Trust: The fourth domain of safety leadership


April 17, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final article in a series on effective safety leadership.

We know intuitively that leadership significantly impacts the choices and behaviors of employees and that leadership behavior has a strong influence on safety. In 2012, Caterpillar launched a research and development effort to determine the most important characteristics of effective safety leadership, then build the first statistically validated instrument to measure those behaviors. The findings revealed that the safest workplaces have leaders who drive accountability, create connectivity, demonstrate credible consciousness, and build trust. This article addresses building trust.

Domain #4: Build Trust

Illustration about Building TrustSafety leadership is all about building relationships. The way to build strong relationships is by building trust. When trust goes up, quality goes up, costs go down, and people work more safely. Trust is confident expectation of something because of good reason, definite evidence, or past experience. Trust involves authenticity, integrity, genuineness, transparency, and sincerity.

When a leader builds high trust, others believe he has their best interests at heart. Trustworthy leaders are those who keep commitments, talk straight, listen well, are real and genuine, and get results. A leader that builds trust will never ask someone to perform a task in an unsafe manner. Others feel they can be open and honest with the leader without fear of how he will handle sensitive or private information. The leader effectively represents the safety concerns of his team with upper management and builds an authentic open-communication culture in which everyone is empowered to speak up about safety. There are four elements of the trust domain.

Demonstrate care

Everyone can tell if a leader doesn’t care. Caring for others is something that cannot be faked. The effective leader demonstrates authentic concern for the safety of others. They are a role model for others to emulate and take their personal safety, as well as the safety of others, very seriously. They insist on proper medical attention for injured employees and come across to others as genuinely interested in their safety. An effective safety leader cares about safety not only on-the-job, but off-the-job as well. One discernable outcome of a leader who cares is having direct reports who value safety in their personal life as much as they do at work.

Value safety

When a leader values safety, there is no question about what he will do when another person’s safety is at risk. The leader has already made the decision that safety is not just a priority, it is a value and, as such, will never be compromised. The effective leader demonstrates that safety is a core principle that guides his decisions and behaviors. As a value, safety permeates everything we do. It’s not enough that we operate efficiently; it’s that we operate safely and efficiently. It’s not enough that we produce high quality; we produce high quality safely. It’s not enough that we serve our customers with excellence; we serve our customers safely with excellence. It’s not enough that we meet our financial objectives; we meet out financial objectives while sending everyone home safe every day. When safety is a core value, it is immersed in everything we do. The effective safety leader makes it so.

Openness and transparency

Circle chart with words connectedness, credible consciousness, trust, and accountability written on it.It is the quality of our communication with one another that enables us to create the type of workplace we desire. The effective safety leader is accessible and available to discuss safety concerns and foster an environment of transparency and free-flowing communication. Effective communication is a foundational element to safety excellence. (Author’s note: Effective communication is foundational in all aspects of work and life.) In an open environment, communication flows freely in all directions. The leader encourages everyone to provide feedback on safety issues and welcomes feedback about his own safety behavior. Everyone feels safe to speak up if something isn’t right and has the courage to listen up if confronted by someone with a concern. Everyone feels confident to approach the leader with any type of information.

Interact with others in a way that builds trust

The effective safety leader communicates in a way that builds confidence and surety in relationships. They follow through on commitments, are open and honest with others, confront reality courageously, demonstrate respect for others, and behave with integrity. Perhaps most importantly, the effective leader is quick to acknowledge when he is wrong and accepts responsibility for righting the wrong. Measured humility enables the leader to readily accept responsibility for mistakes. Often, leaders feel they must project to others that they know everything. It’s an understandable inclination, but it’s unrealistic and disingenuous. Others know the leader doesn’t know everything; but they also need to know the leader knows he doesn’t know everything. When the leader interacts with others in this genuine manner, it builds trust with others and encourages the inherent desire to do what’s right and safe.

With the new leader-inspired safety model developed by Caterpillar, we now have a statistically valid approach to assessing and improving safety leadership. When a leader drives accountability, creates connectivity, demonstrates credible consciousness, and builds trust, safety excellence is the result, and everyone goes home safe every day.

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

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