Many safety managers or change agents have uttered the following words at one time or another, "This is a great process and will really help improve our performance---if only we could get our management to fully support it." The person will try to gain management's attention and, even get their hopes up, when their leaders make positive statements about the new process, only to have their optimism dashed by a lack of follow-up and active support beyond such initial comments. The change agents finally give up and the change initiative joins the ranks of the "program of the month" efforts that have fallen by the wayside. Our endeavor is to address three critical questions:

  1. Why do we need leaders "on board" when implementing change?

  2. What does specific actions to we need leaders to take?

  3. How do we get them to take those actions?

Impact of Leadership Support

Companies have had substantial gains from behavior-based safety processes and have found them easier to implement than other safety initiatives primarily because the employee's role is well defined and plays such a large part of the process. However, even behavior-based safety programs are not immune to the damage caused by inadequate management support. After years of implementing behavior-based safety in a variety of industries we noticed that some organizations struggled much more than others, taking much longer to implement and having greater difficulty getting employee participation in conducting peer safety observations. Low morale and a high level of distrust often characterized these companies. We consider these issues to be a direct result of the leadership activities and the leaders' relationships with their employees.

When companies choose to implement a change within their organization, it is usually because they are striving to achieve improved results in their performance. These changes typically require a change in both processes and behavior that demonstrate an adoption of the change and the values that support the change. A company's leaders may espouse the value that "Safety comes first" and really mean that. However, it appears as a disconnect between the value and the leader's actions when employees see their leaders making decisions to under staff an operation, failing to address an unsafe condition, or engage in other actions that inadvertently increase unsafe performance. John Kotter in his book, Leading Change (1996), states "Nothing undermines the communication of a visionary change more than behavior on the part of key players that seems inconsistent with the vision." Modeling the commitment to the change through words and actions on the part of the leader becomes critical to implementation success.

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