Should I focus on relationship or control to improve safety performance? This is a continuous management paradox that leaders confront. Last year, 2016, I determined I would focus on publishing a book emphasizing the law of relationship in business—with a focus on accident prevention. I received the criticism that many people before me have emphasized the importance of relationship and I am not saying anything new.
Discouraged I put the book writing aside, wondering why my words were not able to convey the uniqueness of the perspective I perceive to be so different. Maybe it isn’t. So much has been written that I am not aware of yet. Also, many say that there is nothing new under the sun so that everything is just repackaged in different words.
I have concluded that it doesn’t matter whether or not my content is unique. The issue is that many have written about the importance that engagement, collaboration, and interdependence play in successful organizations, but our business management schools and culture continue to emphasize marketing, strategy, structure and finance with very little reference to evaluating the effect of these decisions on people. Furthermore, in my experience safety and environmental issues are not part of the MBA curriculum.
So, I reach out to you and ask for your feedback so that we can together make sense of where the balance between the well being of people and business results lies. Are they opposing goals? Are they separate goals that require different strategies? Let’s review some of the discoveries that have brought us back around to the important role relationships play in organizational results.
In 1996 I published an article linking systems theory to safety culture and performance. Looking at safety performance through systems thinking eventually jolted the profession out of its love affair with incentives that were encouraging people to hide accidents (an unintended consequence). System thinking takes a broader view than behavior-based safety since it looks beyond the individual motivations to the larger system that influences individual behavior. It also looks at all parts of an organization as interconnected. So we can’t expect a worker to avoid risk when the system is set up to reward risk.
Early in my career while I engaged in system root cause analysis and org design a group of employees helped me realize that lack of trust and open communication were the root causes of the fatality we were analyzing because they had been trying to tell management that the equipment was dangerous. Unfortunately, no one had listened.
It made me realize that the information we need to prevent accidents may be right in front of us. So I began to work with leaders to help them build or recover trust and open communication between employees and managers/supervisors. We were successful in many ways by engaging employees and empowering them to design and implement communication processes, but we always ended up with a long list of corrective actions, many of which required expensive investments. The positive effect of responding to employee concerns would dissipate when the plant did not finance the corrections and employee engagement would go down.
With a continual sense of dissatisfaction I continued to search for a more effective approach to help companies develop more the means to improve communication and relationships between employees and managers with the goal to reduce fatalities and accidents. Eventually, after exposure to complexity science, I concluded that the trust and open communication present in successful operations is not the result of organizational systems.
Complexity, Relationship and Safety Performance
Complexity Science offers new perspectives that add sense to questions like why don’t employees always follow procedure? Why do some work groups have better performance when they have the same rules and risks as other work groups that have accidents? To date the EHS profession has focused on predictive analysis based on Heinrich’s model and worked to eliminate precursors to accidents primarily with a focus on compliance.
Ralph Stacey, Patricia Shaw, and Doug Griffith have developed a way of looking at why and how things happen in organizations that they call complex responsive processes (CRP) and relationship psychology. They say that the reason we are bad at forecasting is because it is impossible to predict the consequences of human actions. Using the complexity sciences as a source for analogies they use them to interpret human action in a manner that takes full account of people’s consciousness, their emotions, and that they have some degree of choice over what they do. People are basically interdependent, they respond to each other and their choices. Their intentions play into each other producing unpredictable, emergent patterns over time. An organization is what it is and becomes what it is as a result of how individuals relate to one another. Stacey and colleagues refer to these processes as complex responsive processes of relating. These responsive processes take the form of:
- Conversation is communication understood, drawing on George Herbert Mead;
- Power relations, drawing on Norbert Elias, take on the form of inclusion-exclusion;
- Identity as a combination of values and norms emerging from the process of inclusion;
- Relationship psychology, beliefs and assumptions are forming individually and being formed by the group simultaneously.
These concepts were originally developed to explore strategic management. The practical application is left to those of us who wish to explore their significance. I have used these concepts to develop a workshop to provide leaders with the concepts and practical tools that will allow them to influence performance results—one of which is reducing injuries, fatalities, and other significant failures.
It’s time to get off the false belief that predictability is the golden key to success. Workers have to respond to and manage risk as it appears. There would be a lot more accidents if they didn’t. A system cannot be designed that will handle every contingency. The strongest influence on our behavior comes from our relationships.
What is a relationship? It is a sense of belonging, which is one of the basic human needs for survival. It is as important as food and shelter. It is interdependence. There is no relationship if I do not rely on you in some way physically, emotionally or economically. A relationship may include reliance on others for knowledge as well as timely and accurate information to successfully navigate the environment.
This is why the primary vehicle for transforming an organization is conversation. Lack of conversation or the wrong conversations lead to breakdowns. The workshop I’ve designed places the leader in the driver’s seat of this vehicle. First order of business is to create a level of trust where people will tell you the truth. Second is to build credibility by addressing and responding to issues in a timely manner. Third is to ensure that one’s direct reports are also having these conversations.
Eventually, the leader focuses on developing the ways in which work is done to include conversation amongst all employees. That means that everyone will need the skills for honest and open communication. Trust barriers will need to be addressed. This will be done through skilled conversation—the topic of my next post. For more information on my workshop you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org