Are You a Safety Crusader or Leader?

Safety Crusaders don’t encourage learning. They jump to conclusions and shut down conversations with fixes and answers; only their view counts.|

The way that we engage with other people about safety and risk will determine our effectiveness. If our aim is for others to lead on safety, we must be prepared to suspend our own agenda and let go of control. This allows us to hear, understand and respect their views, and for them to take control. If we don’t suspend our own agenda, then we project it onto others, which will mean that they will not lead; at best, they may just follow instructions (some of the time!).A recent incident, in which a vehicle struck a customer in a parking lot, shows the importance of being willing to step back, of finding the most effective way to be a leader on safety and not just a crusader.When I approach an incident like this, I usually go armed with a checklist of things in my mind as to what I look for, along with suggestions for actions based on what I’ve seen work well before. For traffic incidents, this usually involves high visibility signs, line markings, bollards, pedestrian crossings, speed bumps and the like. This is not an unusual approach for people in the safety and risk industry where we are considered subject-matter experts. However, when we take our agenda into conversations with others, we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t appear interested in safety. This is particularly evident when our agenda is about control, compliance and binary (black and white) thinking -- as in, this is the rule, the law, the code, and this is what we need to do. On this occasion, I approached things differently. While I was busily working through the checklist in my mind, along came George, the site manager. As George started talking, I was conscious of the need to suspend my own agenda, to put that checklist away, hand over control, "hear" what George had to say and engage with him. Suspending my own agenda meant going into the conversation not only prepared to hear George's views, but more importantly resisting the temptation to impart my own ideas and suggestions (control). This can be difficult for some people in safety and risk. It is different than how I see some people operate, in an approach that I call the Safety Crusader Model. This is where people feel the need to be the only one with the answers and, worst of all, feel that if they were not there things could not be safe (control). This is a very dangerous model and one that leads to "ownership" of safety being with the safety and risk professional (control) and not with others. Safety Crusaders don’t encourage learning. They tend to jump to conclusions and shut down conversations with fixes and answers, for theirs is the only view that counts (control). The Safety Crusader isn’t really interested in others; he is armed with the Act, the Codes, the Standards. His focus is on compliance with these things (control). We need to be cautious of the Safety Crusader;these guys will tell you they are safety nuts, that they have a passion for making sure others are safe, and that it is their job to ensure safety. But what does this mean for others and how they manage safety? For people like George, who has a real interest and enthusiasm for safety at his site, if he were faced with a Safety Crusader (control) on this day, he would simply have shut down and done as he was told. Safety Crusaders tend to have strong opinions and leave little room for others to participate in conversations (control). George wouldn’t have learned anything other than what the Safety Crusader imposed on him. He would not have "owned" the actions; he would have just followed directions. We have to ask what value the Safety Crusader adds to an organization and consider whether this model really improves safety in the workplace. The Safety Crusader can’t be there all the time, and if his approach is focused on compliance with laws and The Code (control), rather than facilitating learning, engaging with people and providing support, how will others learn about safety? I did suspend my agenda when talking with George. It would have been quicker and easier for both of us if I had just told George what to do. That is, how to comply. But safety is not just about compliance It can’t be. This is not what motivates people. Safety is about how we deal with everyday and changing situations. It’s about leadership, culture and, importantly, learning. But where does the learning take place when the Safety Crusader is focused on what’s right or wrong, or on what she feel needs to be done (control)? How could George have learned if his agenda was trumped by my superior knowledge of legislation and codes? Instead, I supported George as he thought through various options, prompting him with questions about his ideas, and encouraged him to explore as many options as he and his team could think about. Importantly, I didn’t judge these ideas against my own agenda. I handed control to George. He and his team came up with actions; they weren’t what I had in mind, but they were their ideas, and they were keen to implement them. I participated in the discussion, asked questions and prompted their thinking that helped them explore different ideas. That was my job; it was not to control George. When a Safety Crusader goes into a conversation with the agenda of “I must get them to take safety seriously,” he cannot be open to the agenda of others and really understand what they are thinking, because the Safety Crusader thinks that his views are the only ones that count (control). I hear regularly from people in the safety and risk industry who say things like, “Managers don’t take safety seriously”; “They always opt for production over safety”; and “They never walk the talk.” It seems to me that we often take the approach that it’s us (the safety and risk professional) against them (anyone whose first words in the morning aren’t, “Let’s be safe!”). This us-and-them stereotypical thinking is a real problem, and it is dangerous. It limits our thinking and learning because "we" feel "we" have the answers (control), and "they" don’t see them as a priority. You see, George didn’t feel the need to “make sure others are safe”; instead, his focus was to make sure others knew about the risks and to keep them mindful, rather than try to control their behavior. I could have considered George one of "them," especially if his response was not filled with the same enthusiasm for safety as mine. This was not the case, though. George did care; he just didn’t express it as openly and enthusiastically as I hear some safety and risk professionals do. George is a smart operator. He knows that people can’t be controlled through rules, policies and procedures. He knows that people are motivated by feeling autonomous and in control of their own actions. His role is to develop relationships through effective leadership and engagement with people who will manage their own safety. George is not a crusader; he doesn’t feel the need to control a person’s every move. He allows mistakes and learning, and he provides support; he is a leader. Are you a Safety Crusader or a Safety Leader?

Robert Sams

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Robert Sams

Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change.

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