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To do or not to do: Deconstructing and rebuilding the role of safety managers

Innovation activist, transformation agent and CEDEP Leadership and Safety Culture Professor Christophe Gillet noticed that for OSH Directors and Safety Managers, there is an elemental problem: we often come to feel powerless in organizations.

How must the role of safety managers transform to have a powerful impact on an organization?

It’s a problem that has been described in many ways: safety as a ‘box-checking exercise,’ or the safety manager cast as finger-wagging nag. Yet, the person responsible for health and safety arguably has the most important role at a company—isn’t keeping people alive more important than balancing the budget or fulfilling orders? So why don’t people other than the safety manager act like it’s important?

“Consider that it is not a matter of the people; the problem comes from the organization itself. What in the organization causes an intelligent person to disregard safety?”

According to Gillet, the typical organization is actually preventing safety from happening.

“We talk to individuals and forget we are addressing organizations,” he says. “All consultants on the planet are discussing agility. There is no problem with the agility of an individual: a newborn baby is agile; it has to adapt to life. There is a problem with organizational agility. I tackle this idea of safety through organizations and not just through processes.”

Gillet takes issue with the foundational problem of the Taylorist model, a well-established and widely-adopted way of structuring an organization. Frederick Winslow Taylor pioneered the model of design that treats organizations as a series of related but ultimately independent tasks, for maximum output. It is a model that birthed many features of today’s “world of work:” job descriptions, key performance indicators (KPIs), budgets and objectives.

“But think about our ancestors. They created cathedrals with no KPIs, no reward systems and objectives.”

To Gillet, the existing reward systems are broken: “When in safety, you see that all KPIs are green, people are happy,” says Gillet. “But there is absolutely no way to learn anything from green. A good set of performance indicators should be mainly non-green. If it is all green, you aren’t measuring the right thing.”

Creating a culture of set goals—already accomplished—and procedures—already ticked off a list—leads to disengagement.

This returns us to the problem of our safety manager, feeling powerless and not listened to. “Once the role of a safety manager or safety department is described, others understand that it is not their job. And once you introduce a procedure, people are disengaged.”

So, is Gillet suggesting that we break down organizations and rebuild them from scratch? In some ways, yes.
As a thinker that is anti-procedure and anti-prescription, he resists telling OSH leaders what to do about this problem. Instead, Gillet offers carefully worded advice on what not to do:

1) “Stop producing more processes. More processes create more confusion and thus more freedom to interprete. Each process should have a sell out date, like yogurt.”
2) “Check all of your KPIs. If they are mostly green, change this. Kill the green KPIs.”
3) “Stop giving sense and start making sense. Sense-giving is what an organization gives to a worker. The sense that you make for yourself is much more powerful. Allow people to experience to understand instead of telling them how it is.”
4) “Safety should not be a traditional department dictating certain things. Safety managers should consider the job more as a coaching and mentoring job.

Perhaps the most difficult “not to do” is the last one. How do safety managers who feel that they are not listened to become valuable coaches and mentors? For Gillet, it is through developing soft skills, including empathy and leadership, but mainly deepening organizational knowledge.

“It’s not about controlling and producing constraints. If they want to develop power, it’s all about the value they create.”

In Gillet’s ideal organizational model the safety manager might look up from her checklist and notice other things, like mental health issues and smarter incentives.

“As a safety manager, I might realize then that while there are no more physical injuries, 3% of the workforce is constantly out because of burnout and mental problems. If my real job in safety in the future is to coach people, then I deal with mental problems and burnout. Measuring accidents isn’t where it is anymore.”

In this future, safety managers, acting as mentors, would encourage truth-telling through an understanding of basic human psychology and mental health. They would foster a culture of speaking up—and this culture would be reinforced by experience (the sense that the workers make for themselves). There would not be all of the green KPIs to maintain, because the KPIs would either not be green or would not exist. Then, the power struggle ends and a real culture of safety begins.

This article offers a glimpse into the teachings on organizational culture featured in the dynamic class taught by Professor Christophe Gillet as part of CEDEP’s Leadership and Safety Culture programme. This programme is immersive, innovative and transformative in its approach to learning amongst a unique, safe setting in the serene forest of Fontainebleau. The collaborative programme offers an opportunity to expand both your network and your knowledge of key tenets of philosophy and psychology to take your leadership skills to the next level.

Find out more about Christophe Gillet here

Find out more about the Leadership and Safety Culture programme at cedep.fr or contact Muriel Pailleux, Sales, Marketing and Communication Director at muriel.pailleux@cedep.fr

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