can indeed learn skills for better directing their attention, but this requires training and practice, not just aphorisms or appeals to "try harder."

Myth 2: NOT forceful prodding, pushing, and berating. Heavy-handed communications such as threats and rigid discipline will only take you so far with a workforce that can't feasibly be closely observed and micromanaged. Not that these approaches are ever energizing.

Externally driving workers to change their actions has been shown to be extremely limited and will never provoke discretionary efforts—critical for highest-performance Safety. As Intel legend Andrew Grove contended, "Fear never motivates peak performance, only minimal performance." Remember that people, like trees, change and grow from the inside out, not the outside in. People are much more likely to be convinced and change when they experience surges of energy, rather than through reason or rationale. Self-motivation ignites and fosters more energy than external pushing. This is why we've found that self-monitoring skills are much more likely to elevate Safety performance than occasional external observations.

Myth 3: NOT an emphasis on how powerful/important/wise the leader is or on what she can do. Again, people are ultimately driven by "What's in it for me?" and not "Wow, isn't she wonderful—I can't wait to do these ways for her!" Best leaders understand this and know to tap into already-existing internal motivations.

Myth 4: NOT a predominant focus on statistics, which are rarely energizing, as well as frequently open to skeptical interpretation.

In contrast, here's the main key: To rocket results, Safety has to be compelling, not just compulsory. A common failing is that Safety motivation often gravitates toward preventing something from happening that no one actually believes is going to happen to them (or, alternately, if they see injuries as even possible, that these are out of their control, the luck of the draw, or predetermined by fate).

And for those companies that already have a decent Safety record, maintaining doing "well" just isn't exciting. People are more moved by achieving something new and better, not just holding on to the current state they take for granted. We all know what "compliance" looks like—typically, workers minimally follow Safety rules just to pacify someone else or cover their rears. Ironically, this is not very different from how organizational professionals think of and interact with regulating agencies! Sure, there is some energy involved when being audited, but this is more likely to disperse after the monitors turn their attention elsewhere. The management analog to de-energizing complacency is, "We've achieved great strides in Safety, no need to do more." Here, I suggest focusing on breaking new and exciting ground, rather than just "staying the course."

Other ways to best spark energy?

• Persistently invite involvement from as many people as possible, even if this initially entails "breaking the ice" with only a minimal amount of their time or effort. Don't make this a one-time offer. And certainly don't squelch negative responses. There are few things that damper organizational energy like keeping a lid on critical feedback. Remember, "negative" responses become productive if sincerely acknowledged and then turned toward corrective actions. Well-managed conflicts can become energetically creative.

• Do things differently, changing them up. Don't settle for the same old programs or presentations that no longer get attention. I know this requires effort, but think of it as priming the energy pump—it takes an initial infusion of energy to generate much more of the same.

• Make Safety personal, tying better ways into managers' and workers' home lives and individual hobbies. These are areas where they're already interested, and you're stoking already ignited flames of motivation.

• Demonstrate and let them experience for themselves. Don't just tell how Safe methods can actually make their work and personal lives better in areas they already value. Emphasize higher performance beyond just prevention.

Time and again, we've seen how sparking energy can ignite massive, almost magical Safety and organizational returns. Wouldn't you rather develop ardent advocates than merely lukewarm compliers?

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

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