Does Safety Management Get In The Way Of Safety Leadership?

What’s the difference between management and leadership?  MBA classes can debate that to death (believe me, I know first hand).  If you run a safety department, it is something you should be asking yourself.  Two of the biggest trends of the last few years have been the growth of safety management, as in safety management systems and Safety Leadership, as in, “Safety leadership starts at the top.”  A lot of the time, we use the words interchangeably.

But it is important to understand the difference.   Generally, we expect managers to make sure the job gets done, the rules get followed and everything runs smoothly.  However, we expect something different from leaders. We expect a vision of a better world and an ability to take us there. Sometimes that means throwing out the rules and changing the way we do the job.   As writer William Arruda wrote in Forbes Magazine, “Leaders are change agents, managers maintain the status quo.”

Both are important in the field of safety. Safety management gives us a way to identify and control hazards, learn from mistakes and track our safety programs.  It brings order to the chaos of policies, procedures, training, operations and regulations in our workplaces.  It In many cases, the alternative to safety management is guesswork and relying on luck to keep people from getting hurt.

One of the problems with safety management is that, over time, it can turn into the safety status quo.  We just start looking at metrics – Are we all green on our training matrix? What’s our Behavior-Based Safety participation rate?  Did we have any corrective actions from our last audit?

We all know companies where they have fine-tuned their systems so well that it looks like everything is running smoothly, when it blinds us to real hazards in the field.   More importantly, the safety status quo keeps us from seeing real opportunities to improve safety.   My safety management system may help me reduce lost time injuries by 10% this year, but does it allow me to ask, “how do we make sure no one gets hurt?”

Leadership on the other hand can break through the status quo to find better ways to work, then communicate a vision in a way that other people will follow it.  For example, instead of accepting that there is a trade-off between operations and safety, a leader says, “if we do the job right the first time, quality goes up and no one gets hurt.   Then the best leaders know how to motivate us to make it happen.  In safety, the best leaders go straight to the crews in the field, the workers who have the most at stake.  A groundbreaking study in 2001 of offshore oil and gas Offshore Installation Managers (OIMs) found that they overwhelmingly felt that leadership, communication and employee motivation at the deck level were keys to safety.  Tellingly, less than half of them said that they used an engagement style, showing that safety leadership is not a natural talent.

Of course, leadership has its own weaknesses.  It is not enough to have vision; you need 20/20 vision to see things accurately.  Leaders still need that discipline that managers bring.  In fact, if you look at really successful executives, you see that they are a mixture of leader and manager.  They can slip from one role to the other without hesitation.  If their company is big enough, they know how to motivate people who can set up and run a management system and the people who can communicate safety vision to guys in the field who hold the hammers.

One of the best explanations of the difference between the two skills came from one of the Navy’s first female admirals, Grace Murray Hopper, “You manage things; you lead people.”

First, though, you have to know the difference, then you need to make sure your management of safety isn’t blocking you from leading on safety.

Leave a Reply