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

In Converation with the Safety Collaborators Podcast

Episode 045

Sep 20, 2023

Leadership Responsibility - The Five Questions

[Listen at approximately 00:12]

Imagine the following scenario:

Twenty-seven miners are trapped underground following an explosion, necessitating critical yet cumbersome equipment to rescue them. The sole access route is a rapidly melting ice road, a challenge only the most courageous drivers would dare to navigate. 

What lessons can we draw from this fictional situation, and how does it relate to the leadership conundrum?

Now, you might be wondering about the origins of this scenario.

It all began during a long-haul international flight while Nuala was watching a film titled "The Ice Road" starring Liam Neeson. During the movie, she found that it triggered numerous questions about leadership, responsibility and safety that she couldn't ignore, so she captured her thoughts.

Today's episode will explore leadership responsibility and how leadership decisions can impact real-world scenarios.

We can learn a lot from stories; thank goodness we don't always have to learn from real-life experiences, which sadly is where we [Safety Collaborations] often get called in when real-life experience has gone wrong. 

So, what is leadership? What is safety leadership?

  • How might a conversation around this be valuable for everyone working in high-hazard industries?
  • How does it influence the system? How does it influence safety culture?
  • And how does it impact profitability?

This will likely become a series around leadership, and last week's episode E044 with David, was a lovely introduction. 

We decided to start with and will attempt to answer the following five questions: 

  1. How do leadership actions and decisions affect safety culture in high-risk industries?
  2. Balancing Profitability and Safety: How can leaders communicate a commitment to safety without compromising profits?
  3. What challenges arise when leadership messages are misinterpreted by the workforce, particularly concerning safety?
  4. Leadership Accountability: Can you share stories of leaders who took ownership when accidents or incidents occurred under their leadership? How did they respond?
  5. The Art of Pondering: How can leaders incorporate pondering into their decision-making process, and what benefits does it offer?

How do leadership actions and decisions affect safety culture in high-risk industries?

[Listen at approximately 03:48]

Let's dive into the first question, and it's a big question because it's quite a chunk to take.

Great responsibility comes with the title of leadership or leader.

There's often that drive to become a supervisor or a leader of wanting to grow into this because we've learnt more and have more authority or decision-making. But often, we're not conscious of the leadership responsibility that comes with that and how we influence everything in the organisation that happens around us.

And that's right from the CEO and the Board of Directors in larger organisations, right through to the supervisor on site.

It's how the day-to-day decisions, the daily actions, how our values are being interpreted, or being lived in what we do that shapes the safety culture in the organisation.

The power of even the shareholders on the decisions that drive what happens and when it happens, that communication process is influenced right from that level. It's a challenge for CEOs; it's challenging for senior leadership of an organisation to sometimes 'do the right thing' by the person further down the line.

So, in a conversation with a fellow member of the alternative board, he shared the example [in two different scenarios] where it was either

  • a very, very massive fine for incidents that had happened in an organisation [over a billion pounds fine]
  • or imprisonment of the CEO because of what had happened.

And the shareholders paid out the fine.

We say profit over what's right, and that's a harsh statement.

It's a very harsh statement actually because if you had to ask any single one of those people involved, they would have said absolutely not; that was not the driver.

But sometimes we have to ask the incredibly hard, tough questions and say, [to use a complete blunt expression here], What has you by the balls? Is it profit? Or is it doing the right thing?

We often say that we are doing the right thing, but when we are doing things where we're saying, 'go out there and do things right', but then we're promoting bonuses for LTI-free days and bonuses for who got the biggest margin, but not questioning, well, where did that biggest margin come from?

  • Did it come from shortcuts?
  • Did it come from going for the cheapest supplier?
  • Did it come from using the cheaper shipping yard?
  • And what is the consequence of that along the line?
  • What happens when something goes really wrong?

Do we really delve into the actual root cause, or do we delve into the easy root cause because it suits our narrative and our story?

So do we say:

'You know what, if we are honest with ourselves, we lost a life because we made a financial decision eight months ago / twenty-four months ago that lost her life today'.

Or do we say:

'No, it was the workers' responsibility because they didn't stand up for safety and say they didn't feel safe in the moment'.

If it is the second scenario, then why didn't the workers stand up? Is the response, 'Well, this is what I'm being told to do'? And when you then bring in different cultural aspects to this, it gets even more complex.

But where's the Psychological Safety?

[Listen at approximately 08:20]

We talk about it; there's a lot of chitchat about that at the moment. It's very important.

