(In)Visible Leadership

Out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind—and certainly not out of existence.

Out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind—and certainly not out of existence. Some forces can’t be seen but can still powerfully affect you. This clearly goes for many physical forces—from radiation to sound vibrations, to sleep disorders to exposures to tiny physical forces that might accumulate into strains/sprains, and so much more. Positive studies reveal the “invisible” emotional support of close relationships can help lengthen lifespan.

The same is true for “invisible” organizational forces that still strongly affect company members including worker morale, changes in hiring procedures, and “culture.” The best leadership strategies are often quieter and less visible. Actions that are lower key and not as forceful are less likely to incite pushback/resistance.

When a leader’s actions are subtle and not forceful, there’s more room for others to “fill in the gaps,” meaning greater possibilities of engagement. Anil Mathur, CEO and President of Alaska Tanker Company refers to increasing the time that people other than the designated leader speaks in meetings as the “Quality of Safety Communications”—and he measures this as a leading indicator.

I understand that many conflate leadership with an assertive, alpha force, prodding and coercing. However, that visible leadership doesn’t have to be extremely obtrusive. It can also be more delicate—modestly interacting with others, talking up safe actions, announcing changes, leading meetings, broadcasting messaging and more.

Strategists understand that all leadership approaches have strengths and limitations. In my experience, the key is for leaders to balance projective, high-vis leadership with more invisible actions. To listen more and talk less. To let go of some direct control and help others accrue the mindset and skillsets of taking personal control of their own safety.

Leadership pioneer Jack Gibb, wrote and spoke about “leaderless task groups,” where no one person was the sole leader. He contended that organizations should have a wide array of leadership functions to be successful and that no one person, no matter how smart, could possibly provide them all. This is especially critical in the safety industry where everyone ultimately is the Safety Director of their own lives. Because safety-related exposures potentially happen everywhere at any time—at work or commuting or at home—it’s essential that each company member take a strong measure of control of their own safety. As a leader, you might see your role as helping others raise their own level of directorship and make better, safer decisions, actions, and self-corrections.

“Invisible leadership” makes room for others to buy-in and assume some leadership functions. This approach invites and supports others to become more engaged and active in safety investigations, information gathering, reporting, decision-making and influencing others around them. It encourages everyone to internalize safety not because want to, only because they should. “Wanting-to” applies more to off-work activities than on-site activities where workers understand safety as “you-should-because-you’llbe-written-up.” Invisible leadership leaves room for others to step up, engaging them to willingly give more of their “discretionary effort” rather than doing the bare minimum to be “in compliance.”

In contrast, the driving need to be acknowledged as a leader or a power broker can backfire, neutralizing buy-in and acceptance. Some workers dig in their heels when authority is too aggressive. Sometimes being too visible stirs jealousy or resentment in other leaders or executives. Here are seven key tips for moving towards more effective, invisible leadership:

1. Think of doing less and asking others to do more. This also gives them space to grow. For example, rather than presenting every bit of each safety briefing, ask others to lead at least a small section.

2. Invite and keep inviting participation anywhere you can with questions: “What questions should we ask during safety investigations,” “Who’s willing to try out this potential new PPE and make recommendations,” and “If you were the Safety King/Queen for a day, what would be the first thing you would want to change? How would you go about making that change? Are you willing to lead/ participate in that process now?”

3. Surface who are the hidden peer leaders in your company and figure out how you might best support them to be more effective as safety proponents. Often times these people can be verbally critical outliers. By turning these people around—and this is very doable with a respectful and realistic approach—you can develop a “hidden network” of safety deputies to informally coach and reinforce safety.

4. Select, train, and support workers to, in turn, train, influence, reinforce their colleagues. In over three decades of working with larger companies worldwide, I’ve seen how setting up a bottomup system of “safety catalysts” has resulted in significant improvements in safety performance and culture.

5. Actively look to give credit to those who take even small kinds of meaningful initiative of spreading safety culture (like sharing how they apply Safety methods to hobbies at home). Look to honor and share internal safety heroes.

6. Promote discovery. And when someone “discovers” a safety method that you feel you’ve been telling them for years to no avail, hold back on saying, “I’ve been harping on this forever. What took you so long?” Instead, relax and build in the default: “Great idea!” Let them get the credit for their own discovery.

7. Focus more on internalizing safety by transferring skills at self-monitoring, directing attention better, and weighing options before making adjustments. Focus less on workers memorizing procedures and relying on the mantra of “do as you’re told/think before you act.” Balance, situational awareness, and hazard recognition can all be dramatically improved with purposeful practice.

Interested in taking your performance and culture to a higher level? Then don’t overlook the benefits of invisible leadership. Consider balancing more of this into your company.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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