The first domain of safety leadership: Drive accountability


February 21, 2018

Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a series on safety leadership.

In the first article, we acknowledged that safety incidents are the result of organizational culture, and culture is heavily influenced by leadership behavior. So to create a strong safety culture, we must address leadership behavior.

In 2012, Caterpillar Safety Services launched a comprehensive research effort to determine the most important characteristics of effective safety leadership.

With collaboration from behavioral assessment experts at Development Dimensions International (DDI), the team discerned four basic skills a leader must demonstrate with a high degree of competence that lead to safety excellence. DDI Chief Scientist Dr. Evan Sinar statistically validated these findings through rigorous data analysis.

To produce a safer workplace, leaders must drive accountability, create connectivity, demonstrate credible consciousness, and build trust. This article will address the most important domain — accountability, which provides the strongest link to leading indicator performance among the four domains.

Domain #1: Drive accountability

Accountability is perhaps one of the most talked about concepts in business today, yet one of the least understood. Leaders typically view it as something they must hold others to, while employees see it primarily as discipline for something they did wrong. While these widely held perceptions reveal limited aspects of a strong accountability system, there’s much more leaders must understand to build voluntary and accurate execution of work.

Accountability is accepting responsibility for and providing satisfactory explanations of one’s own actions and deeds. It is the opposite of blaming others for things that go wrong. Leaders can either hold their subordinates accountable for the expected work, or they can create an environment in which others take accountability for their work.

When employees take accountability for their work, they do what’s expected of them with a high degree of accuracy while requiring very little intervention from the leader. It requires a one-on-one relationship between leader and subordinate.

We call it accountability 5-3-3: five elements of accountability, three moments of truth during which the leader must demonstrate strong ability, and three types of performers in every team requiring the leader to adapt their style depending on the type.

The five elements of accountability

What does it take for a leader to create an environment whereby all individuals voluntarily and accurately work safely, no matter who is watching? We validated five core elements from the research.

1. Clearly define expectations. The emergent safety leader ensures that every person who reports to the leader knows exactly what is expected of them to keep themselves and others safe. It is the leader’s responsibility to ensure every subordinate is clear about the work they are expected to perform.

2. Train to ensure competence. The emergent safety leader ensures that every direct report knows how to do their work safely and accurately. It’s a breach of integrity to expect good performance if you haven’t provided proper training and preparation. While the leader may not personally train each subordinate on the specific activities of the role, they must oversee those activities and validate that the subordinate knows how to work safe and right.

3. Provide necessary resources. The emergent safety leader provides all direct reports with the resources of time, supplies, equipment, labor, and budget in order to work safely. How could we reasonably expect anyone to work safely and accurately without the necessary resources?

4. Measure the accuracy of execution. The emergent safety leader follows up with every direct report to ensure accurate execution of all defined expectations. A leader must measure performance with periodic spot checks and conversations to ensure the activities are being performed correctly. Leaders must ensure they have the proper combination of leading and lagging indicators at each level. At the front line, measure the activities that drive safe behavior, not safety results such as accident or incident rates. For middle managers and executives, measure both the activities that build the presence of safety and safety results.

5. Deliver appropriate feedback. The emergent leader frequently recognizes safe work and coaches to improve unsafe work relative to defined expectations. Leaders must provide timely, relevant, specific, and frequent feedback to subordinates about the work they are expected to perform. Positive recognition is much more effective than correction or criticism. Most people work safely most of the time yet the majority of the communication they receive from their leader is about the unsafe work they do. This is a problem. The basic principle is this: The more you recognize the safe work your people do, the less you will have to deal with their unsafe work. Positive recognition is a very powerful tool for influencing the performance of others. When a leader builds it into their habitual leadership behavior, others will gradually begin to self-correct the things they do wrong.

Three moments of truth

There are three pivotal moments of truth when the interaction between leader and subordinate is critical to the work of accountability.

1. At the beginning of the relationship. Discuss what’s expected and how it will be measured. The goal is to gain mutual clarity on those two items. Invest whatever amount of time is necessary to reach understanding. The employee should understand what’s expected and how it is measured to such a high degree that they are able to self-assess their own performance accurately. It may take some time to achieve, but it’s worth the effort. When the employee is able to self-assess accurately and self-correct when needed, the need for intervention from others is greatly reduced.

