Where do leaders learn about safety?

Why is it, after many years of discussion around the benefits of leading indicators over lagging, most companies (including major, international, industry-leading ones) still have injury rates as their headline safety metrics? Why, after investigation of numerous catastrophic accidents highlighting the inadequacies of procedures, do most businesses continue to focus on prediction, rather than resilience? And why, after years of feedback from workers about over-the-top bureaucracy, do we continue to add a new instruction after every investigation?

As I’ve pointed out before, there seems to be a major disconnect between safety theory and operational practice. Bridging this gap requires significant input and support from leadership but where do leaders find out about progressive thinking in safety? How do they know that there are alternative approaches out there, that maybe the way they’ve been doing things needs to change? How can we bridge this gap with any sort of speed if the crucial figure of the leader is in the dark?

I received an email this week that said (paraphrasing) – “I’m currently reading your book. If I could, I’d give a copy to the CEO of every business.” Which prompted me to think about getting the message to leaders (and hence this blog). All the direct reader feedback I have had (with one exception) has been from safety people. The magazines and journals that reviewed it are safety-themed. When I get asked to speak at conferences, they are safety conferences, not general business conferences. Yet, when I wrote the book, it was with a broader audience in mind than just safety managers.

Of course, there are occasional exceptions, but while the safety industry itself talks a lot about leadership, there doesn’t seem to be the same aspect of the leadership industry talking about safety. If we want widespread uptake of good new ideas, the message surely must be in the leaders’ regular sources of information – those places they go routinely.

To see if this was the case, I embarked on an embarrassingly unscientific review of leadership websites and blogs – from well-known, global names in leadership and industry publications to blogs by individuals that feature heavily in ‘Top 10 best leadership blog’ lists. On one site I did a basic search of the 750+ articles. ‘People’ returned 65 pages of searches, ‘team’ 24 and ‘quality’ 12. ‘Safety’ provided three items (not pages). On LinkedIn I found 133 posts on the leadership learning blog, not one of which had a safety theme. Nor did any of the on-line courses for C-suite executives. A ‘mood of the boardroom’ report covering major concerns of executives and directors in a national newspaper did not have safety among the things to think about for the following year.

Even when there were articles, they tended to be very run of the mill, ‘focus on safety, it’s important because . . .’ pieces, with the occasional exception such as a Harvard Business Review article on asbestos management within Anglo American. Rarely, if at all, was there anything particularly thoughtful or challenging.

Based on my high school economics lessons, there should be a supply of interesting articles if there is demand for it. So, either leaders are desperate for good quality, thoughtful pieces on safety leadership but none of the usual channels provide them. Or, there is no demand from leaders and all the rhetoric about the importance of safety is just lip service. Neither is a particularly positive outcome, but I’m going to be optimistic and suggest it is the former.

Good safety performance is not achieved in isolation from the rest of the business. There is a general trend in business towards host leadership, greater engagement, a focus on the employee experience, increased collaboration and creativity. All this is undermined by an old-fashioned rules and compliance approach to safety that treats workers as thoughtless, careless and responsible for their own demise when accidents happen. Leaders who are unaware of the current thinking in safety are unknowingly applying a handbrake to their business success. The ongoing separation of safety from the broader business is detrimental to both. So, come on LinkedIn, HBR, Forbes and others, help us bring safety routinely into business discourse by raising its profile across the leadership milieu with some challenging and provocative articles.

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