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The Safety Leader’s Agenda for 2021: Embedding COVID-19 Safety Leadership Progress

By Eric Michrowski and Eduardo Lan

While the current pandemic introduced many critical business and safety challenges, in many organizations it became a catalyst for leaders to drive significant positive progress against key safety leadership competencies. A few safety leaders expressed how their organization made 6 years of safety leadership progress in the span of 6 weeks.

In a recent study of senior executives and executive safety leaders that our Propulo Science team conducted, a few very positive themes emerged across a variety of industries:

  • 88% reported an increase in leaders actively caring since the start of the pandemic;
  • 84% reported an increase in more transparent communication;
  • 84% reported an increase in recognition and appreciation for employees working in difficult conditions.

These are exceptional shifts in key safety leadership dimensions. The question should now urgently shift towards capturing the ‘tuition value’ of such successes to ensure that these positive shifts are sustained for the long term.

History would show that without a strong focus on learning from successes, and deliberately focusing on embedding newly developed capabilities, the gains will likely be lost once things return to a new normal.

In our experience, one of the most successful ways to embed such positive shifts in performance involves a deliberate and collective reflection through storytelling of some of the most positive safety leadership actions that happened over the last year. A deliberate and collective reflection on the mindsets and behaviours that brought about such success is what AI or Appreciative Inquiry is all about. Cooperrider and Whiteney described such a process as:

“The cooperative search for the best in people, their organizations, and the world around them. It involves systematic discovery of what gives a system ‘life’ when it is most effective and capable… AI involves the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to heighten positive potential.”

(Cooperrider & Whitney, 1999)

Interviews with both leaders and workers to discover what drove people to step up their safety leadership, as well as the actions and conversations they had in the process, could be organized into themes and captured. Then, through an enterprise-wide summit, these themes could be further organized to launch and embed the underpinnings of this shift into the organizational DNA.

Through this process, an organization can create a narrative of their success story, envision what is possible, design initiatives to unleash and escalate positive change going forward, and deploy these initiatives throughout the enterprise.

In one organization that we partnered with, key leaders took part in personal reflections on their leadership and made commitments to critical components that they wanted to embed for the long term. This was reinforced by the development of individual leadership habits to ensure that small steps wouldn’t get lost. For example, to improve safety recognition, one leader committed to having a weekly calendar reminder to reflect on whether he had shared a certain amount of positive safety recognition in his interactions that week.

If your organization stepped up around critical safety leadership competencies such as actively caring, the next 6 months will be telling. Before we forget our collective learning, we need to develop plans to reflect and commit to bring these shifts to our new normal. Without intent, the value will quickly dissipate. Capitalizing on the successes from the recent months is a far smaller investment than the investment that most organizations would need to make to implement new safety leadership training programs that bring equivalent impact.

At Propulo, we are committed to working with organizations to sustain and embed Safety Culture change. We have experience developing customized organizational learning processes to ultimately drive operational and safety performance.

References:

Cooperrider, D.L. & Whitney, D., “Appreciative Inquiry: A positive revolution in change.” In P. Holman & T. Devane (eds.), The Change Handbook, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., (1999), pages 245-263.

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