2. Every day as you interact with one another. The two things a leader must do on a daily basis to reinforce safety activities and behaviors are noted in Elements #4 and #5, as you measure the accuracy of execution and deliver appropriate feedback. As noted, positive recognition is much more effective in influencing behavior than criticism or correction. The effective leader must administer both, but positive reinforcement should be used at a ratio of at least seven to one over correction or discipline. The specific approach to this interaction is determined by the quality of the employee’s performance as described in the next section.

3. The periodic summary or performance review. Whether formal or informal, you must regularly meet to gain clarity and make adjustments. This conversation should occur at least twice per year. It should take about an hour to complete and should focus on three primary issues — a brief review of performance during the previous period, an assessment of that performance, and look ahead into the next performance period. The employee should do most of the talking with the leader asking questions and providing support. When the relationship has matured, the employee will be largely managing their own performance while the leader gently guides and coaches.

Three types of performers

Most of the work of accountability occurs during moment of truth item #2, every day as you interact with others. Ironically, most leaders lack this skill, especially in the area of positive recognition. Effective leaders, however, develop their skill to influence the behavior of others as they interact each day. There are three basic types of performers in any team: high, middle, and low. We call them drivers, doers, and draggers. The effective leader understands the characteristics of each and how to customize his or her influence for optimum effect.

Approximately 30 percent of a team are drivers, self-starters who require very little oversight or supervision. They are extremely dependable and loyal and can be relied upon to deliver consistent, high-quality work. They are highly competent, making them role models of excellence. If they possess the desire and potential to teach others, they can become mentors and trainers. They volunteer above and beyond the expectations of their role and frequently serve on continuous improvement safety teams. They are role models of team values and standards and encourage others to emulate them. They build high trust with others. Drivers are leaders in solving problems and resolving team conflicts and aggressively initiate positive innovations to make things better. That’s why they’re called “drivers.” They are efficient and productive, yet humble. When someone praises them for the great work they do, their typical response is “I was just doing my job.” Positive reinforcement and opportunities for development are what interest drivers most. Spend time with them to learn what they do well and pass it on to others.

Doers possess many of the characteristics of drivers, but lack the desire or capability to teach. They are positive contributors to the team who consistently do what is expected of them. They are reliable team members who prefer to do their work and be left alone. They usually do their work well, hence the name “doer.” They prefer to leave confronting disrespectful behaviors in others up to the leader or the drivers. Doers comprise about 60 percent of most team rosters and are the teammates you rely on day in and day out to produce good work. They are the core of the team and extremely valuable. Since doers usually perform well, they simply need encouragement for the good work they do and light coaching to improve.

Draggers are the actively disengaged team members who make life miserable for everyone around them. They are a drag on the team. Others view them as negative contributors. They may be rude, selfish, prone to gossip, and frequently complaining. Sometimes, they can masquerade as highly competent in their work but, due to their disrespectful behavior, no one on the team wants to work with them.

In a culture of accountability and safety excellence, the definition of a great team member must include demonstrating strength in both the technical skills of the role and the interpersonal skills of team interaction. Interact with them effectively, and you’ll earn the respect of the drivers and the doers. The only development options for draggers are immediate performance improvement or removal from the team. The leader must deal with this poor performance swiftly and fairly.

Remember, business is a game of follow the leader. As the leader goes, so goes the team. The top leader must model effective leadership and use these techniques with the executive team, who must use them with middle managers, who must use them with supervisors, who must use them with their staff. If there is a break anywhere in the organization chart, the culture of accountability and the pursuit of zero incidents will begin to decay. Safety excellence requires consistency with accountability. Use the five elements of accountability interwoven in the three moments of truth to create a strong culture of accountability.

In subsequent articles, we’ll explore the other three domains in more detail to reveal further insights into exactly what it takes to be an emergent safety leader.

C. David Crouch is director of research and development for Caterpillar Safety Services.

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