New research reveals how to lead others to work safely


January 19, 2018

Safety incidents are the result of organizational culture, and culture is heavily influenced by leadership behavior. So, to create a strong safety culture, you must address leadership behavior.

Leadership can be either position al or emergent, or both. Positional leaders are those who hold a leadership title, though a title alone does not make one an effective leader. Emergent leaders surface when they earn the voluntary and passionate involvement of those they lead. They lead by example and have a strong, positive influence on those around them. Emergent leaders, positional or otherwise, are effective leaders. But what does it really take to be an emergent safety leader?

In 2012, Caterpillar Inc. launched a comprehensive research team to determine the answer to that question. With collaboration from behavioral assessment experts 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, has statistically validated these findings through rigorous data analysis.

Four Domains of Safety LeadershipThe team defined safety excellence as a team of people with strong leading indicator outcomes in the areas of effective safety meetings, near-miss, hazard correction and identification, incident investigation, and inspection processes. Research included surveys of nearly 1,000 employees, front-line leaders, middle managers, and top managers in the industries of construction, energy, forestry, and manufacturing with 133 questions about what they had observed in their immediate supervisor. The responses were scientifically correlated to the leading indicator outcomes listed above. The findings provided the first ever statistically validated results of exactly what it takes to lead others to work most safely.

The research revealed four domains and 14 elements of safety leadership. To produce a safer workplace, leaders must drive accountability, create connectivity, demonstrate credible consciousness, and build trust. The sample assessed 189 leaders (54 percent front line, 26 percent in middle management, and 20 percent top leaders), and data reveals some interesting information about safety leadership.

• When a leader demonstrates the four domains in high degree, employees work more safely.

• Leaders who have more than nine direct reports experience lower performance in leading indicator outcomes.

• The domain of accountability provides the strongest link to leading indicator performance among the four domains.

• Building trust is the highest predictor of reduced incidents and injuries and the success of any subsequent investigations.

• The top three elements driving leading indicator outcomes are defined expectations, integrating safety into the business operation, and sharing relevant safety information with others, and showed a 15 to 20 percent stronger performance over the other elements.

• Near-miss and hazard identification processes were the two leading indicator outcomes most impacted by safety leader behaviors.

• Higher level leaders generally outperformed front line leaders. This is very interesting considering the front line is where most incidents occur.

Diagram breaking down the Four Domains of Safely LeadershipThe four domains 

Domain 1: Build accountability. Within the three main types of accountability — personal, team, and organizational — we focused on team accountability with the main question being “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:

1. Clearly define expectations. Emergent safety leaders ensure that every person who reports to them knows exactly what is expected of them to keep themselves and others safe. This element provides the strongest statistical link to the leading indicators of all 14 elements.

2. Train to ensure competence. The emergent safety leader ensures that every direct report knows how to do their work safely and accurately.

3. Measure the accuracy of execution. The emergent safety leader follows up with every direct report to ensure accurate execution of all defined expectations.

4. Deliver appropriate feedback. The emergent leader frequently recognizes safe work and coaches to improve unsafe work relative to defined expectations.

5. 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.

Domain 2: Create connectivity. Connectivity involves integrating safety into the business operation. When a leader creates connectivity, everyone on the team understands that an effective business operation is a safe operation. There is no separation between safety, operations, budgeting, quality, and customer service — they are all integrated into an effective business and must all be accomplished to a high degree of quality. Employees are involved in identifying and solving safety problems and in the creation and maintenance of a strong safety culture. Every team member is kept informed of all pertinent information, enabling them to work safely and productively at all times.

There are three elements of connectivity:

1. Involve employees. The emergent leader directs, creates, and facilitates employee involvement in the safety process.

2. Share information. The emergent leader openly shares relevant safety information with direct reports.

3. Integrate safety. The emergent leader explains the relevance of safety to effective business operations, integrates safety into the business conversation, and explains the “why” behind the “what.”

Domain 3: Demonstrate credible safety consciousness. Credible safety consciousness is believable, reliable, and convincing awareness and understanding of what it takes to be safe. When leaders demonstrate credible safety consciousness, it is apparent to others that they understand the safety processes within the team, have the necessary information to make informed safety decisions, effectively appraise risks where they exist, internalize safety concepts and apply them personally, and continually learn and grow in their ability to lead a culture of safety excellence.

There are two elements of credible consciousness:

1. Knowledge. The emergent safety leader knows what needs to be done to keep everyone safe.

2. Reasoning. The decisions and choices made by the emergent safety leader make it a safer place to work.

Domain 4: Build trust. Trust is reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, and surety of a person or thing. It is confident expectation of something and involves authenticity, integrity, genuineness, transparency, and sincerity.

There are four elements of trust:

1. Care for the safety of others. Effective leaders demonstrate concern for the safety of others.

2. Value safety. Effective leaders demonstrate that safety is a core principle that guides their decisions and behaviors.

3. Demonstrate openness. Effective leaders are accessible and available to discuss safety concerns and foster an environment of transparency and free-flowing communication.

4. Interact effectively. Effective leaders communicate in a way that enables others to rely upon them to respond and behave in a manner that builds confidence and surety in relationships.

This new safety leadership model provides a statistically validated approach to assessing and improving emergent safety leadership. When a leader drives accountability, creates connectivity, demonstrates credible consciousness, and builds trust, safety excellence is the result.

In subsequent articles, we’ll explore each of the four 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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