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Five Risk Management lessons we can learn from elephants - Lesson 4

Courageous Leader, The Elephant in the room

On January 28, 1986, The Challenger Space Shuttle exploded on take-off claiming the lives of seven astronauts. One of the NASA Engineers was acutely aware of severe design flaws and warned against the launch. This later became known as "The Normalisation of Deviance." In his own words, "I screamed at management not to launch." Unfortunately, the engineer was blindsided and told to "take off your engineering hat, put on your manager hat." Managers should be courageous enough to listen to those who know the risk best when making decisions and not silence them. What are the risks in your workplace that are normalised?

In this fourth lesson of five articles on Risk Management Lessons, we can learn from elephants; I have again reached out to my friend Rodger Hollins, a Health and Safety Advisor from The Waikato, and asked him to share his thoughts. In this best piece yet in my view by Rodger, he discusses six traits of a Courageous Leader needed to challenge the status quo.

Rodger explains,

Imagine for a moment that you are learning to juggle. Sounds a little intimidating, doesn’t it? Luckily, as with most things these days, the internet offers various videos that could help you on your journey, so if you ever felt the need to learn to juggle, a little guidance is always available. Watching someone juggle though, is quite fascinating. From a distance, it looks complex and well, difficult, but if you watch carefully, you may notice the use of patterns and, interestingly enough, a centralised focal point. You may notice that the jugglers’ eyes are usually focused on a specific area, they are not trying to focus on each ball individually, which perhaps, creates the needed harmony to successfully complete the task. You have probably picked up that I am not a juggling expert, but my guess is that if a juggler did try to focus on the movement of one specific ball or if the one ball was awkwardly bigger or heavier than the others, they would lose focus, and perhaps they’d run the risk of everything falling apart, so to prevent this from happening perhaps they would choose to set that problematic ball aside, to allow the juggling to continue?

Business managers, and workers, continually accommodate several areas of work and risks as part of their daily responsibilities. Dealing with one aspect is arguably just as important as the other, for a successful work outcome. There may be stock and material supply problems, time delays, work shortages, worker shortages or capability issues, and perhaps even business sustainability threats, all fighting for attention. Now, if you’re starting to smile from this assumption that business challenges are exactly like learning to juggle, I apologise as I am sure that they are not, but it is hoped that the analogy at least shares an idea that highlights that each component of a system often needs equal attention from those managing them, to increase the chances of a successful outcome for all.

Some might say that health & safety has done its fair share to fight for its place, to gain managements’ and workers attention, and to sit at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Popular slogans have been used for years, such as “safety first”, “people are our most valuable asset” and “zero harm”, which has been widely debated in recent years. Considering that consequences drive behaviour, they too have been used to demonstrate the importance of health & safety within many organisations. Whether it has been stopping work until it is safe to continue, cutting off the plug from a power tool as the test and tag was not up to date or asking people to leave the site as they did not meet expected standards or behaviour, it has become abundantly apparent that working in a healthy & safe way is extremely important. In my career I have even seen workers dismissed and have seen companies financially penalise their subcontractors for not meeting expectations, a sort of an internal fine. Socially, here too there is pressure to do it the safe way. Have you seen those videos on the internet? The ones where people are doing something unsafely? Have you read the comments and seen how many people, including health & safety professionals, publicly shame those involved in the video, labelling them “dumb” or “idiots?” With all these theories, practices and consequences that highlight the importance of working in a healthy and safe way, surely there should be a vast improvement and sustained effort in good work practice at worker level? Of course, there has been improvement, so if a company adopts and approach, even like the one shared above, and it is working, in other words, healthy & safe work is evident, then credit must be given where it is due as there are many ways to achieve a goal. The challenge, however, is that there seems to be enough evidence to show that many workplaces have the above approach, yet still struggle to attain healthy and safe working standards. For many, there still seems to be a lot of effort needed from support teams in companies to achieve safety goals as there is still arguably low levels of personal ownership. Here is an example.

