26 Jan How brave leaders keep people safer in tough economic times
It’s easy to feel blinkered by financial troubles during this period of economic uncertainty. As downsizing and rationalisation dominate headlines, job security fears can distract your attention at the expense of safety.
“When money’s tight, management focus on survival. Staff numbers are cut and those left behind have to work harder. When you’re more focused on worries like ‘will my job even exist tomorrow?’ than doing your job safely – that’s when accidents happen.”
John Ormond, founder of JOMC, pioneered a new approach to behavioural safety at ICI after a bleak 1980s recession. He successfully championed innovative safety engagement and leadership techniques that challenged conventional attitudes to safety. Put simply in his own words “it’s all about talking to people.”
Despite the media’s sensational portrayal of these turbulent times, history proves that we’ve survived economic depressions before. And triumph over adversity offers you valuable lessons.
John refined his approach over the last 20 years against a background of continual manufacturing decline. Factory closures and downsizing were made even worse by periodic recession. That’s when things got really tough:
“When people feel threatened it destroys morale, relationships and communication – all the things you need to grow strong values and beliefs about safety.”
Uncertainty breeds fear
A dismal economic climate makes for hostile work conditions. It erodes relationships between management and workers, makes leaders anxious and shifts focus firmly to the bottom line.
Safety stops being a priority and it’s wrongly seen as just another cost to cut. That’s when people get hurt, not just physically but mentally, with health put at risk from overwork.
Worse still, people go into denial and refuse to confront difficult situations. It’s a grim outlook that reminds John of a sad experience at a pharmaceutical company who wanted to safely close down their factory:
“I asked management to show clear leadership from the front. But relationships had deteriorated so badly that managers refused to take part for fear of reprisals from the workforce.”
Bravery in the face of adversity
John insists that it’s even more important to keep a high value on safety, even when you make tough decisions with unpleasant consequences like plant closures and job losses:
“You need to get ahead of the game and understand the direct impact an economic downturn has on the safety of your workforce.”
The way to handle these grave situations is to calmly accept reality and engage your workforce in planning.
“In spite of fear, you need to talk frankly and sympathetically to people and say ‘yes, your job isn’t safe, but we still don’t want you to get injured’ … That calls for strong leadership from people at the top who don’t panic.”
Through open conversation, you help people stay focused on what they’re doing. That means better concentration, less risk-taking shortcuts and fewer accidents.
Empathy through engagement
John explains how it works with an example from a plastics manufacturer who needed his help while they wound down their UK operations:
“There was no alternative to factory closure. So we organised team meetings with a director in every one to show commitment and we asked people about their hopes and fears. Above all the workforce just wanted to be able to discuss their individual problems.
We asked them where serious accidents might happen… and together we devised a plan to keep people safe: they set their own zero-accident vision.
People felt engaged through SUSA safety discussions and support was mutual between workmates and management. The underlying message was ‘we’re all human beings, we can help each other.’”
Their shared vision was a success and in the final twelve months of factory life no one was seriously hurt.
By showing concern for individuals you acknowledge how they feel. And listening to people proves that they’re not just unit costs and that you still care. That goes a long way to comfort and reassure people. John likens it to any other type of relationship:
“You have to talk and listen. If you speak every day with someone, chances are your relationship will prosper. But if you shy away when times get rough, it breaks down. Trust goes and they feel like you don’t care.”
People are bound to feel threatened and fearful if everything they’ve worked for and hold dear is at risk, whatever their rank. But through brave leadership and honest engagement we acknowledge our fears of financial insecurity. And together we shift our focus back to more immediate risks and your shared responsibility to keep each other safe.
“Managers who lead like this are rewarded not just with a safe workforce but a successful business. Because engagement is what it says: not just about health and safety but about how we weld our wonderful people into a successful fighting force. Together we have the strength of giants.”