In the recent Legitimate Leadership Safety Webinar, Rachael Cowin explored the possible application of Legitimate Leadership’s empowerment framework (means, ability, accountability) after she was told of an incident in a public space where a key piece of infrastructure was inconveniencing the public.
‘There had been no incident, no accident, nothing untoward. However a member of the public videoed the activity related to correcting the infrastructure and posted the video on social media.
‘On examination, it was clear that not all of the team were wearing the appropriate PPE; also that the equipment being used was not that specified in the standard job method.
‘The team leader, who had planned and supervised the work was interviewed. He explained that he had been told that the work must happen by Friday. And though it was not overtly said, it very much hung in the air, supported by his experience in this organisation, that arguing was not going to get him very far.
‘So when the right piece of equipment wasn’t available he did his best, planning around the next closest piece of equipment.
‘So what does the empowerment framework tell us about what we should do here?
‘We go to the golden rule that we mustn’t jump to conclusions, we must be fair, investigate the specifics, and ask “Why?”
‘To do that I think we need to treat the issue of PPE, and the issue of equipment, separately.
‘Starting with PPE: yes, the team did have the means and the ability. The new equipment they were supposed to be wearing was available to them so it was entirely right that the team leader be held accountable both for wearing his own PPE and for ensuring that the team he was supervising were wearing theirs.
‘If this failure was a once-off, a strong censure would be appropriate – this is not acceptable and it must not happen again.
‘If you have good people – and this team leader was by all accounts a good person – they accept it. They understand and they want to do better next time.
‘Repeated carelessness on the other hand amounts to deliberateness and would warrant a stronger response.
‘But we should also stop there. We should remember that this person sits in a hierarchy.
‘It is our experience that whenever there’s an exception there’s always something to learn about what’s going on up and down the line.
‘I would be asking myself: is this a once-off, or is this symptomatic of a general lack of adherence?
‘The team leader worked for a maintenance manager. What was that person’s role and what were they doing? Was that person present, were they aware, did they know what the standard of adherence to PPE was? Were they setting the standard? Were they responding to positive and negative compliance?
‘What about the maintenance manager? Was this person a role model? Were they setting the standard for the organisation? Were they having conversations about PPE? Were they ensuring that there was consistency?
‘A leader will only be experienced as fair if a transgression in one part of the organisation is treated exactly the same wherever it occurs.
‘A good test here is: are seniors at the level of the area manager able to go out onto the front line and would they challenge people if they saw that standards were not being met?
‘Even better, what if the roles were reversed? Would the front line people feel empowered to challenge senior people who are not meeting the organisational standards?
‘So that’s the PPE situation. Now for the equipment issue.
‘Did the team leader have the means? I don’t think so, and my informant didn’t think so.
‘The time scales and the availability of the equipment were just not consistent with one another; the team leader just didn’t have the means.
‘I would nevertheless say that the team leader should be accountable for raising the issue.
‘Who is accountable for providing the means to the team leader? It is the maintenance manager.
‘If they have control over the time scales and the equipment they should be held accountable. But sadly in this organisation they had no control of either. They hadn’t set these demands. And in fact they also had a means issue.
‘It was the area manager who failed in his accountability of enabling the leader beneath him.
‘So a very relevant question is: when it comes to accountability, where do we tend to focus our attention when exceptions occur?
‘I believe we overly focus on the front line, and in this instance that is exactly what happened.
‘The team leader was held fully accountable for all the failings and given the strongest possible sanction short of dismissal. Meanwhile his seniors looked in the mirror and congratulated themselves that they had shown that they were tough on safety.
‘Which I think begs another question: if we really want to change organisations, where should we best focus?
‘I suggest: at senior levels. And in this organisation, at senior levels absolutely nothing changed. Which is why I am sure that if the same situation presented itself on another day with a different person, exactly the same would happen again. The senior leaders didn’t take responsibility for changing anything, they didn’t show that they cared for the front line or the people at risk, and they sent the wrong message.
‘The message was “We’re not prepared to put safety first”. And if they were not prepared to support safety first, why should they expect anyone else to?
‘To me this is what dysfunction looks like.
‘So what would health look like in this situation? It would look like a team leader who has everything that they need in order to be able to do the job properly, with the knowledge that they can raise concerns and that they will be supported up the line. It is a maintenance manager who is providing what they need to their teams, who is present and who is using the empowerment framework to hold people to account positively and negatively. It is an area manager who’s making sure that the organisation is equipped and cultivating an approach of fairness and accountability among the people who work for them.
‘When you get to a significant number of people all doing this and you start to see the change in senior leaders – demonstrating that they would resist the pressure to move on in the face of safety concerns – it evokes the kind of examples that people remember for the rest of their careers.’