Alex, a construction supervisor, and I were walking around a site a few months ago. It wasn’t a bad site, in fact, from a health & safety perspective, it was one of the better sites that I had visited. This company is well known for its health & safety efforts. Even though it was a very busy site, there was an apparent effort to maintain good working standards and a visible investment in the appropriate tools to get the job done safely. At the end of the site walk about, we summed up the observations that were seen, and made a few notes. One of the mobile scaffolds in use was missing a mid-rail, two out of 10 electrical cords had an expired test and tag, a newly purchased adhesive being used on site did not have a supporting Safety Data Sheet readily available and a pair of workers were using a platform ladder on unstable ground. The specific details are not important, and you may have an opinion on some of the findings, which you are welcomed to, but what is worth sharing though, is that Alex and I had a detail discussion around the monitoring regime for the site. There were four regularly used monitoring approaches for this site that managers and the H&S team were actively involved in. Alex showed me the reporting app that the company had invested in. He also discussed a very well received internal, yet informal, reporting system that was in use daily, for the management team to identify issues and close them off. An extra bit of effort by the site supervisors to get things done. The company H&S advisor visits the site every month to conduct an internal site audit, and of course, external audits are done quarterly. It was clear that a lot of effort was being put into monitoring the workplace for potential hazards and other challenges. After overviewing the various monitoring systems, I turned to Alex and said, “It’s quite interesting to see that even though this site has multiple monitoring processes, there was still a mid-rail missing, a few tags were out of date, safety data sheets were needed, and workers chose to use a ladder on unstable ground. Wouldn’t it be ideal if the workers themselves could identify these issues prior to starting the job so that they could be reported and rectified immediately?” I hope that this example triggers thought and discussion. The point is, that even though health & safety seems to be a topic on everyone’s tongue these days, why do some sites still struggle with ownership at worker level? Why is there still a distinctive line between getting on with the work and the health & safety requirements in many workplaces? Could it be that, even on this site, an achieving workplace, health & safety is a side line effort, rather than something that workers own and apply before undertaking a task. Referring back to the analogy of the juggler, could it be that by creating a perception that health & safety sits above all in business, the “ball” is becoming too distracting, too awkward, and too overpowering for the juggler, encouraging them to put it aside?

I was driving to Auckland a little while ago to visit a good family friend. Having my family in the car and given my experience in the ambulance service many years ago, I had two good reasons to abide by the rules of the road, which I try to do as best I can. On one of the back roads, just before the state highway onramp, even though I was maintaining the required speed limit of 80km per hour, there seemed to be many vehicles overtaking us. I just assumed that they must have been in a hurry and let them overtake. What was very interesting though is that on this particular road, I noticed that the oncoming traffic started to flash their headlights at us. It was broad daylight, and we don’t know many people in the area, so I was confused as to why people were trying to greet us. Now of course, this will be the second apology in this article as the sarcasm is not needed, however the point is that everyone reading this article, irrespective of whether you are local or not, would understand what flashing lights from oncoming traffic means, and sure enough, not too far ahead, was a traffic police van, monitoring vehicle speeds. So, with the previously mentioned approach to managing behaviour in mind, in reflection, given that speed signs are prominent throughout road networks, understanding that fines, demerits, loss of license and loss of life can occur for poor driver behaviour, together with the fact that the rules are strictly policed, driver behaviour is still largely “unacceptable” and instead of people trying to improve their skills, many help each other out by indicating that the police are ahead. Might this approach occur in workplaces where side line teams are the ones that predominantly focus on health & safety?

If workers taking short-cuts is not ideal, why do leaders do it then?

In a world where work pressure is ever increasing, where customers expect a higher quality product in a shorter time frame and where short-term goal setting seems to be a predominant business strategy, it’s easier to follow the status quo. If performance monitoring with some form of negative consequence remains the goal, there is soon to be a plethora of “short-cut” solutions available to micromanage worker behaviour. Just keep a look out for the increased installation of road cameras on our roads. These days, IT-based systems are even capable of detecting whether people are wearing gloves in a workplace and whether something is taken out of the first aid kit. Others can determine the speed of a forklift and announce a reminder for operators to slow down. So perhaps technology may be able to monitor if there is a mid-rail on a scaffold before someone uses it, because until leadership find ways to inspire people to be safe, these systems are going to be our best option.

There is also a growing database of prosecution evidence to help “mould” the decision making process in many businesses, irrespective of whether such fear-based triggers create a primary focus of protecting workers or minimising the risk of litigation. There is sufficient work pressure, supply-chain issues and worker shortages at the moment to persuade a supervisor to turn a blind eye to minor transgressions as replacing workers or contractors is either far too difficult or it would set the job back too far, tampering with the already delayed deadline. For every great solution to changing behaviour out there, there is always going to be a way around it, particularly if the motivation is predominantly external and doesn’t encourage ownership. So long as working in a healthy & safe way is perceived as an obstacle rather than an opportunity, ownership will remain low. Does this mean that external monitoring will simply have to get more frequent and stricter? A different approach does not necessarily mean that we should start asking people, or motivating people to work safer. A different approach might simply mean making it easier for people to make good decisions. Improved human behaviour cannot be resolved in one article, written by someone with an opinion, but this article, as always, tries to share a few ideas.

