Modern safety and management theory don’t always make it into the every-day real world. Theories are great, but applying them is another story. And carrying out everything you’ve learned while your back is against the wall — during the heat of a crisis — can be especially challenging.
With more than two decades of improving management styles and the development of bottom-up management and more participative forms of leadership, we’re still seeing old-school autocratic managers lay down the law. Too often, they’re responding too quickly. It’s as if they’re reacting for the sake of … um, reacting. It’s as if 20-years of proven best practices are being forgotten.
How can you prevent “reflex management”? The best answer is preparation. Like the quarterback, it only makes sense to continuously think through all the incident scenarios and try to anticipate the many factors that could ripple downstream. It’s imperative that managers know how to quickly respond to whatever safety emergency they face. One wrong response — retribution or other hasty disciplinary measure, for example — can have a devastating effect on not only the morale, but could also erode all the progress you might have made up to that point.
How do safety managers and supervisors prepare for the worst? By sticking with the rules of accountability and protocol that help identify the event’s root causes. Beyond that, there is also a set of seven practical factors to address well before we’re in reaction mode.
1. Establish and define boundaries and then work diligently to stay inside them (e.g., should you manage case rate by the month, or should you apply the government standards (i.e., a 12-month rolling average)?) How thorough is the incident investigation process and at what point does upper management get involved? And if disciplinary consequences are necessary, make sure they are clear, defined, and fair.
2. What outside forces (union, government agencies, etc.) are required to review the scenarios that warrant disciplinary measures? How are differences going to be communicated and resolved? Do you know the rules of engagement when it’s necessary to escalate unresolved disputes?
3. It’s essential to have a clear understanding of the weaknesses in your safety processes, procedures and culture. If you’re a safety manager, it’s your job. At any given time, you should have a prioritized list that’s part of a continuous improvement plan. Regardless of how much support you get from upper management, it’s your function to continue to push forward and demonstrate both why (and which) specific resources are essential for the welfare of people and the company.
4. Make your relationship with a mentor manager a priority. This is your go-to point person to lessen the probability of having the trap door being swung out from underneath you when a crisis manager makes a “sudden impact” decision.
5. Be prepared for the intrusive autocrat by knowing where the line in the sand is; explain to safety committee team members what is and isn’t a “non-negotiable” issue so everyone’s clear about the rules of engagement. This critical communication helps to improve needed awareness and to lessen the reaction if a serious incident occurs.
6. How are you going to get the necessary information out of your front-line managers? Be quick; procrastination will only increase the chance of the “sudden impact” negative ripple effect.
7. When a serious event occurs and a rogue decision has been made by another manager, your role is to stay the course: continue to be an effective manager, present your concerns to upper management, and protect and support your employees through clarity, decisiveness, and your ability to listen.
A crisis demands a good leader. And although a good manager is not always liked by everyone, your consistency and fairness will always be respected and remembered. Be willing to admit when you don’t have all the answers, while working behind the scenes to get them. Finally, don’t wait until you’re on your heels. Prepare yourself now. Define rules, know them, and stick to them. Less stress — and a more satisfying safety management career — will be the result.