Common sense tells us that leaders play a special role in the performance of their employees, and there is substantial research to help us understand why this is the case. For example, Stanley Milgram’s famous studies of obedience in the 1960s demonstrated that, to their own dismay, people will administer what they think are painful electric shocks to strangers when asked to do so by an authority figure. This study and many others reveal that leaders are far more influential over the behavior of others than is commonly recognized.
In the workplace, good leadership usually translates to better productivity, efficiency and quality. Coincidentally, as research demonstrates, leaders whose teams are the most efficient and consistently productive also usually have the best safety records. These leaders do not necessarily “beat the safety drum” louder than others. They aren’t the ones with the most “safety first” stickers on their hardhats or the tallest stack of “near-miss” reports on their desks; rather, their style of leadership produces what we call “The Safety Side Effect.” The idea is this: safe performance is a bi-product of the way that good leaders facilitate and focus the efforts of their subordinate employees. But what, specifically, produces this effect?
Over a 30 year period, we have asked thousands of employees to describe the characteristics of their best boss – the boss who sustained the highest productivity, quality and morale. This “best boss” survey identified 20 consistently recurring characteristics. On close inspection, one of these characteristics – “Holds Himself and Others Accountable for Results” – plays a significant role in bringing about The Safety Side Effect. Best bosses hold a different paradigm of accountability. Rather than viewing accountability as a synonym for “punishment,” these leaders view it as an honest and pragmatic effort to redirect and resolve failures. When performance failure occurs, the best boss:
- Consistently steps up to the failure and deals with it immediately or as soon as possible after it occurs;
- Honestly explores the many possible reasons why the failure occurred, without jumping to the simplistic conclusion that it was one person’s fault
- Works with the employee to determine a resolution for the failure.
When a leader approaches performance failure in this way, it creates a substantially different working environment for subordinate employees – an environment in which employees:
- Do not so quickly become defensive when others stop their unsafe behavior
- Focus more on resolving problems than protecting themselves from blame
- Freely offer ideas for improving their own safety performance.
Mike Allen, co-founder and partner of The RAD Group, was a guest presenter at a management meeting held in March 2015 in West Des Moines, Iowa. The RAD Group is a consulting and training company focused on safety. Mike spoke about “The Safety Side Effect” and submitted an excerpt from The RAD Group’s blog for “An Outside Perspective,” a section of the Wright Service Corp. biannual newsletter, The Wright Perspective.