But at the end of the day, if someone realises that the message is, 'we need to get this job done at all cost', then the worker will not put up their hand and say, sorry, I disagree.

They have a family to feed, and they have to get to tomorrow, whereas the larger organisations have other commitments and challenges. And it's challenging for every layer.

When we ask the worker why they didn't stand up in that moment, we often hear, 'Because, well I was told,' and we feel this needs to be explored more.

What does being told look like? Feel like? Experience? Because it's often not verbal.

We're going down unwritten rules territory here, which we covered in Episode E013.

All of this is important.

If an individual won't stand up to say, No, this isn't safe. No, I don't want to do this. Well, where is that coming from? That's coming from further up the food chain, and often, not intentionally - that is really critical.

It's not that we intentionally encourage people to do things wrong, but we don't take those ponder moments and go, well, what could go wrong? Because when we come up with ideas, and we've said it before, we think these ideas are great.

Sometimes, we must challenge ourselves to put on the hat of - what could go wrong; what might this impact that I don't want it to?

So, am I doing things whereby I'm saying, 'Go out there and be safe', but my bottom line, my statistics, or my monthly report that I expect my on-site leaders to do is actually driving a different behaviour?

And when it comes down to the individual, they would rather feel [this is going to be another controversial statement] included in the team.

Because things have been done that way or it seems like the right decision in the moment, they would prefer to be included in the team than be ostracised as the person who delays the project or delays a moment or is just pussyfooting around because 'Come on, be a little bit braver', or 'Do we really have to take a five here?'

The challenge that leadership has, of course, is their actions and their decisions. We're talking about safety versus production or profitability.

How do we help every layer of leadership understand and not confuse the messaging?

That it's not this OR that, it needs to be this AND that.

It includes the shareholders, too. How do we get them to see that safety and profitability are about an AND conversation, not an OR conversation? How do we get parity?

There will always be a little pendulum, but you're looking for small swings, not these big, massive ones, when all of a sudden, all the focus is that we have a deadline to meet, and we have to get here and achieve these goals and outcomes because of other consequences.

There are many examples, whether it's Challenger, for those who know, the space shuttle Challenger issue that came into play, this fictional movie that came into play - it's not about damaging it or forgetting about everything else that has to happen.

There are days when we've got to get the job done but not at the risk of harm, whether it be the environment, people or profit - all of them are equally important.

Organisational systems and leadership challenges

[Listen at approximately 13:31]

We often discuss the importance of taking the time to consider the "what ifs" – what could potentially go wrong.

How might an intended improvement turn into a disimprovement?

We won't go too deeply into this here, as we extensively covered it in Episode E033 when we explored the "Cobra effect" and unintended consequences. [If you missed that conversation, go back and have a listen.]

It's a critical conversation because we aim to avoid learning solely from negative real-world consequences. We prefer to derive lessons from positive outcomes and engage in team discussions.

Picture this:

We gather as a team, watch "The Ice Road" together, and ponder what we can learn. It could become a team-building exercise, a moment to reflect on where we stand, what we excel at, and the leadership challenges we presently face. What insights does the movie offer, and how can we use them in our discussions?

In fact, showing that movie in the boardroom might be an excellent starting point. It could even serve as the opening for a leadership retreat.

This approach encourages us to scrutinise our context, recognising that our organisational context significantly influences our behaviour. The structure of our system determines the outcomes we achieve.

We must step back and question our systems when we fall short of desired outcomes.

Through our research and learning, guided by the five principles of human performance, we understand that systems are designed for perfection.

However, human beings are far from perfect.

We possess emotions, psychological needs, and fundamental physical requirements.

Consequently, while systems influence outcomes, our behaviour within those systems also plays a crucial role. Starting from the top layer, there's the imperative for profitability, or perhaps there are undisclosed factors at play, such as a pending sale.

These factors drive the dynamics in the subsequent layers.

The crucial question is how messages flow from one layer to the next. Whether your organisation is flat or hierarchical, communication occurs in various layers. That's precisely what we're addressing – how to ensure the right message reaches its destination.

Stepping back for a moment - sometimes, the message at one layer doesn't retain its original meaning when it reaches the third or fourth layer down. The message evolves; misunderstandings and different interpretations come into play.

People interpret what's happening in the layers above, below, or alongside them.

Often, the head office, wherever it may be, believes it's sending out a positive and reinforcing message. However, on-site interpretations might revolve around appearing favourable, securing year-end bonuses, or other objectives.

