When Leaders Err on the Wrong Side of Safety

As leaders, what do we do when we err on the wrong side of safety?

02 July 2014

In our last blog, we explored how our behaviours as leaders influence others to the right side of safety. In this follow up post, we will consider that uncomfortable question: As leaders, what do we do when we err on the wrong side of safety? How do you come back from that when you are the one preaching safety first?

It is important to remember that safety is a choice and our behaviours have a great impact on, and set the tone for, what becomes our ‘normal circumstances’.

You sometimes hear of managers who talk the talk of safety, but when the pressure is on they take short cuts. Unfortunately, that one-off action can set the tone and (possibly) become the unwritten rule; this lower standard then (possibly) becomes the accepted norm.

In any leadership role, it is critical to be consistent in your approach to staying on the right side of safety. What happens when someone points out to us, as safety leaders, that we have made a safety mistake? We all react differently depending on the situation. Sometimes we stop, thank the person who pointed the risk out and review the process. Other times, we might not digest the full impact of what we did and react in a negative way towards the person pointing out our error. Sometimes we have a defensive reaction, often because we are embarrassed by our unsafe act. What can we, as leaders, do once the tension has eased? It is essential that we deploy the following best practices:

  • Acknowledge our behaviour;
  • Explore what happened;
  • Evaluate where the gaps were; what else can be learned from this situation; and
  • Thank the person for caring enough to stop you – especially because ‘you are the leader’

We need to remember that it is often very difficult to stop a superior who is at risk. What if they have a negative reaction? True safety leaders are distinguished leaders. But what sets them apart? True stewards of safety set the expectation that anyone can stop them and they positively acknowledge comments from their team that took the opportunity to correct them; to bring them back to the right side of safety. There may be discussions and differences of opinions, but what will always stands out is the acknowledgement afterwards and the importance of sharing the lessons learned.

As leaders, are we having critical safety conversations with our superiors and making that our ‘normal circumstances’? Do we have conversations around safety that imply “this is the way we do things around here; this is just our culture.”

What an interesting statement, ‘the way we do things around here.’ In the working environment, what defines our normal or specified circumstances? How do we encapsulate our behaviors and the example we set?

Join us next time as we start exploring how our behaviors influence our culture of safety.

What questions do you have related to this topic? Please leave your comment(s) below and one of our experts will get back to you.

Today's expert blogger is Nuala Gage, Senior Consultant, Sub-Saharan Africa for Intertek's Consulting and Training group. Nuala brings more than 10 years' experience in the industry of learning development and safety leadership.