A Guide to Safety Excellence through Organizational and Leadership Transformation

Safety Leadership is both simple and complex. When observing a successful leader his or her actions appear direct and easily reproducible. Yet, trying to train or pass on these capabilities is one of the greatest challenges in organizational development. Why? Because leaders have undergone a transformational process that enables them to connect with people in ways that non-leaders cannot.

Thanks to the popularity of the Gallup Poll survey we have extensive evidence that higher employee engagement scores correlate to better safety performance. The higher sores measure such things as the quality of relationship with one’s boss to perceptions of how well the company is doing at providing the support that employees need to be successful.

Although the survey never mentions items we typically associate with industrial safety, these correlations with safety shouldn’t surprise us. This leads me to suggest that perhaps we should stop using the term “safety leadership” since it is really doesn’t require a separate set of capabilities. However, I will say that many standard leadership offerings often don’t meet safety needs because they are a little light on the caring and relationship aspects.

This is not to say that safety requires more emphasis in these areas. It’s just that business education tends to focus on finance and marketing, while safety professionals who have been tasked with preventing the loss of human life repeatedly hear from employees that it is hard to believe management cares about safety when they seem to place a higher priority on production.

Most leaders are aware that they need to go beyond engineering and procedures to achieve lower accident rates. In fact, they know people look to them to show care and concern. However, many cannot effectively communicate that concern due to under developed self-awareness and communication skills. For example, I met a plant manager who was moved to the point of tears as he talked about wanting reverse the alarming accident trends at his site. His closest friend had died in a mining accident in front of him. Yet, he is perceived as vindictive, uncaring and self-serving. How is this possible? It is because he is unaware of the effect his words and the message they communicate. He emphasizes the need to get focused back on work while his people want to know if he cares

His story illustrates how communicating that you care builds relationships. It is important to establishing a foundation of trust and credibility. This can be difficult for managers who are educated in a culture of rational, logical decision-making.

Moving from the heavily rational-financial management paradigm to a more balanced heart and mind approach has been part of my work since the 1990’s. I’ve re-designed the Safety Leadership Formula model, which I originally published in 2002. I don’t call it a formula anymore because I don’t believe in formulas. But we need an understandable model that integrates organizational change and personal transformation.

Trust + Credibility x Competence= Results

The 3-dimensional model for safety leadership shown in Figure 1 is based on the concept that we move from vision to implementation via three dimensions that operate simultaneously. 1) Trust and credibility. 2) Competence (developing the capability of the organization to achieve the vision. 3) Transformational leadership: Five-step pathway–insight, direction, capability, focus and action– that guides the leader’s actions from vision to results by developing both organizational capability and trust.

Figure 1.

This model was developed through extensive research into how people and organizations change such as Richard Beckhard, Allen Wheeler, Victor Frankle, Chris Argyris, Edgar Schein, Noel Tichy, and Warren Bennis.

1st Dimension: Trust and Credibility

Based on interviews and focus groups with 100’s of employees over the past 27 years I discovered that lack of trust and credibility between employees and management is the strongest obstacle to improving safety. It is logical, then, that any large-scale safety effort requires trustworthy and credible leadership, leaders who have the personal habits, values, traits, and competencies to engender trust and commitment from those who take their direction.

Leaders suffer many setbacks early in the effort. They carefully negotiate a deal, correct one thing, only to find some new problem taking its place. They establish a tenuous trust line only to receive notice that there’s another round of lay-offs. It is common to find oneself back at the beginning repeatedly–trying to establish credibility and trust that the management/company really cares about safety.

Breaking through the cycle of mistrust requires tremendous perseverance from management because it is only through keeping commitments, addressing safety concerns, and producing results over and over again in spite of apparent set backs that a leader eventually wins over his or her followers. There is an old saying in sales, “The sale doesn’t begin until the first no.”   We should have one in safety, “Trust doesn’t begin until we overcome the first setback.”

2nd Dimension: Developing the Organization’s Competencies for Safety Excellence

The second dimension focuses on developing the organization’s capability to succeed. This entails developing people and creating the processes, structures and skills to support safety excellence. The following story about Tom Moeller, oil refinery manager for Exxon-Mobil, provides an excellent example of this leadership dimension. Tom begins:

“When I came to Beaumont this plant was in serious trouble. We had lost 90 million dollars. Our expenses were in the fourth quartile on the Solomon survey that said we were at the bottom of the heap of all the refineries in the United States. Today, we have the lowest cost structure of all the refineries in the world and we have one of the best safety records of all the Exxon Mobil refineries in the world. During the time we made these improvements we downsized 400 people. Our culture is far better today.

We did it by setting up and training a lot of teams among our employees. There was a team there that worried about sling inspections, inspections of our cranes, making sure that we met all the OSHA standards, making sure that the repairs were made when they should be made, and that preventative maintenance was done. We had OSHA come in and train everyone. There is a team in the weld shop and there is a team pretty much everywhere that says to the hourly folks and supervisors, ‘This is the OSHA standard.’ We also gave them the freedom to spend the money to do what they had to do and to set people aside to get the job done.

