Leadership Accountability: Part 2 of Leadership in High-Risk Industries

In Converation with the Safety Collaborators Podcast

Episode E046

Sep 27, 2023

Communication and Leadership Accountability in high-risk industries

[Listen at approximately 00:12]

We would rather learn from fictional stories than make the mistakes ourselves.

This week, we continue to explore the questions that the movie 'The Ice Road' prompted [a drama about 27 miners trapped underground] and the leadership conundrum it presents.

We're continuing with the five questions from our previous episode, E045, [which we knew trying to cover all in one episode wouldn't be feasible], and we've been extensively discussing the leadership conundrum – it's a complex matter.

There's a lot of pressure on leaders to balance safety, productivity, and profitability.

In episode E045, we tackled the first two of those five questions. To recap:

  • Question one was: how do leadership actions and decisions affect safety culture in high-risk industries?
  • Question two was about balancing profitability and safety and how can leaders communicate a commitment to safety without compromising profits because they are equally important.

Then, we also touched on Question three, which was what challenges arise when leadership messages are misinterpreted by the workforce, particularly concerning safety [and we will continue from Question three].

Question four will dive more into leadership accountability, and question five will be the art of pondering.

Let's continue the journey by discussing communication.

We are still convinced that if it were a four-letter word, it would probably be the most used swear word in the world because we all talk about it, but getting it right remains a challenge. We often send out a message, thinking it's perfectly clear and everyone, from top management to those on the ground, understands it.

We pat ourselves on the back, thinking, 'Mission accomplished.' However, there can be some misunderstandings by the time it reaches the people actually doing the work.

It presents a significant challenge for leaders – how to communicate to ensure everyone comprehends and how to establish a feedback loop in case of potential misinterpretation.

It's not just a one-way street, you see?

We have some informative episodes from E029 to E032 - so if you want to know more about personality, diversity, listening, improving your communication style or how you approach others, especially when you need to have difficult conversations, dive into those on our website [links are in the resource section below].

Let's return to how we match the message to the audiences, considering whether a single message suffices or whether we should craft multiple messages tailored to various levels within the organisation.

Do we have the same message for our Executive Team as we do for our Workforce?

[Listen at approximately 04:22]

And the short answer to that is no.

The message has to resonate with the person we're giving it to - what we say is only as good as the interpretation of the person in front of us.

We might speak all the speak in the world and think we're using the right words, interpretation, meaning, and intention.

But if the person in front of us or the person intended to understand what we're saying doesn't get it, then it doesn't matter how many words we use or how clever we sound.

So, how do we help? How do we position the same message to the different audiences? And that's one of the biggest and most difficult challenges because it takes time.

A few years ago, Nuala attended a sales course, which was all-around stakeholder messaging.

Who are your stakeholders, and what is important to them?

  • Your executives want to know how this will improve the organisation and the bottom line in three to five years.
  • Management needs to know how this will improve their team and business in the next six to eighteen months, and
  • The workforce needs to know how this will help them today.

The reality is that we are all salespeople in everything we do, whether it's selling the message or selling the business, and when we talk about safety, it's a sales and marketing activity, as much as anything else; who knew that sales would be such an important thing?

So, there are a couple of things to take into consideration and look at when we are communicating.

Who are our stakeholders if we want to make sure the message runs smoothly?
What timeframe, what action, what is important to them?

Then, we need to consider the wording or how we're putting it across.

Are we being culturally sensitive?
Are we using language that helps deliver the message?

Nuala:

I've had such a reality check of that a few times over the last couple of years working in a diverse language group because I love to write.

And I often use, apparently, quite sophisticated English.

I'll send in my weekly reports and do all these summaries, and someone from another language group will come to me and say,

'I've had to go on to Google, and I've learned a whole lot of new words this week, which is interesting. But I didn't anticipate having to learn new words. Could you make it simple next week?'

I'm grateful for the feedback, and it's a valuable lesson for everybody because it happens across the board.

 

Take the word safety as an example. It doesn't exist in some languages.

It comes across as 'hazard' or 'security', and 'security' can simultaneously mean 'safety and security'. There isn't actually a word for safety.

So, that can be tricky for people if they hear it for the first time.
And for us, too.

We could write something about safety [not security] because there are two words for these two things in our language, and they have two different meanings.

It brings us back to double-clicking.

Can I double-click on that to get more information about what you are talking about?
Which comes down to - if you need more clarification, ask.

So, as a leader, how do you create that space within your team for open and transparent communication flow in both directions?

And if you need help with that or realise your message is not being interpreted, it's time for a deeper conversation and exploration.

  • Is it the way that cultural norms are?
  • Or is it unwritten rules that make these things not work as well as you would like them to?

It's a fantastic skill as a leader to be able to put your hand up and say, 'I think I need a little bit of help here', and that's what we [Safety Collaborations] are here for.

So that's the first dance with the leadership conundrum today.

Leadership Accountability

[Listen at approximately 09:14]

The second one is about accountability.

Karin:

We're redesigning a safety leadership programme we've been running for three years.

