Why-Based Safety: The Critical Role of Leadership

Rick Strycker

Why-Based Safety: The Critical Role of Leadership

Editor’s Note: This is the 3rd of a five-part series examining safety in the workplace and how context shapes behaviours, beliefs and actions.

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In the previous posts, we’ve said we believe the best workplaces and the safest are those that harness the best in people while making it difficult (or impossible) to do the worst thing. One of the best examples of this is the “rumble strip,” those bumps on the side of the road that alerts a driver when he is wandering off the road. This is a structure designed to keep behaviour inside of a certain limit while giving the driver as much freedom as possible to drive safely. We think this is a pretty good example of how to design safety in all kinds of business situations.

Letting people be the solution to safety means there is a management system that defines the boundaries of safe performance (the rumble strips) and leadership provides the direction, focus and encouragement to bring out the best in people. This allows people to provide their natural resourcefulness, innovation, and learning to the everyday challenges of safe production.

We call this balance between freedom and constraint that leadership provides a Holding Environment. Leadership is responsible for creating the conditions in which people can perform at the top of their game. Our definition of a holding environment is drawn from the work at Ronald Heifetz, Professor at Harvard Kennedy School and from studies in human development.

There are few characteristics of holding environments worth noting here:

  • There is an explicit intention to create personal and collective learning. Although many of the situations people face at work don’t require any new learning, some situations do. In order to learn well, goals must be clear and support available when they need it.
  • There is a balance of trust and challenge. For people to be engaged, there has to be a basic level of trust; fall below a certain threshold and the game is off, and people check out. Trust is built when leaders say what they will do and then do it. From the foundation of basic trust, leadership challenges people to elevate their game and strive for better performance. But you cannot elevate performance from a ground of no trust.
  • Leadership sets the learning agenda and a sense of shared future. We believe people are motivated and inspired when they are connected with purpose, with a Why.
  • The training curriculum includes soft skills that help people make better decisions in unstructured settings. When safety procedures are clear and fit the work situation, problems rarely exist. However, when there’s a disconnect, people need to be able to adjust, to communicate with others, and to embed the learning for the next group. These soft skills are some of the hardest to learn. To truly elevate safety and performance together, people will need to develop new skills and capabilities in communication and coordination of action.
  • Feedback and Coaching. There are very productive ways to provide feedback on performance, and feedback on management system, but they are very rarely used in most businesses. In the best examples, everything is open to inspection and improvement, which includes not only behaviours, but the beliefs, assumptions and mental models that correspond with those behaviours.

A holding environment is a structure that allows and supports people to be the solution to safety while at the same time creates boundaries, goals and learning objectives (rumble strips). It allows for the dichotomous ways of thinking about people discussed in part one (basically good, but flawed) to come together in a practical way.

At WhyNot Partnering, we believe that people are the solution to safe production, and we have developed a set of tools and methodologies to support companies who are ready to take the next step in their approach to safety. This begins with a clear purpose, a sense of Why we are here, and is followed by a clear process to unleash people across the entire organization.

Why-Based Safety is a service of WhyNot Partnering, an organisation that works globally and was established to help organisations create breakthroughs in performance by connecting with purpose and enabling people to be and do their best work. Please click here to follow us on LinkedIn, to hear more about our work.

To read Part 4 of this series, click here.

Rick is an organisational psychologist with expertise in personal and organisational transformation, leadership development, ontological design, strategy, assessment and diagnostics, and executive coaching.

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