Safety cultures need leaders, not managers

Unwanted events such as incidents or accidents give managers the opportunity to further develop the safety culture in the company. How they deal with them is crucial to building and maintaining trust. Depending on the image of 'leadership' they carry within themselves, they will succeed or fail in this.

We can twist and turn it however we want. If we as leaders are confronted with an undesirable event and then react spontaneously without thinking, we have most likely already put our foot in our mouth. From there, we find ourselves in an uphill battle when it comes to building trust. In the last two blogs, we've gotten to the bottom of this. We are subject to various fallacies, all of which ensure that we struggle to get a factual picture of what actually happened in an incident, for example. We tend to rush to judgment, believing from hindsight and knowledge of the damage at hand that we know exactly what took place, and that minimal information is enough for us to have a coherent story of what happened. All these illusions lead us to exaggerate the importance of the involved individual as the causal person. They also prove that the contributory systemic aspects have a wallflower existence in our minds. If we do not cognitively defend ourselves against these misconceptions, the question of guilt will be forced upon us. It is not an expression of goodwill and, depending on the situation, it can even be hurtful for the accused. How is trust supposed to grow in this way?

Not stimulus-response, but systematic preparation

A safety culture can only develop in an environment of mutual trust. This is when I can report mistakes I have made at any time and can be sure that I will not suffer any disadvantages as a result. Rather, I can make a constructive contribution to safety because others can learn from my experience. And because I know that by doing so, I am initiating a learning process that also addresses the question of what the system could learn. Whether I report a mistake I have made depends directly on how I assess the reaction of my immediate superior. I am very cautious about this and shy away from any risk. Who likes to incriminate themselves? Knowing this, it makes sense for all managers to consider how they will react in such situations and what attitude they will adopt. What they will say and which faux pas they will proactively push to the side. In other words, preparation is the name of the game. Two questions are central: How can I build trust and what role do I take on as a leader?

Trust building

I don't know how you deal with it. I myself build trust in other people when they are benevolent toward me. When I don't run the risk of being hurt by them and when I know that they ultimately have good intentions. So it is precisely these three points that we can use in personal dialog and in preparing for a conversation. Am I succeeding in being benevolent to the person? What are my good intentions? What would hurt the other person?

Now, trust is not a one-way street, but develops reciprocally. Therefore, in a second part of the preparation, it is also worth asking the following question in advance: What would the person have to do to hurt me? And last but not least, I will pay attention in face to face whether the other person is benevolent towards me and whether I can recognize his good intentions. The second part of the preparation is important for controlling the conversation. If I am hurt by the other person and or I am met with distrust, I will make the relationship an issue. Discussing what happened then becomes secondary.

The role of the leader: judge or coach?

The role of a leader is not only defined by the mission, but just as much by the countless expectations of HOW to lead. Since we also have our own ideas about how we lead, this opens up a space that we need to take advantage of. By clarifying the HOW of our leadership, we interpret our role as a leader to a large extent ourselves within bandwidths given by corporate culture. This interpretation is what it's all about. What image of 'leadership' do I carry within me? Am I the thinking and ordering authority who gives instructions and checks whether everything has been done correctly? If so, I have decided in favor of steering and control, live in the paradigm of the organization and function in a top-down manner. If you interpret leadership in this way, you will be forced into the role of judge in the event of an undesirable occurrence. The sense of justice will ensure that responsibility for what occurred is assigned to a person. With this comes the accusation and thus the fear of the person or persons involved and sacrificed is trust. Such a view of things is always associated with the repeated unwillingness of managers to accept joint responsibility for deficiencies in the system.

There is another way. If the image of leadership is oriented toward the overall whole. When employees are not understood as tools of an organizational machinery, but as valuable resources who do not go to work in the morning with the intention of making a mistake. Employees who have special abilities and at the same time are fallible like every human being. Then leaders slip into the role of coach. They provide support, make learning possible and, working together, not only seek to solve problems but also strive to improve the system. They assume shared responsibility. They create trust.

Shared responsibility for the system

Regardless of how a leader understands leadership, the call to take shared responsibility for identified system deficiencies is a hefty one. It is ultimately a matter of inner attitude and mindset. The path to this is not a Sunday stroll. When I set out, I have to deal with a strenuous question. Am I able to stand up and take shared responsibility for the shortcomings of the system, despite the fact that I normally have a very limited ability to influence it? This is not easy, because the systemic aspects that contributed to the event often have to be addressed at upper and highest management levels. The argument is put in my lap that, after all, I am only a small light and that my competencies, resources and possibilities are never, ever sufficient to fix the problem. What if every manager thought that way? Basically, this argument is about whether I see myself as a leader, as part of a management team, or as an                 externally determined subject with a job profile that I have to obey.

Incidentally, it is worth asking oneself in this context whether it would be honest to demand that employees take responsibility for their actions without sharing responsibility for system deficiencies. Shared responsibility is a matter of the inner attitude of managers. Those who do not succeed in this are lacking in greatness. For many, this would still be bearable. But not for the company. Because an attitude that rejects shared responsibility severely torpedoes the trust-based safety culture. It leaves the problem to the employee, reduces and trivializes what happened, and abuses the power owed to the hierarchy for one' own purposes.

A long road that demands a lot from executives

The above-mentioned preparation for a discussion with those affected thus includes a specific examination of the systemic aspects of the incident. My experience shows that this is no easy task. It is an unfamiliar and therefore poorly mastered perspective on how things are viewed. It needs to be practiced like any leadership activity. Not only is it challenging to recognize the contributory elements, but always complicating matters is the delusion, implanted in us by Mother Nature, that the causes must have been the actions of the people involved after all. It is therefore not surprising that the importance of systemic aspects for the occurrence of undesirable events is still unduly belittled by executives. This circumstance is an expression of a poorly developed safety culture. We must not forget that the road to a trust-based culture is long. It begins where managers rethink and realign their interpretation of leadership, where they succeed in building trust and are able to provide psychological safety, and where they are able to recognize the systemic aspects of events and their significance. This path is a cultural change that cannot be accomplished without hick-ups. Therefore, for the first steps, it is worth having a coach by your side who not only knows the way, but also ensures that the development of the organization stays on the chosen path.