Positive Accountability: Supervisor Ownership for Safety
By Josh Williams, Ph.D.
Improving supervisory safety leadership is critical for safety culture advancement. And to be sure, being in a supervisory role is one of the toughest jobs in organizational settings. And one of the most important when it comes to safety. The term “where the rubber meets the road” is often applied to this level of leadership because supervisors carry out the vision and directives from senior leaders but also manage the difficult day-to-day challenges with front-line employees doing the work.
For years, we have talked about the dangers of old-school leadership. Decades ago, the norm for field leaders was “command and control.” Fear-based tactics like yelling and screaming were just part of the job. We have since learned that these heavy-handed motivational styles created a number of problems like high turnover, burnout, and driving minor injuries and close calls underground. Fear kills communication. As a result, strong efforts have been made to create psychological safety and a broader learning culture.
But what about accountability?
More and more, we are being asked to provide guidance, coaching, and training with field leaders to improve safety ownership and accountability. The diagram below illustrates that some organizations have gotten too lenient in regard to influencing safety behaviors.
As an example, a lineman recently fell 20 feet off of a bucket truck when he overextended (without being tied off) while repairing a phone line. No one in the crew, including the foreman, spoke up even though everyone saw him doing it. As a field leader, “looking the other way” when high risks are observed is an abdication of duty. Senior leaders who allow this are also culpable for being asleep at the wheel.
We use the term positive accountability to reinforce the importance of providing ongoing, smart, and effective safety feedback. This includes both respectful corrective feedback plus recognition for safe work practices. Here is a small sample of a few themes we cover regarding safety feedback when we conduct positive accountability supervisor training:
– Demonstrate active caring for the person’s wellbeing. Focus on staying safe more than just compliance.
– Acknowledge the person’s experience and expertise.
– Give safety feedback respectfully and one-on-one. Don’t embarrass people.
– Avoid must, never, always and other emotionally charged words. Ask more open-ended questions to understand any error precursors (excessive production pressure, proper tools not readily available) influencing risky actions.
– Listen for both emotion and content to better understand the person’s perspective.
– Gain commitment from employees for safe actions in the future.
– Compliment safe work practices.
– Thank them for sharing their perspective.
When done correctly, positive accountability balances learning culture with responsible enforcement. It also instills personal responsibility with employees to operate safely and speak up with each other when risks are observed. Take steps today to increase your supervisors’ positive accountability to prevent catastrophic events, reduce unpredictability with injury rates, and improve overall safety culture.