We spent a fair amount of money. The other side of the coin is our heavy equipment reliability is way up. There are big pieces of equipment that might cost a million or half a million dollars so you don’t want them out of service much of the time or you have to replace them by renting a piece of equipment. There aren’t any injures. While we spend a lot of money to train people, the workers now have responsibility for it. They spend money for the appropriate repairs. I think we probably made it back several times over.”

A lot of resources were dedicated in this case to capital improvements related to safety. In this case it was necessary to do so to gain credibility for management’s seriousness about safety. But, the money was also spent on developing people’s capability to take responsibility and empowerment.

3rd Dimension: Pathway for Transformational Leadership

The third dimension of the model demonstrates that the pathway to leadership transformation is the path that turns vision into results because leaders are the primary instruments for bringing vision into reality. Figure 2, lists examples of specific actions for each of the five steps. Each step also entails a shift in beliefs for the leader and the organization.

Five-Step Leadership Pathway to Transformation

  1. Insight. If we don’t know who we are and how others see us, we can’t change the things we do. If we don’t change what we do, we can’t get different results. A candid assessment from supervisors, peers and employees can help a leader see the world as it is, not as he/she would like it to be.

We also can’t just copy other people’s behavior. At one site about 20% of the plant employees were disregarding safety rules. One manager had begun giving out written warnings to people who did not wear safety glasses and his area had dramatically improved. One supervisor suggested that all them should begin giving out warnings. However, another manager pointed out that the manager who used discipline effectively was experienced, had the trust of his employees and was respected for his knowledge of the business. The others were new to the job, had no existing relationships with the men, and very little knowledge of the work being done. After discussion everyone agreed that they would not get the same results when they tried to enforce safety rules through discipline. The first step was for them to talk to their direct reports 1-1 and develop relationships.

Know yourself, build on your strengths and work on your weaknesses. Build relationships of trust and credibility with the people you are trying to lead. We cannot force change on others. We invite disaster when we try.

  1. Direction. Once you have insight on the nature of a problem or possible solution it is time for action planning. It can be as simple as having a one-on-one conversation with each employee to clarify expectations. Find out what they need to do their jobs, do they have any safety concerns? After the conversation build credibility with your people by taking care of their concerns. Let them know what you’ve done. Ask for feedback on how you are doing and give them feedback on a regular basis. Doing this successfully requires that you create your own vision and mission so that you can let people know what is important to you. This is a time consuming activity, but it will lay the foundation for success.
  2. Focus. Lots of plans go to waste because priorities aren’t set. What should we focus on first? Edgar Schein, leading author on the topic of organizational culture and leadership, states that one of the most powerful mechanisms that leaders use to create and reinforce culture is what they pay attention to, measure and control (Schein 2012). Paying attention may mean anything from noticing or commenting on something to systematically rewarding or measuring specific results. Paying attention is especially powerful when it is focused on a few important priorities and the leader sets the example.

Setting the example lends credibility to focus because it is not enough to say, “Safety is our first priority.” When conflicting priorities arise, leaders put safety first in their actions. It is not enough to say, “Everyone has the right to shut down an unsafe job.” When someone shuts down a job or requests to shut it down, there mustn’t be negative repercussion or second-guessing.

  1. Capability Development. You’ve made the plan and important part of that is identifying the skills and resources needed to reach the goal. One of the most scarce resources in time.

Leaders need to be willing to be accessible to people’s ideas and input. They need to calendar events and meetings to articulate the vision and accomplish the planning necessary to reach the goals. If you tell your subordinates a safety training is very important, but you only show up for the kick-off, you are sending out an immediate message that safety is not your priority. Likewise, leaders need to allocate organizational resources like building competencies through training, shaping teams, re-engineering work processes to include safety and building communications networks.

  1. Action. The best training and planning will not create change. Only taking action will takes us across the knowing doing gap. Learning from mistakes is part of the transformation process, but we can’t learn if we don’t act. We can grow if we don’t act. That is why all of the insight, training and planning comes to nothing without follow through.


Insight, direction, capability, focus, and action: the five steps on the leadership pathway. Completing each step leads to creating trust and credibility as well converting vision into reality at both the personal and organizational level. If you are on the path or just beginning, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Credibility and trust. Do I have the credibility with those I work with? Do individuals respect and trust me? Do I cultivate relationships with my, peers, subordinates, customers, and supervisors? Do they share my understanding of the goals?
  • Ability to perform. Do I have the capabilities and resources to make the organization succeed, reach its goals? Do I have the ability to shape a vision, create commitment to the vision, build a plan of execution, develop capabilities and hold people accountable for making things happen?
  • Change mindset. Do I have the courage for self-assessment and the willingness to change? Do I have the ability to engage people in powerful conversations that influence thinking, behaviors and relationships?

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