Why Safety Leaders Need to Step Up and Take Accountability
In a recent study of 535 leaders representing four high-risk industries, only 12% rated themselves as highly effective at sharing a safety vision, while almost one in four rated themselves as ineffective.
If this figure concerns you, it should.
A strong vision helps motivate employees and teams towards achieving an ideal state. It also guides employee behaviour and confidence in situations where processes or rules are unclear, even when their leader is absent.
A strong safety vision builds motivation, brings a team together and ultimately leads to improved safety performance and increased safety citizenship behaviours. In the absence of a clear and motivating vision, employees can feel adrift, unsure of priorities and where they should best invest their energy.
But it’s not only leaders who feel they are ineffective at sharing a safety vision. When individuals were asked to rate selected leaders in a 360° assessment, the results showed a similar outcome with Vision again ranked the lowest of the eight safety leadership competencies.
Download The State of Safety Leadership to learn the full results of the study, which includes 535 leaders and 8212 employees representing seven industries.
The challenge facing leaders
Creating and sharing a vision is one of the few competencies not required at the employee-level. We don’t ask team members to communicate or cascade information about the organisational vision, or to inspire their teammates to invest energy in achieving the vision.
This is a unique skill asked of leaders. So, it’s no wonder individuals find it difficult to excel in this area when progressing into leadership roles. This entirely new skill is one that most have not had the opportunity to develop or hone in previous roles.
Further, to create and share a vision takes energy. Leaders must make the time to think and plan. To effectively create a vision, leaders must break it down into manageable tasks or goals that teams can achieve, communicate the importance of the vision and gain buy-in.
Many leaders report that they are “too busy” with the demands of day-to-day activities to invest time in thinking about and planning a safety vision. Unsurprisingly, these leaders don’t invest the energy in building a vision with their team, so do not realise the benefits of their team being on the same page, pulling together towards that common goal.
Only one component of a leader’s role, it can be challenging to make the time and invest the energy into creating a team safety vision, or sharing and communicating the organisational safety vision. Particularly if it seems that the effort exerted does not pay off in an equal increase in improvement or team effort.
Creating or sharing a vision can be an area where some leaders find they avoid taking accountability. When compared to more concrete tasks such as managing day-to-day task completion and performance management of employees, sharing a vision can seem somewhat abstract and ambiguous in nature.
Some leaders may feel that it is the responsibility of the organisation to set the vision and communicate the message clearly to all employees. As a result, many use the absence of an inspiring and effective organisational vision as an excuse to avoid accepting responsibility for communicating and driving an effective safety vision within their teams.
“Leaders are limited by their vision rather than by their abilities”
What can leaders do?
Depending on the level of the leader, they may not have control or a strong degree of influence over the organisational vision. However, all leaders are capable of creating a strong safety vision within their team.
If a strong organisational-level safety vision exists, then a leader’s role is to share and communicate the vision with their team on a regular basis, building motivation to achieve the vision and creating emotional buy-in from team members. However, if a broader organisational vision is lacking, then leaders need to take responsibility to create a strong safety vision at the team level and share and motivate team members towards that vision.
Make time for the vision
A vision cannot be created and effectively communicated without an investment of time and energy. Leaders who want to build a common goal within their team, and a strong vision that will influence team behaviours, need to make time to create the vision and continue to make the time to share it again, and again.
It is not enough for a leader to share a vision and then move on, with the belief that their job is done. An effective vision is discussed regularly with the team, with reinforcement via recognition of behaviours that are in line with the vision, and quick attention to behaviours that are not aligned, as well as celebrations of small wins that propel the team closer to the desired goal.
Collaboration is key
If a team is presented with a fully formed and finalised vision, it may not always have a significant impact on team behaviour. Over time, a leader might achieve compliance, but they will rarely see true passion from team members to achieve the vision that was handed to them. Ideally, leaders should collaborate with their team members to either build a team safety vision, or decide how their team is going to support, reward and celebrate wins on their journey towards achieving the safety vision set by the organisation.
As teams are brought on board and included in the conversation, their investment increases and they start to feel ownership of the vision. A leader will start to see the success of their efforts when the team has accepted ownership over components of the safety vision, and has genuinely bought in to the goal, feeling that their personal values are aligned with the overall vision.
There are a lot of excuses leaders can use to avoid accepting responsibility for vision setting and sharing, but at the end of the day, that’s all they are—excuses. Effective leaders invest their time and energy into creating and sharing an effective safety vision, and these leaders reap the rewards.
What do organisations need to do?
While leaders need to accept responsibility for sharing a vision with their teams, organisations need to accept responsibility for training and supporting leaders to build these skills. Given that only 12% of leaders feel they are highly effective at sharing a safety vision, this is no doubt an area of leadership development that organisations have overlooked.
Sharing a vision is a skill that can be taught, and once leaders understand the basic brain science behind creating an inspiring vision that employees connect with, communicating the vision effectively, and using the vision to shape and influence employee behaviour, they will be able to apply the skills within their team.
Learn how to guide leadership assessment and development in your organisation, and uncover practical tips for creating an inspiring vision in our latest report, The State of Safety Leadership. Download your copy today.
Jennifer is a registered psychologist (specialising in organisational psychology) with more than 13 years professional experience in HR consulting, leadership development and safety consulting. Driven by a passion to understand human behaviour in the workplace, her strong research background allows her to leverage the latest in psychology and neuroscience to help leaders build high-performing teams and inspire and motivate their employees. As GM, Assessment and Development, Jennifer develops and delivers services to assist clients to build effective safety cultures where leaders and employees go beyond basic compliance to demonstrate true safety citizenship.