Courageous Leadership

Could courageous leadership make a difference? When choosing the heading for topic 4, why did Hein Havemann choose the word “courageous” leadership, why not just competent leadership, or effective leadership? You may have to ask him for his view directly, but I think that word was chosen as it proves that the next step in health & safety change is significantly difficult and therefore needs something extraordinary from people.

During the first draft of this article, I thought that I’d have 6 or 7 ideas, all personal opinion on what “courageous” leadership could look like, but as mentioned, and to be fair, there are many other websites out there offering the same opinion. So, this time around, I thought that I would share one idea, making it easy to remember and then base my views around this one point.

Courageous leadership is authentic.

The following points express a view for you to consider and contribute towards. They share quick thoughts around how authenticity could help improve a culture that may boost ownership of health & safety.

1. Prove engagement & participation: Courageous leaders find ways to prove that they listen. Where workers share thoughts, opinions, and ideas, are they implemented? When last were workers shown that their ideas are used and that acknowledgement is given to those that shared them?

2. Demonstrate Risk Appetite: Courageous leaders show others what they expect. Its easy to tell workers to stop work if it is unsafe but show them and they are more likely to understand the expectation is both serious and accepted. When last were workers shown that it is okay to pause and think of a healthier and safer option?

3. Implement and maintain meaningful incentives: Courageous leaders see benefit in sharing chocolate fish, gift vouchers and BBQ’s as they may be nice “benefits” in any workplace, but they understand to incentivise behaviour, most of the time, all that is needed is a respectful and meaningful response. In other words, gifts can be given to workers who report hazards if the company sees fit, but the incentive of a proportionate response and close off to the issue raised is the real incentive to most workers.

4. Fairness and Focus: Courageous leaders understand that they need to support and represent both workers and senior management. When workers are not meeting expectations, a courageous leader will address the matter respectfully, even if it makes them unpopular with the team. They understand the importance of maintaining a standard and working towards goals. The key is that courageous leaders are also willing to have such conversations with their senior management if needed.

5. Saying “thank you” when it counts: Anyone can say “thank you” but saying it when it counts makes the difference. A worker has just phoned you to say that the job is going to be delayed a little longer as the tag on a scaffold has been found out of date. In line with training, all workers have stopped work until the tag is signed off again and the worker is just letting you know. Replying with a “Thank you for letting me know, I appreciate that you and your team have followed our rules. Please let me know when everything is up and running again.” That may be an example of courageous leadership.

6. Challenge people: People are capable. This is proven throughout history, in the military, in athletes, in fact, in all human beings in various circumstances. Courageous leaders challenge individuals to help them learn and progress. “We don’t do paperwork”, or “There is a reason I am in this type of industry” are often just accepted and people are never given an opportunity to prove their theory wrong. Micromanaging performance exacerbates this problem, but courageous leaders trust their workers, they rely on their people and show their teams that they are respected enough to own their work, including the health & safety components that help them get home every day.

Over the years, I have had the privilege of engaging with many people during my time in health & safety. To be fair, a small portion of them did not necessarily know “what good looks like” and they personally saw value in education and training. An even smaller percentage of those that I met had a “poor attitude” towards working in a healthy & safe way, for whatever that may mean, and perhaps even if they were taught the safe way, they’d find some reason to justify why another way was better. This is often brushed off as a bad attitude. The vast majority of the people that I meet though, have experience and capability, they understand the fundamental rules that improve work and they have the willingness to learn new ways if needed. Because they don’t feel the support or affirmation they need, or because they perceive health & safety in the workplace as being something that is trying to over-protect everything, many of them still choose to keep quiet though and simply plod along every day, getting on with it. Perhaps they could benefit from a courageous leader or perhaps things would improve if they themselves realised that you don’t need to be a manager to be a leader, anyone with the willingness to give it a go, can… irrespective of their position in an organisation.

Lastly, in closing, with the learning from previous articles on risk in mind, perhaps these topic points can be used to encourage ownership at worker level too, ensuring that we focus on the real stuff, the stuff that matters and remain cognisant of the fact that perception and methods of calculating likelihood effects both risk and culture.

As always, we would be keen to learn more about what you and your team are doing to improve ownership of health & safety at work level. Be sure to comment or get in touch to tell us about what your courageous leaders look like. Who are they who challenge the status quo and point out the elephant in the room?

Take care

Ps. Why did I choose the word courageous ? In my experience workplaces know very well what the barriers are to change. It takes someone courageous to challenge the status quo and like Rodger has said it doesn't need to be a manager, it does, however, take courage and if the organisation is fortunate enough to have a leader/s in its midst. The leader will do the rest.

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