One of the areas is how do we make leaders more accountable?
Even for the work they've got to do on this programme?

We, as facilitators, can't make them do anything really; we can inspire, encourage, give ideas, nudge, and do all sorts of things.

We can 'lead the horse to water, but we cannot make it drink.'

Whether that's you as a facilitator or as a coach on-site, where does the accountability come in?

Our job is to build rapport, make people think, plant seeds and do various things to help. But at the end of the day, people need to be accountable, and it's been fascinating over the past three years how my co-facilitator [Andrew Burton] and I sit there and sometimes get to the end of the day and ask:

Why can't they be accountable for their actions?

We've decided to push harder this time around.

  • How do we help people share stories?
  • How do we help them consider their actions and take ownership of them?

So, in the case of this leadership program, we're going to make it very, very clear upfront that taking action during this program is non-negotiable; they must do it.

That doesn't mean someone will do something just because we sit there and say it's non-negotiable.

Quite typically, in programmes, you will get the senior managers to come on early and say,

'We're supporting this program; we think it's great that you're doing this and taking the time out of your busy schedules to help change the culture of the organisation'.

This time, we won't invite them in upfront but will invite them in at the end.

And we're going to say to these leaders, right from day one, you will work on a project during this two-month programme and at the end of the programme, on the third live workshop that we run, you will be presenting to your management.

As this is a global program, there will be different leaders in different regions, and regardless of who the senior people are, it helps create that space for accountability and brings back the feeling that their contribution will be seen and make a difference.

So here it's about feedback loops.

It's about being heard. We've all been on courses where we get excited and return to our workplace thinking, 'Oh, here's a really good idea, I want to implement that',

and the boss says, 'Yes, yes, yes. Well, that's good. Let's talk about that next week. Right now we've got this and this to do because you've been away for a couple of days.'

Of course, next week never comes.

This way, it's about helping to hold the leadership accountable for this programme and the people they are putting into the programme because there's a purpose.

They're not putting them on the programme to have a warm & fuzzy - tick a box - 'Oh, yay, we all clapped hands'.

There's a purpose to improving the organisation, improving the teams, having a better environment, and a safer environment, which, as we say, becomes a more cost-effective environment.

It means you now have people who must take personal responsibility, not waste time.

That's important too - we don't want to feel like we're attending something just because we do, then feel like it's a waste of time.

But if they feel that there is a purpose at the end, and somebody will be listening to their short presentation, then okay, I need to do something. Through this process, we'll be with them all the way. They'll have some coaching through this, so we will help them.

And through that, they're also building trust, learning from mistakes and rebuilding trust, which is also part of leaders taking accountability and showing vulnerability.

So accountability is a challenge across many organisations and across the many layers of an organisation.

It plays very well into the leadership conundrum, thinking about how you can [as a leader] create scenarios that encourage each other to be more accountable and responsible for what's going on.

So we're responsible for profit, safety, and ensuring things get done on time.

Leadership Accountability, Decision-Making, and Pondering

[Listen at approximately 14:23]

As a coach, whether it's group coaching, one-on-one coaching, or on-site safety coaching, our role isn't to push people into being accountable.

Our value truly shines in creating a safe environment for leaders to introspect.

You see, accountability starts with the individual in the middle. Sometimes, it means having a tough conversation with the person you see in the mirror in a secure space where someone else can listen.

Attempting to have that conversation with a team member or a superior can be challenging. Going to your manager or supervisor and admitting, "I'm finding it hard to get up, which is why I'm late every day", or "I'm struggling to find inspiration for implementing this new process or programme", can be daunting.

So, as a leader, who do you turn to to vent, find inspiration, or reflect on what you're doing well and how to build on it? This is where accountability truly grows rather than diminishes.

We've pondered this ourselves.

When we fall short of our own goals or fail to achieve what we set out to, the only person we disappoint is ourselves. It happens because we need to hold ourselves accountable. Look in the mirror to see what needs to change, and that will inspire others to be accountable as well.

Pondering, as we've mentioned before, is a valuable method for evaluating your current situation, considering the ramifications of the decisions you're contemplating, both positive and negative. It's a powerful tool for self-coaching.

This leads us to the fifth question: The art of pondering.

How can leaders integrate this into their decision-making process, and what advantages does it offer?

One approach is to think about when you're about to make a decision or when you know a significant event is approaching. For some, it's even beneficial to schedule an hour in their weekly calendar and label it as their "ponder moment" or "thinking time."

You can make it structured by asking yourself questions like:

  • What is a pivotal decision I need to make that will impact the organisation, my team, or potentially the safety and financial well-being of the business?
  • What are the expectations and the purpose of this decision? What do I hope to achieve?
  • What outcomes do we anticipate from this decision? What will change, and how will it improve things?
  • What might people be thinking or doing differently as a result of this decision?
  • What will I hear when I'm on the job site or workplace that confirms this decision is being implemented?

What are the potential pitfalls?

Don't fall into the trap of thinking, "I came up with this idea; nothing could go wrong." We tend to be overly optimistic, especially when it's something we want to implement. So, remove those rose-tinted glasses and honestly consider what could go wrong and what the drawbacks might be.

