More visible safety leadership: adapting for the future

Health and Safety Index

By Mark Wright, Managing Director of FEFO Consulting and Health and Safety Index
Monday, 11 July, 2022

More visible safety leadership: adapting for the future

Retaining staff and maintaining a safe and mentally fit work environment for workers means organisations must continually understand and respond to the needs of not only the organisation, but also their people. Often the issues that senior leaders feel they must act on are disconnected from the needs of their teams.

Measure, focus and act

The Health and Safety Index is an online assessment that enables organisations to measure, focus and act on improvements that matter. It evaluates leadership based on relevant sample sizes and feedback from participants observed about leadership behaviours within their teams and the broader organisation. Results are aggregated to provide statistical reliability of leadership performance.

The following four aspects are evaluated in an integrated way to understand their independencies and levers for action by the organisation:

  1. Leadership
  2. Engagement
  3. Systems
  4. Health and wellbeing

These aspects are mapped against specific leadership behaviours to better understand how to enable a high-performance culture. Several highlights in the benchmark data have been identified:

  • Low levels of performance in visible leadership
  • Reduction of active participation in health and safety
  • Mismatch between frontline operator and senior management

Do these highlighted trends represent the new workplace norm, or do safety leaders need to potentially adapt to the new ways of working?

Visible leadership

The lowest Health and Safety Index Leadership result was by far ‘Visible Senior Management’ at 51%. Unfortunately, the capability of senior managers to be visible and have effective safety conversations is a common challenge for many organisations, and is reflected in Health and Safety Index results and feedback from thousands of responders.

Traditionally, being visible as a senior leader meant hitting the pavement and getting out in the field or onto the workshop floor. However, responding to the pandemic meant many leaders were leading in isolation from their teams. Thinking outside the box on how to integrate safety leadership into the new ways of working and engaging with teams on safety by having conversations that matter is a challenge that must be addressed across many industries.

Active participation

The largest decrease in benchmark results was ‘Active participation’ with a decline of -0.5%. Overall, leadership results improved, with supervisors finding workable solutions recording the biggest improvement at 5.7%. When faced with adversity, managers and teams often bond together to find solutions.

Frontline operations vs senior management

Often there is a challenge to communicate consistent, clear and authentic information within organisations, from senior management through the layers of the organisation. It is not surprising that information is often lost in translation or not verified as being effectively communicated and understood as it is cascaded up and down an organisation.

As an example, FEFO Consulting learnt through the Health and Safety Index benchmark data, there is a clear gap related to the senior management visibility. When respondents were asked about senior management visibility, on average frontline operations reported 47% vs senior management 59%. This 12% difference reinforces the opportunity for senior managers to respond to their people, become more engaged to understand operational feedback and needs, show empathy to how their workforce is feeling and demonstrate what they are doing in response to their observations and feedback. Visible leadership is more than just being seen. Often a good starting point is demonstrating care and concern.

Care and concern

Starting with care and concern is a great way to build trust. This may include a combination of demonstrating the following traits:

  • Vulnerability: being honest, open and sharing personal stories, stepping out of comfort zones, admitting individual weaknesses and opportunities to improve.
  • Authenticity: actively listening to your teams — listening, taking in the feedback and not waiting to have your turn to speak. Working alongside the operations teams in a genuine and collaborative way, being true yourself as a leader.
  • Integrity: doing the right thing, aligning with the values of the organisation even when it is those tough conversations.

Due diligence

By default, if senior leaders are being visible, actively involved, learning and responding, there is a good chance director and officer WHS legal obligations are also being fulfilled. Demonstrating due diligence as a senior leader cannot be underestimated and taken for granted. WHS and heavy national heavy vehicle laws (NHVL) due diligence obligations of officers are aligned. To go beyond basic legal compliance, consider the capabilities needed to enable effective leadership.

Due diligence Legal/compliance focus Leadership focus
a) Knowledge Acquire health & safety knowledge. Build a growth mindset by harnessing the collective intelligence and experience of diverse teams. Look externally and benchmark leading practices.
b) Understand Understand the nature of operations, hazards and risks. Seek to understand and actively listen. Consciously build deeper and more trusting relationships during interactions.
c) Resources Ensure appropriate resources and processes. Know how and when to leverage resources. Consider cross-functional work groups, support functions and business process outsourcing (BPO).
d) Information Receive and consider information and respond in a timely way. Have a leader narrative for use in their day-to-day communication. Have great, connecting conversations about the things that matter.
e) Compliance Implement processes for compliance. Go beyond basic compliance and feel energised by connecting personal and professional purpose to objectives of the organisation.
f) Verify Verify resources and processes for (a)–(f). Know how to put all of this to use during the day-to-day, and consciously shape culture through actions, a thriving work environment, rituals and behaviours.

Ultimately, results from the Health and Safety Index benchmark data validate that senior leaders need to increase visibility and improve on the quality of interactions with their people. Leaders who recognise this and shift their thinking, communication styles and engagement strategies will have teams that have improved mental fitness, feel supported and are retained in the flexible workplaces of 2022 and beyond.

Image credit: ©

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