Strengthening the corporate culture to make safety a priority value. Employee involvement. Safety motivation. Issues that are being discussed quite often these days.
My profession primarily is writing. Maybe this is why my thoughts on this topic go slightly beyond HSE. But I would like to share them because I think they are worth considering. I believe, they could make safety managers a little more effective in getting their people really involved in HSE issues. What I write in this article is not meant to be a comprehensive method, but perhaps my notes will shed some new light on the topic.
Things vs. people
Some time ago, I worked for a publishing house, which offered a book called Engineer to Manager. It was a classic handbook on managerial skills. It was designed for technicians freshly promoted to a leading role. Its aim was to help them cope with this new professional situation. In other words, those who have managed things must now start to manage people. The book contained descriptions of management practices for various situations in the life of the company. It was right in the genre, but you could tell it was written by a technician. Probably that was why I could not find one critical aspect of leadership in it. I want to show which one it was, why I think it‘s important, and how it could be used for safety leadership.
The technician will agree that working with people has certain specifics compared to managing things. In his approach to people, however, it is difficult for him to stop being a technician. Of course, working with people can be understood as a technique of its kind. However, compared to work with things, it has one more layer to it, which we could call personnel-psychological. And very often technicians in managerial roles avoid entering this layer.
Understanding an employee on the technical level means to see him as a vast human resource. An element that has a function within the system and can be controlled by the same methods as any other element of the same species. It is not wrong, but it’s just part of the story. If the manager chooses this path, he acts mechanically, almost as if he was operating a technical device.
A step beyond technicism
A mechanically-led subordinate will most probably (better or worse) obey the manager‘s instructions. But the manager can never make full use of subordinate‘s potential because he did not really want the subordinate to identify with the task. To achieve this, the manager has to do an extra step and motivate. To be able to do so, he has to discover the source of the subordinate‘s motivation. Find a personal set of values that varies from one individual to another. Across the population, it covers a wide range of variations and combinations. Here, the unifying technical approach is simply not enough.
Managers, of course, hear this at every leadership training they visit. But do they realize what that means? It is so easy to slide back to the mechanical style of guidance. And it is even more comfortable not to even try to step away from this mechanical style because sufficient results can be achieved with it as well.
However, we do not want to be formalists and therefore we ask how to become open to the value systems of our employees and what we gain by that. The manager certainly does not have to see to the very bottom of the personality of the subordinate. I am not trying to encourage managers to become deep psychologists or therapists.
Lost in translation
When HR seeks a candidate for a position, not only they monitor the candidate’s qualifications but also his/her personality characteristics. That’s because they must ensure not only their suitability to perform the job tasks but also that the new employee will complement the other team members. They use sophisticated methods that give them a lot of information about the person’s setting. Certainly more, than the manager needs to know for effective person-oriented leadership. I am afraid, however, that in most cases, the information stays stored somewhere in the HR department and does not travel to a particular location in the company with the new employee.
There are many ways to get an idea about one‘s value system. Most common are the personality type tests. To mention just some of them, it can be a classic MBTI, quadrant personality typing according to DiSC, HR‘s favourite Socionics or complex Big Five. For our purposes, whatever we choose is fine. A good idea would be picking what your HR uses, so we don’t have to do the research yourself and you can use the data that is already available. I believe that just by briefly talking to your HR officer you may find what you need to set up your personal-value oriented leadership style.
That’s where the manager and the employee can meet or miss each other. Since the manager does not have the key to the personality of the subordinate, he sees has no other possibility than choosing these managerial-mechanics as the leadership method.
What if the manager knew subordinate‘s personal value system? He could then take account of their basic value orientations and create the narratives, that would resonate with them. It is this resonance with values, what determines whether the subordinate will only obey the instruction or will internally identify with it.
The narratives based on what particular subordinates value the most can then suitably support particular management acts. Safety becomes a shared value because everyone in the team gets the opportunity to identify with a narrative that matches their value settings.
What could be examples of values concerning work safety? For some, safety might simply be a set of rules and that is a value on its own. Some are convinced, that safety is good for others and, therefore, part of common concern. For some more safety means more efficiency, so the performance is the value. Some are afraid of punishment; others are looking for reward – these are values too. Some see it as a matter of trust between them and their manager. Someone else values safety for the feeling of being protected. All of this, of course, can be mixed in different proportions in each individual.
Many values – one safety
Even though the safety should be one shared universal value across the company, in its every bearer it has a divergent structure. Safety is created by employees. Reasons, why they value it, may differ. They still can get agreed that safety is important, but the manager has to help them to.
By Ondřej Vraný. He is the Editor-in-Chief at BOZPprofi.cz with more than 10 years of editorial experience in HSE.