How Leaders Can Empower Safety

When you’ve heard a term repetitively bandied about, it can become mind-numbing, even blurring what it’s trying to convey. Prime to mind:  “Empowering people” is a catchphrase that can lose meaning from being so frequently expressed while so infrequently explained. Words are nice. Principles better, but developing actual and proven ways to apply them are essential to improvement.   

Empower = “power in.” Microsoft founder Bill Gates:  “As we look ahead…leaders will be those who empower others.” M.D. Arnold:  "A good leader leads the people from above them. A great leader leads the people from within them."   

I think of power as “the ability to change the future.” That is, consciously veering beyond the just-ok or even dysfunctional tendencies where previous experiences and limitations momentum, towards making actions that move you more towards where—and who—you want to be. I realize this can just sound like more “new-age” talk. However, when grounded in specific methods, techniques, mindsets and skills, it transforms into a highly effective means for improvement. We know from long experience that this very specifically and statistically works in the safety arena.   

Internalizing safety confidence, judgment, attention, self-control and those physical skills that result in greater performance has been a foundation of our work for almost four decades, with numerous large companies throughout the world. We think of “empowering” as helping people considerably understand, “aha!”-realize (so they convince themselves) that they have real power inside themselves they hadn’t previously realized. And learn how to realistically tap these.  

When it comes to “power” and “empowering,” I’ve been strongly influenced by my practice of internal martial arts, along with the works of some brilliant and proven change-masters—most of whom unsurprisingly resonate similar messages. Wing Chun gung fu master, Chow Hung-Yuen wrote: “Power has to come from the inside out, not the outside in. Forget about the other person’s power. First, learn to control your own power.” Lao Tzu:  “Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.” Renowned football coach Pete Carroll: “Each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little support, a little coaching and the greatest things can happen.”  

Here are seven lessons we’ve learned and practiced that leaders might also apply to achieve some of the global-class safety performance results we’ve seen:  

Discovery. Guiding people to discover for themselves is key to “empowering.” I’ve found that the three things that people realize for themselves—and understand how to apply—is infinitely more important than the word salad onslaught of the fifty things I might tell them, even with best intent.  

“Empowering” is NOT one-shot rah-rah motivationwhich is often empty and can even backfire—but is an ongoingly renewing mindset of how leaders think of and communicate with others. Highest empowering = self-motivation. For example, leaders should self-discipline their words. Attempts at “empowering” can be torpedoed by frustrated blurts of “Anyone who has an accident is stupid!” or “What’s wrong with these people? Just acting like children!” and so on. If something goes wrong, better to focus on, “What, if anything, did you do to prevent that from becoming even worse?” and “What did you learn so this will be less likely to happen in the future?”  

Embrace discomfort. The realm of power begins when we enter the land of “not doing the same old things”, where “what will happen is not fully assured,” where leaders feel courageous enough to allow, even solicit, challenges and suggestions from others. The more OK a leader is with change, the greater the potential power they can personally tap, then share and cultivate in others. Indira Gandhi: “The power to question is the basis of all human progress.”  

Empowerment actually equals “taking personal responsibility” for one’s own decisions and actions. With the understanding that there are indeed forces outside of our own control.  

We use the term “take personal control” of your own safety, rather than “take responsibility,” because words have loads, and, to many, “responsibility” has unfortunately come to imply “As a worker, it’s on you; you’re responsible for any safety incident. Our company and leaders are not.”   

We believe that the thread of safety culture stitches through the entire company. To encourage actual worker “empowerment”, everyone in the company from Executives down has to embrace the parts they play (and recognize those they avoid) that contribute to the level of safety performance.   

“Empowering” others only through talk is not enough. Words, while potentially powerful, have to be consistently accompanied by real energy (the enjoyable positives of safety methods that actually excite people) and backed with trained practical skills that make it easier for people to become more in control of their tasks and risk reduction.   

The highest forms of empowering go beyond just mental strengthening, to simultaneous enlist greater physical efficiency and emotional control. It’s not enough that workers think they “should” or “can” take greater control over their own safety, they have to tangibly know how, with confidence these will work. Consistent reports reveal doing so can make major strides in preventing incidents.  

Applies everywhere. “Empowering” can’t only span checking in at the timeclock and checking out at shift’s end. To help change how people actually think about themselves (which will then spill into their attention, decisions and actions), leaders also have to help workers learn to become more effective and safer with off-work activities that are important to them.  

The highest level of safety cultures I’ve seen exists when everyone believes, “I’m doing this safely for me.” Even when they know no one else is watching, and they’ve accrued best methods for accomplishing this. When the talk about “doing what’s expected” or “the right thing” becomes less and when individuals’ internal talk becomes stronger and clearer and safer.  

Famed Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca wrote, “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.” We’ve found, time and again and throughout the world, that with greater internal power comes greater safety.  

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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    June 2022

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