Articles

If You Want Good Safety Culture, Focus On Your Leadership Practice

April 25, 2022 - By Rachael Cowin, Associate, MA (Cantab), CEng FIMechE

Many organisations talk about the creation of an appropriate safety culture, but in practice, how is this addressed? Safety culture is fundamentally a subset of the organisational culture or ‘how we do things round here’. At Legitimate Leadership we believe that this is determined by how leaders within the organisation are motivated and behave. Indeed, it was the recognition that a safety problem was, in fact, a leadership problem that first brought the founder, Wendy Lambourne, to the model underpinning our work.

There are many connections between legitimate leaders and appropriate safety culture. Here are some of the key ones:

Trust. When leaders cultivate relationships of trust then problems and mistakes are identified and explored in a spirit of openness and a desire to improve. Employees know that the issues which they raise will receive the attention of their leaders.

Accountability and fairness. Our empowerment framework ensures that individuals can be fairly held accountable, by first providing the means and ability. This creates ownership, evidenced by individuals who carry out their duties with care, or even more – they go the extra mile; these are recognised and rewarded respectively. On the other hand, in the event of an issue, censure and discipline are not dodged but enacted – after first having asked ‘why?’ to confirm that it is truly an issue of willingness.

Focus on contribution, not results. Of course, results (including safety statistics) matter. However, incidents are avoided not by focusing on desired numbers, but by every member of the organisation understanding how he/she contributes to managing risk within their environment. Leaders ensure that their teams have what they need to make these contributions, including clarity about what is expected of them and why. Not only does this lead to integrity of systems and behaviour but it also creates a clear and empowering line-of-sight between day-to-day activities and the value that individuals bring to the organisation.

Setting standards. Consciously or by omission, leaders communicate standards every day – by what they tolerate, through the issues with which they are concerned. We see standards as enablers of human excellence which speak to the fundamental values of the organisation. Leaders actively set and role-model appropriate standards, and they understand the reality of living by them. Moreover, they consistently seek to raise standards to bring out the best in their teams.

Watching the game. A key enabler of excellence, watching the game requires a willingness to look beyond results and what might seem true on paper or in boardrooms. In this way leaders really understand what faces employees in their workplaces. Committing time to this activity is a complete shift in focus from auditing toward what each member of the team needs from their leader; this may be coaching for ability, clear standards, enabling systems or equipment, etc.

If you are unhappy with your safety culture, then is it time to reflect on whether focus on leadership practice within your organisation is what will really make the difference?

Rachael Cowin
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