When you’ve got grand ideas for change, there are few things worse than a stick in the mud; especially when that person happens to be your safety manager.
Let’s call this person Roger Roadblock.
Everyone knows a Roger. They’re essentially good people who rose through the ranks and know your business inside out. But over time, Roger got a bit set in his or her ways, and now uses regulation or influence to throw obstacles in the way of progress – like culture change and smarter ways of working.
With Roger, it’s a flat ‘no’ if anything feels even vaguely risky. Why? As Roger sees it, they’re just protecting people from themselves, and the pressure to meet commercial objectives at the expense of safety. And balanced, evidence-based decision-making by empowered employees doesn’t fit with Roger’s self-appointed role as lord protector of safety.
So, is there an amicable way to handle personalities like Roger? How can you get them on side?
We asked expert consultant Matt Riley to look at the problem, drawing on his experience as a leader at NATS (UK air traffic control) and Dubai Air Navigation Services.
“Safety managers like Roger have done their time in operations, so they’re experts in safety and doing the job. So you’ve got this confusion over the lines of responsibility and accountability getting blurred.
“Traditionally, safety manager meant internal company regulator. They were there to save the business from itself, so it was compliant and didn’t kill anyone. Typically, everyone would ignore Roger most of the year, then run round ticking boxes the week before the regulator arrived. That probably explains the cynicism and resistance.
“Listening to your safety manager’s opinion and expertise is essential; but ultimately they aren’t accountable for the business and as such they shouldn’t have the final word. The safety manager’s role isn’t to decide whether something the manager wants to do is safe or not; their role is to advise managers on how to achieve what they want to achieve, but safely.
“This needs to be made clear. Safety managers are there to listen to the business, in the same way that the business is there to listen to the safety managers.”
“A successful culture is one where the safety manager says ‘OK, well if this is how you want to do it, it might cost us, but this is how you do it safely’. It’s not a case of going to the safety manager for a yes or no anymore.
“This was a perennial problem in the world of air traffic control, that only changed once we gained a deeper understanding of risk management. I once worked with someone in a position of influence over policy in the UK. They said the best day for them, as regulators, was when they realised they needed to get out of the way of businesses, because money talks and business will always win, and all you’ve done is get in the way by saying ‘no no no’ and putting your foot down.
“A collaborative, rather than combative approach, tends to deliver the same results in the end but in a less time-consuming way. People also get to understand and appreciate each other’s roles better too.
“Roger needs a similar wake-up-call. If life really was about not doing things because they aren’t safe, you wouldn’t do anything. Everything has risk. It might feel scary, especially to the safety manager, but it’s about taking time to think about it and devising sensible responses to risk.
“Suppose someone wanted to use ladders in a particular way – one the regulations say you shouldn’t. A smart manager will probe, open up dialogue, and rather than thinking about ladders, consider what it is you really want to achieve – before helping the team come up with safer ways of reaching the same goal, but in the safest, risk-managed way.
“One obvious way to handle Roger is by clarifying roles and responsibilities. Get them clearly documented so the safety manager understands they’re a facilitator, not a decision-maker.
“Make it clear that it’s the manager, not the safety manager, who is accountable and that the safety manager has the ability to escalate issues if they feel like their expertise isn’t being listened to.
“So as a leader you can bring people like Roger into the fold. Find out what their expectations are of the role – are they clear? Remind them they’ve got the authority to tell the people with authority. The days of ‘don’t do it that way because I used to do this job and I don’t like it’ are behind us.
“If you think about it – safety manager is actually quite a creative job – do yours realise this? Are they empowered to lead effective discussions about safety, and ask open questions about how people can do their jobs in better, safer ways? Chances are someone like Roger could be a force for good, if you frame their role to them in the right way.”