Red chess pieces surrounding an elevated blue chess pieceOne of the classic questions set on any leadership course is “what’s the difference between leadership and management?” There are many articles and books devoted to answering this question – some more conclusive than others.

When it comes to safety, I believe the distinction is much simpler and the difference is more clear-cut. Nonetheless it is no less important to recognise the difference and to understand the important part that both of these concepts have to play in improving safety performance and keeping people safe.

The fatal error

Safety management is all about the systems we put in place: policies, procedures, rules, risk assessments, permits and so on. All of these are essential to ensuring good safety. They form the foundations of our approach; they set boundaries and provide guidelines for people to follow and generally keep us on the straight and narrow.

That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to get safety management right though. They have to be written clearly, they need to be realistic and make sense to those who are expected to implement them. The better our safety management, the better our safety performance – up to a point! A fatal error that many organisations make is to try and rely solely on safety management and ignore the other half of this equation – safety leadership.

Safety leadership (like any other aspect of leadership) is all about direction, support, encouragement, motivation and a shared belief in a common goal. Surely this should be really easy as we all share the same goal – none of us want to get hurt or see others hurt; we all want to go home safely and in one piece at the end of each day/shift.

The problem is that most of us don’t believe we’re going to get hurt. We believe we will achieve the desired goal whatever we do. That (rather feeble) desire to not get hurt is also in constant competition with other values like saving time, getting the job done, being comfortable, fitting in with the crowd and pleasing the boss.

This is why leadership is so important

Really, leadership is a sales job and you have to ask yourself: what exactly are you selling? What do you support and encourage? What do you recognise and celebrate? What example do you set?

Very few leaders would actively encourage their staff to work unsafely but then it’s very easy to send out the wrong signals which can be interpreted as “just get the job done” or “don’t bother with precautions”. This happens when targets and performance indicators are seemingly the only priority for managers, which comes across in their behaviour.

So the question is: what kind of example are you setting?

Leaders lead by example

Good safety leadership is about ownership, involvement and understanding unsafe behaviour. We achieve this most effectively through good engagement with all members of our teams and it is your interaction with them that will turn the requirements of your safety management system into real-life, sustainable behaviour.

One way we help leaders to demonstrate positive leadership behaviours is with our SUSA  process. Using a simple conversational approach it helps reinforce the standards you want people to follow by, for example, recognising when people do the right thing and helping you talk honestly about undesirable behaviour without implying blame.

A lack of good safety leadership results in, at best, a compliance culture where people follow the rules only because they have to, for fear of getting in trouble if they don’t. This is like someone who sticks to the speed limit whilst driving past a speed camera. They don’t believe their actions could result in an accident, they don’t respect the rules of the road and they don’t value safety over the need to reach their destination – or whatever else motivates them to chose unsafe behaviour.

It should be easy to get safety leadership right because on the face of it we all agree on the desired outcome. And if you get that right, your organisation gains so many other benefits too, like improved morale, quality and productivity to name but a few.