I would like to share with you an interesting case I worked on that involved influencing the safety culture in an industrial company. For reasons of confidentiality I cannot mention the name of the company. The case is, I believe, a good illustration of how approaching the issue of safety through the complexity paradigm can lead to a rich set of consequences that, in the eyes of top management, was unexpectedly highly successful.
I was engaged by the company to provide leadership courses for their junior and senior managers. About a month before one of the leadership courses, I was asked to meet with the HR director at the company’s head quarters. I was told that the company had experienced quite a few industrial accidents that involved fatalities. The trend was disturbing and despite repeated ‘requests’ from top management, an onslaught of powerpoint presentations by safety officers and top management, not to mention intranet publications about the need for safe behaviors, the safety record was barely improving. I was told that something was wrong with the safety culture and it was imperative that I spent a morning on this subject in the course. “Please design a session so that our employees understand the importance of safety.”
I realized immediately that the executives with all good intentions had turned safety into a two-dimensional rational issue. When I visited the Corporate Safety Director, he proudly showed me several dozen colorful slides with all sorts of graphics, charts, statistical data and bullet points of safe behaviors that would help reduce the lost time injury rate and fatalities. And of course he would be a guest speaker in the course, so he could impart his insights.
What to do? I decided that I needed to give safety a human face. I asked if I could have two managers who had dealt with an industrial accident under their watch in which an employee had died. I was pleasantly surprised when HR quickly arranged introductions. I asked if they were willing to tell their story about what it was like to have to deal with an industrial accident. They agreed, not only to tell their story, but also to not use any powerpoint.
On the morning of the safety session in the leadership course, I arrived early in the room and moved all the chairs of the participants in front of the tables so that they were seated in a circle. Both managers told their story. One of them used two slides after all, but to my relief they were photos. One photo of the name badge with a photo of the employee who had died and one slide with a photo of the accident scene. The other manager told his story and then showed a video of the funeral. Both stories were authentically shared. The managers showed emotions when they relived their ordeal. Their personal lessons flowed naturally from their stories and their appeal to the participants to not become a manager who has to go to a partner of an employee and tell that their partner will never come home again was impactful. After an intense 90 minutes we adjourned for coffee. I will never forget how tangible the emotions were in the room. Some of the participants had tears in their eyes. Conversations were muted.
The Corporate Safety Director had attended the session from the beginning. I had asked him to present after the coffee break and to limit his slide presentation as much as possible. The HR manager had already told me that this was a futile request. However, we both were in for a surprise. The Safety Director approached me somewhat nervously in the coffee break and he told me that after what had transpired – he was referring to the emotions in the air – he felt he could not do his presentation anymore. I suggested that a few slides would be fine, after all, we all needed a bit of distance from these two cases so we could put it in perspective. And perhaps he could ask questions and even create a dialogue.
After a longer than usual coffee break, the Corporate Safety Director entered the circle. To the amazement of the HR manager, only 12 slides were used, but over and above that, it became a highly interactive session. The HR manager claimed he had never seen that before with this executive. Various participants spontaneously offered their help to the Corporate Safety Director. They felt that the storytelling had been so powerful that they wanted to help the Director with capturing more company stories on safety and find a way to use these to raise awareness for better safety behaviors. The Safety Director readily agreed and appointments were made.
Fast Forward 18 months. At a board meeting the lights go out and a 20 minute video is shown consisting of interviews with people from around the world working for this company who had been involved in industrial accidents. It is the first time that board members see the video – and some had tears in their eyes when the lights went on. A group of participants in that leadership course had received a budget and had captured true stories of safety at the company. In a careful orchestrated process this video found its way to each of the company’s sites where discussion sessions were organized.
Safety had been given a human face. It was no longer just a chart on a piece of paper or on a colorful slide. Instead, it was something that had come alive.
Did the safety record improve? Yes it did, but I cannot claim that this was due to this video and that single intervention in the leadership course. Too many others things were done as well. However, no one disputes in the company the importance of that session that caused an unpredictable sequence of events that had markedly influenced the safety culture of the company.
For me this story shows what you can achieve if you switch perspectives from an ordered world to an unordered world, from a deliberate tell & explain style of leadership to a much more facilitative and interactive style of leadership. No one could predict what would happen as a result of that session.
What are your stories on Safety Management? And by the way, I promise my next contribution will be shorter!
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