How will we know if we're on the right track? What signs should we be looking for?

Weigh the pros and cons - creating a pros and cons list can be helpful. As you work through these questions and ideas during your pondering session, you can list all the advantages and disadvantages of your idea and the solution you want to implement.

If the cons start to outweigh the pros, it's a sign of trouble and time to seek assistance.

The importance of Effective Communication and Decision-Making in Leadership

[Listen at approximately 19:04]

For those of you who might find the idea of pondering a bit puzzling, let's clarify that we're not talking about idly daydreaming amidst a field of daisies or roses.

What we mean is allowing your brain and nervous system some time to think.

Pondering can take various forms. For instance, some people find doodling helpful. While tackling something significant or engaging in critical thinking, doodling can be a way to help the brain settle. It offers a distraction from the other thoughts buzzing around.

Another technique is to use a timer, which is more of a physical tip.

If you need to focus intensely on a task or spend some quality thinking time, set a timer. Even if it's just an hour, the timer creates a contract with your brain, saying, "Okay, for the next hour, we're concentrating on nothing else until my alarm goes off."

It's remarkable how quickly that hour passes and how much you can accomplish.

These are practical ways to implement the idea of simply sitting and allowing your brain to wander—a concept that's almost forgotten in our constantly connected world. Some of the best ideas often emerge when your mind has room to roam.

When do you usually have your brightest insights? In the shower? During moments of contemplation?

These are some techniques for pondering and how it can assist you in leadership and decision-making. You can also align it with your values and goals.

Values-driven decision-making is a powerful approach and can align well with business objectives.

Once you get into the habit of pondering, you'll likely notice an improvement in the quality of your decision-making.

Unintended consequences are minimised, whether that means avoiding a significant accident, maintaining good relationships, or preventing minor financial losses.

You'll develop a more thoughtful leadership style that applies upwards and downwards within your organisation. This encourages more effective two-way communication, leading to better actions, improved profitability, enhanced safety, and fewer challenges along the way.

So, how do you lead those who report to you?
And how do you manage upwards to those you report to?

Achieving a more efficient two-way communication flow is the key to these questions.

Now, let's come back to our ice road story: What triggered these five questions from that movie?

One glaring issue was the perceived extreme behaviour of on-site leadership, driven by what they believed were well-deserved incentives, much to the horror of the head office management team.

The worst-case scenario is when an organisation fails to consider how its communication flow and decisions impact its future.

As we discussed last week, making a decision today that leads to a fatality six, twelve, or twenty-four months down the line, all in the name of saving money, is a devastating outcome.

We may not possess crystal balls to glimpse into the future, but we can dive deeper and consider the consequences in the present.

We can slow down and measure our actions, gather feedback from the relevant stakeholders, tailor our messages to different contexts, and embrace the role of the devil's advocate.

This means asking the tough, often controversial questions because you never want to be the person who ends up saying, "I was just trying to offer an incentive; I never intended for anyone to get hurt."

That's where it struck us—the last thing you want is to be the person making that dreaded phone call or delivering bad news as a leader.

We've been there, having to make that call and informing a loved one of a tragic loss. It's not a nice place to be.

Final Thoughts

We don't want people to experience that or have to make those phone calls or experience an investigation - it's a horrible, negative stain on life [is the only way we can describe it].

It's tough to recover from, and that's what we don't want, which is the purpose of what we do and why we share our thoughts and ideas to hopefully inspire others to think a little differently, no matter where or what your role is.

For us, leadership is not about a title - it's about how you lead yourself and those around you.

So there may be some young [or not so young] leaders, anyone listening to this and wanting to learn more - we're here to help.

So reach out to us at hello@safetycollaborations.com so that you can share your inspiring stories with us and help others take a moment to ponder your leadership style and how it influences those around you.

What do you need to consider or learn about yourself to be a more effective leader?
Because now, it's your turn to make a difference.

Resources

Podcasts

E029 - How Important are Personality Diversity Tools in Learning about Yourself?

E030 - Improve Your Communication Style: 5 Tips for Active Listening without Interruption

E031 - How to give Feedback or Feedforward that is Helpful and Kind

E032 - Approaching Others: How comfortable are you in having difficult conversations?

E045 - Leadership Responsibility: Part 1 of Leadership in High-Risk Industries

About the Show

Our purpose in sharing this podcast is to have a chinwag (conversation) to help people change how they think and behave about safety. 

We do this by engaging in dialogue and testing the levels of trust and psychological safety, which are core to organisational culture. Making safety part of your DNA so that your people speak up, show up, do right, and become safer every day for yourself, your team, and your business.

We will explore topics related to organisational and safety culture, leadership, the language of risk, emotional literacy, psychological safety, conversational agility, intercultural intelligence, and whatever else pops up during our conversations—sharing our experiences and learnings. 

We intend to share nuggets of wisdom that will challenge your perspectives, potentially solve a nagging problem, share actions you can implement, and give you at least one aha moment.

And, if you enjoyed the show and gained value, please share with just one other person to help spread the word.

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