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Transformational Leaders Commit to a Culture of Safety

Written by Terri Wallin

A goal of transformational leaders across many industries is to achieve zero-defect performance, in other words, minimize or eliminate the possibility of errors that adversely impact the customer or employees.  Sometimes this goal arises because the stakes are so great, the outcomes of an adverse event could be devastating to a population of people.  The greatest example of this is the airline industry.  They can’t afford to make mistakes – planes can’t routinely malfunction or the outcomes can be lethal. 

Risk or SafetyAnother example is the food industry.  If a food or beverage is harmful and sold, it can harm one’s health, such as with spinach that was grown in soil contaminated with feces causing e-coli.  It is now quite common to have disclaimers on restaurant menus for eggs, meat and poultry warning consumers that they could get sick from eating raw or not totally cooked products.

It isn’t uncommon over the course of time to read about a recall on automobiles because of something on a particular lot of vehicle that has caused accidents and hurt the public.

Sometimes the results of these examples can be catastrophic to people and in turn can ruin a company financially.  However, somehow and likely over time through continuous improvement, many of these companies have managed to work out processes that decrease the number of errors leading to a fatal or negative outcome.  So how do they do it?

In order to achieve a culture of safety, a culture of transparency must be present whereby employees are free to disclose mistakes in order to improve methods, processes, products and services.  Without this, the organization won’t learn and perfect itself.  If the organization is fear-based and employees are here today and gone tomorrow, the organization will not achieve processes that result in minimization and elimination of errors.

The leader of each organization is responsible for the culture. If the leader is open and transparent about mistakes and models accordingly and appropriately, employees will follow.  If a leader punishes harshly when mistakes are made, the mistakes will only continue and employees will be less likely to report the errors.  This results in a hidden system which perpetuates a lack of organizational knowledge about how often mistakes are made or how significant the consequences might be.

Because the culture is important and the leader drives the culture, transformational leadership characteristics are critical to creating and sustaining a safe environment.  These characteristics include ensuring leader behavior is consistent.  The walk needs to match the talk in order for employees to see the leader means what he/she says.  Another transformational leadership behavior is involving employees in evaluating data related to errors and in helping with improvement strategies to perfect products and services produces greater buy in to minimize errors and improve processes when they do occur.

If your organization has not had a focus on safety and/or has few incidents that are reported related to safety, you may wish to ask yourself if it is important to have an environment of safety.  Typically few incidents reported can indicate that either employees and/or management are not tuned into errors or that there is a fear-based environment.  If an organization has a purposeful intent to focus on safety and reduction of errors, there will be a more realistic reporting history.

It takes a devoted strategy and time to create a culture of safety.

Employees often out-live their leader within an organization and are very skilled at survival.  When the organization begins creating a culture of safety, if every leader is involved and expected to embrace the efforts, there will be consistency in the organization with implementation and with expectations for every employee.  Then if the top leader leaves the organization, the efforts will likely continue and form a strong culture.

If there isn’t a devoted effort to create and sustain an organization of safety, the consumer is at risk for obtaining safe services or buying safe products.  I can’t imagine a leader who wouldn’t want to diminish risk to consumers or employees.  Have you set a goal and achieved it related to a safe culture?  If so, have results been sustained over time?  If you haven’t, what might keep you from beginning efforts to create a culture of safety and enhance outcomes for employees and customers?

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