Crossing Over the Gap Between Intent and Actions

Words only go so far for inciting a safety culture. You need to act.

I’m fortunate to know some strong safety proponents who think—and then act—outside the prescribed circles and boxes. Two such are operational leaders, both of whom have actually blazed new safety trails in their domains. I think there’s a lot to learn from their successes.

If you read some of my articles, you’ll recognize that I’ve written before about one of them: Anil Mathur. Anil is an incisive thinker and passionate person—and a widely esteemed and recognized safety leader. He’s the CEO and President of Alaska Tanker Company (and formerly a long-term senior manager with BP). He is also currently a board member of the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP). Most important to me, he’s a wonderful friend.

At lunch this week, one of the things our discussion gravitated towards was the often-wide gap between intent and actions. 

No question, we (and I assume you?) agree that strategizing, planning and preparing are all vital to success. And without a doubt, these are driven by intent—deeply held values and beliefs that direct our attentions, perspectives, judgments and mindsets. There acts are also connected to envisioning future possibilities, often where others see past roads just continuing straight on.

Of course, leadership intent can run the gamut from high-level, productive and safety-oriented towards the not-so-great. For example, you’ve likely seen leaders exhibiting these intents:  

Control for control’s sake. It sure seems to me that some leaders appear more interested in being “the boss” or “the authority” or “important” or “smarter than everyone else” than they do making positive change happen. These tend to screen out or disregard any data that doesn’t jive with the self-view of their doing a sterling job. Due to this, they miss a lot of important information, and they ratchet down the tap of potential creativity and self-motivation/buy-in from others.

Keeping people in their place/undercutting them.  Where the high-controllers are focused on propping themselves up, these leaders’ main intent seems to diminish and keep people down. Perhaps this stems from undercutters seeing others as incapable. Alternately (and ironically), they may value certain workers to the extent that they fear treating them well, where praising or promoting them might “give them ideas” of boosting their worth—and they’d either demand promotions or leave for greener pastures. In essence, the intent of leaders in these cases is to retain select people in their current place by reducing the latter’s self-worth in order to create dependency. Alternately, such leaders are making pre-emptive mental strikes so others don’t challenge the leader in the future. 

A variation of this is sending messages that the leader distrusts others (like saying “clearly, you don’t care about your own safety”) as a weapon for control.

Being absent. This means not getting back to people in a timely manner, not attending safety meetings or trainings, being difficult to reach, not responding directly to questions, not providing clear directions, or doing the minimal needed and nothing more to support workers’ performance and well-being.

Good intent? We hear it a lot. We hear people proclaiming how important safety is, that the company cares about each person, that we have a mission statement that is laudable. I’m not at all questioning intent here. I believe that most leaders who message this do want the best and believe in the importance of safety.

But good intent is not good enough. I’ve found that this is something that typically frustrates or even stymies many safety leaders. I’ve heard the desire of so many leaders, often expressed as, “I want, more than anything, for people to act safe, to eliminate or avoid risks, to go home in the same condition as when they started work, to be able to retire safe and sound, to protect themselves/friends/family” and more. I’m not at all questioning these positive thoughts or hopes.

But: hope is not a strategy. Not only is sincere well-wishing or wanting not a strategy, but even a strategy is not enough for real and sustaining improvements.

The bottom line is always action. Sure, intent drives actions, but alone does not replace it. Sort of like revving a car’s engine may get it ready to perform, but without putting it into gear, the auto won’t actually move forward, no matter how high its RPM’s. 

Anil Mathur takes action in many ways. He holds his direct reports (senior managers) responsible for safety performance and culture—through the time that they spend and the structures they come up with and follow. And he expects leading indicators be formed and monitored and reported on—with any actions modified based on this.

Now take David Emilio Ledesma, another perceptive and vigorous safety leader who’s also in the operations arena as Plant Manager of the DuPont Yerkes Site in Buffalo, New York. David, like Anil Mathur, similarly sees safety as more than just “Number One” where other priorities are ranked below.

And like Anil, David leads with action. One way he moves from intent to action is by simultaneously boosting safety, productivity and engagement by his bringing in innovative approaches that both elevate safety performance and culture. Furthermore, he does so by actively participating in safety training, both as a trainee and as a presenter. David exemplifies that where he spends his time sends messages that are far more powerful than just verbalizing positive intent about safety.

Additionally, both Anil and David also work on broader plains than just within their own sphere of influence by educating safety professionals within their own organizations to broaden their perspectives on the ways that high-level safety is inseparable from other critical company goals.

Ultimately, even the best talk only goes so far—even in safety. Intent is a good first step, but action, both what leaders are actually doing and not doing, is what counts when they want to make a true operational difference.

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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