In a post on my blog, I recently discussed the difference between supporting safety philosophically and operationally. One reader posed the question, “how do you get leadership to move from philosophical support to actual support?”
It’s a good question, and like most good questions doesn’t have any simple answer, at least not ethical ones.
In many cases, we’re to blame for people supporting safety philosophically but balking at taking any action that would expose the hypocrisy endemic to valuing something in the abstract but not really caring enough to DO something of substance about it. Most of us, if we are honest, are hypocrites about some things. For example, I care about the homeless but you don’t see me building bunk beds in my basement. I have volunteered to feed the homeless, but doing something once a year is hardly doing making a difference except for making me feel better.
Most MBA programs don’t cover the basics of safety and what little many executives know about safety was taught to them by one of us. I’ve met heads of lettuce with more going on intellectually than some of the puffed up, self-important safety “professionals” who corrupt entire generations of leaders with the heretical beliefs about safety. If we are going to change the values of leadership it will be an uphill battle.
The best way to get buy-in is for the leader to have a significant emotional event. This is safety-speak for something that happens to a person that really shakes them up. One colleague and friend of mine tells of the 23-year old who died when he first became a safety professional. He told me in all earnestness how profoundly it changed him and how he doesn’t think he could do what he does without having had that experience.
No one who has had someone die on our watch, suffered the loss of a loved one or been injured themselves doubts the power of a significant emotional event. The problem is these experiences are tough to transfer. We can watch a video and be touched by the story of a man who was horribly burned and almost died but no matter how much we sympathize, it’s not our significant emotional event. Our sympathy will fade.
Years ago I was driving through Tennessee to Kentucky when I witnessed the aftermath of a fatal traffic accident. A pedestrian tried crossing the a freeway at rush hour and was struck by a speeding car. As I crept through the traffic I saw the corpse covered with a sheet. Its foot was exposed, bone white, cold and dead. I didn’t know the man and yet I still can see that foot, and remember the look on the trooper’s face. I can remember the time of day, how the rain looked on the bridge; the most minute details. I can tell you all about that brief last moment of a stranger’s life but I doubt10 years from now you will remember much about it.
Maya Angelu once said “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Alas, the most persuasive among us can never convey how it feels to spend the day watching his father die of mesothelioma, watching him fade in and out of conscious and wondering if his father knows he’s there. So those who try to create these kinds of emotional responses artificially are either very skilled (and I know a handful who are) or mush-headed simpletons who have an exaggerated sense of their own talents.
So how do you convince someone who SAYS they value something to put the company’s money where its proverbial mouth is? The not so satisfying answer is sometimes we can’t. The good news is we don’t always have to. We may not be able to convince someone that safety is the right thing to do because people may die and we want to avoid adding to the net sum total of human misery in the world. We can often get people to support safety by closely linking it to making more profits for example (if that is important to them, which it might surprise you to learn how many executives really don’t care about profits, at least not the relatively small amount likely to be brought into the coffers by savings realized from safety.
Maybe the solution is to reeducate the leaders, but if that’s your solution remember you have to get them to unlearn what others have taught them, and let’s face it we don’t exactly stand on the shoulders of giants.