Bridging the reality gap with mindful safety leadership
I was recently with a large group of frontline leaders, all of whom worked in high-risk environments and were well aware of the risks that could cause a fatality in their workplace. It struck me, as we talked about the safety leadership role they played, that there was unbridled enthusiasm for ensuring people didn’t get hurt. Clearly, there was a passion for doing ‘right by people’. What was not as clear or well understood was what they needed to do to make this happen.
In terms of everyday work practices, the leaders were painfully aware of the reality gap between the way ‘work was imagined’ and how the ‘work was done in reality’. I was left thinking at the end of the conversation that this blend of commitment and confusion is probably happening across many organisations and worksites throughout Australia. So, why is this happening and what can be done to reduce this reality gap?
The why can be answered on two levels. Firstly, in management’s bid to respond to perceived and actual risks and in responding to incident investigations, they have unwittingly allowed the organisation’s health and safety management system to grow unnecessarily complex. Layered controls become increasingly difficult to implement at the workplace’s ‘pointy end’. I recall one Australian mine that had over 6000 procedures, and they eventually came to the point of saying ‘enough was enough’. This ultimately sees frontline leaders trying to decide how best to manage the inevitable efficiency vs. thoroughness trade-off and determine the ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ procedures.
Secondly, language is a powerful tool. Senior and middle managers often stress the importance of system compliance (which should never be underestimated), while in the same breath instructing frontline leaders to continuously improve the culture of safety in their team. Sadly, this conversation often takes place with minimal guidance being provided as to what tangible steps need to be taken to improve the safety climate of the frontline leader’s work team.
So how can this important compliance and culture conversation be better led? One starting point is to intentionally work with the frontline in order to build a shared mindful safety leadership mindset, where safety is doggedly viewed as an outcome of operational excellence and not merely a required legislative business input. The mindfulness needs to focus as much on what is currently being done right in proactively managing risk, as well as what might go wrong.
This form of mindfulness needs to be supported by crystal-clear clarity on what each leader’s safety accountabilities and responsibilities are, so it doesn’t just become someone else’s problem to sort out. All too often we use two terms, safety accountability and safety responsibility, interchangeably, which causes unnecessary confusion about who has the authority to make decisions and who is responsible for implementing the decisions.
The other critical step in addressing the ‘compliance/culture conundrum’ is for mindful safety leaders to place equal weight on supporting people to understand and follow the agreed standards of compliance and modelling the values, behaviours and work practices their people need to aspire to. To this end, a work team’s safety climate will be well served if the frontline leader consistently works on three things:
- Building greater mutual safety trust within their team;
- Enhancing the team’s engagement with and ownership of the safety values, behaviours and safe work practices; and
- Improving the just and fair culture account balance.
Senior and middle managers can lead the way by clearly exercising their accountabilities in defining and modelling the agreed safety culture leadership model and constructively using their authority to streamline the health and safety management system.
In the end, we need to avoid falling into the subtle trap of making compliance, culture and either/or choice. If we resolve this trap, we need to go on and show in practical ways how both can be continuously improved.
Marc McLaren is founder and Managing Director of Generative HSE, which specialises in risk management and mindfulness, safety culture development, safety leadership and OHS system design and review. He has extensive strategic and operational experience in the management and delivery of WHS services, risk management, leadership and team development. He has worked with leading blue-chip organisations in Australia and internationally to improve risk and WHS performance across a wide range of industries.