This can lead to decisions like keeping certain matters on-site and hidden from others.

The mindset becomes, "We'll fix it ourselves; no one else needs to know." This approach can have serious consequences, such as neglecting the proper operation of gas monitoring systems due to cost-cutting measures, which puts safety at risk – all driven by the desire for bonuses.

Leadership's role in shaping safety culture

[Listen at approximately 18:06]

What this looks like to individuals at the head office is a seemingly perfect balance between profitability and safety. The personnel on-site are following our expectations. When leadership pays a visit to the site, everyone presents themselves impeccably.

On the surface, everything appears splendid.

Those on-site genuinely believe they are doing their utmost and making the best decisions at that moment. They do not perceive their actions as wrong.

It's essential to recognise that we are all committed to doing the right thing. Yet, we often fail to grasp the slippery slope that can lead us astray.

On the flip side, there's a noteworthy example involving one of our clients.

Nuala:

The personnel on-site grew increasingly frustrated because they felt that the finance team's decisions were actually jeopardising their safety.

This resulted in a significant clash of perspectives.

Eventually, the entire operational office team had the opportunity to visit the site and gain firsthand insight into the operations and challenges.

I recall walking alongside a member of the finance team during this visit.

They paused within the 'red zone' on the rig floor during their tour and remarked,

"I never imagined just how much risk people are being exposed to in this environment. I feel quite uneasy about having consistently pushed for cost-cutting and cheaper equipment choices in the name of boosting profitability.

My role is to oversee the financial health of the business, but I now realise that by allowing our clients to pressure the finance team into opting for cheaper alternatives, I might be endangering someone else.

This stops today."

It's truly remarkable how a single-day visit can lead to such a transformative outcome.

A crucial point is that sometimes, the decisions that our leaders make for our operations are influenced by clients.

One of Karin's favourite sayings is "mothers have a lot to answer for," and we dare say that clients also bear a significant responsibility.

In Summary

Today, we've explored three of the questions we set out to discuss, primarily focusing on the first two.

The first question pertains to how leadership actions impact the safety culture in high-risk industries.

We recommend watching the movie "The Ice Road" whenever the opportunity arises. What insights can you glean from other scenarios and stories, and how can you apply them to the real-life challenge of making decisions as a leader?

We then shifted our attention towards the delicate balance between profitability and safety.

How can we achieve equilibrium, and how can leaders express their commitment to safety without compromising profitability?

It's truly a balancing act, where some days lean slightly in one direction and others in the opposite, but we aim for those subtle adjustments, avoiding drastic shifts that could lead to tragic outcomes.

This process involves small, incremental decisions over time, complemented by effective messaging and a focus on risk management. Leaders must navigate this fine line while conducting safety risk assessments. It's also valuable to have finance team members visit the worksite to gain firsthand experience.

The role of employees in this equation is equally important.

It's not a one-sided affair. However, we must create a safe environment and psychological safety that encourages employees to voice their concerns and participate in decision-making processes when applicable and appropriate.

Nuala:

I recall a colleague from years ago who used to say, "I'm a Democratic leader; I listen to everyone's opinions, but I still make the final decision." He did take everyone's input into account, recognising that part of being a leader entails making decisions.


We briefly touched on the challenges associated with leadership messaging and how messages can be misinterpreted.

However, we'll revisit this topic in our next episode. We'll delve into the difficulties that arise when leadership messages are misconstrued, particularly in safety-related matters.

Additionally, we'll explore leadership accountability and the concept of pondering and sharing how it can be of assistance.

So, in today's discussion, we've embarked on the journey into the heart of the leadership conundrum, emphasising the pivotal role that leaders play in shaping the safety culture.

While we only managed to cover some of the five questions as planned, these big questions require careful consideration.

Begin by pondering them in light of what we've discussed today, contemplating how you can make a difference and effectively communicate to strike a balance between safety and profitability within your organisation.

If you've been inspired so far

You can always reach out to us at hello@safetycollaborations.com - we are here to help you unlock your wisdom and potential through our coaching conversations and these conversations that matter.

Resources

Podcasts

E013 - What is the connection between your safety culture and unwritten rules?

E018 - Unlocking Your Potential: Mastering the 5 Principles of Human Performance - Part 3

E033 - The Unintended Consequences: An Improvement that ends in a Disimprovement

E038 | E039E040E041E042E043 - C-IQ Series

E044 - Compassionate leadership and Empathy: Just a nice to have or a superpower?

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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