By Phil La Duke
In recent weeks I have used this forum to explore the rift between business executives and safety professionals. This disconnection between the two parties is a serious issue facing many of today’s safety professionals and one that promises to get far worse before it gets any better. In the course of my considerable work in safety transformations and safety organization change consulting I’ve spent considerable time working with members of both sides of the argument and I can see real validity to the opinions of both the executives and the safety professionals.
The Argument Is Seldom About The Problem; It’s About the Solution.
When you consider the collective complaints of safety professionals about executives or vice versa, the parties seldom disagree that there is a problem—if workers are getting injured neither party is happy—rather the parties quibble about the details: how big is the problem? what is the best course of action? how urgent is the problem? It would seem that these details would be fertile ground for compromise, unfortunately the roots of the argument over approach and details are deeply philosophical and neither side is likely to give up ground without a vicious fight. The answer to each of these issues is imprinted by both sides’ philosophical approach. What’s the best course of action? Leadership may believe that the bare minimum compliance is the best, and most fiscally responsible course of action, whereas the safety professional may advocate in favor of a more involved and costly approach that will address not only the symptoms but will serve to build a foundational model that will be applicable to other functions as well.
It’s Not A Question of Right Versus Wrong
A colleague of mine at ERM has done truly terrific work in organizational maturity mapping. Organizations mature along a predictable pattern in all their management systems; they tend to begin in chaos move toward event-driven and compliance focused, on to behavior-driven and a process focused, and ultimately mature into organizations that are enterprise-driven, and performance focused. Unfortunately, not all functions mature at the same pace. Sometimes the safety function progress far slower than the rest of the organization, and this misalignment typically leads to the swift replacement of the safety leadership in favor of personnel more closely aligned with the overall organization’s maturity level. In other words, if the executives are behavior-driven and process focused, but the safety function tends to remain event-driven and compliance-focused the executives will tend replace key safety personnel with people who have ideas closer to their own.
What’s far more common is a safety function that is enterprise-driven and performance-focused in an organization that is lagging behind in maturity. Imagine an organization where the leadership remains focused on compliance and driven by events but where the safety function is pushing for an enterprise-wide approach that is performance-focused. The leadership, convinced that the organization is safe enough and that any further investment to take the organization beyond mere compliance is unwarranted in the best case and wastrel in the worst. The safety professionals begin to see the leadership as shortsighted or even uncaring. The executives, for their part, start to see the safety professionals as softheaded spendthrifts. Both sides begin to harbor resentment until one party (usually the safety professional) bubbles up in frustration and does something stupid and unprofessional like cussing out a colleague or becoming openly disrespectful to the other party. This type of event may or may not lead to the dismissal of the offending party. More likely than not, the event will seemingly be ignored (but not forgiven or forgotten) until some other event (like a reduction in staff) makes it easy to dispose of one side or the other without confrontation of unpleasantness.
Expediting Organizational Maturity
While it’s impossible to skip a step in the organizational maturity continuum, it is possible (and important) to understand where your organization currently stands and, with guidance, one can expedite the move towards a more mature organization; I won’t get into that (why provide any more free consulting than need be?), except to say that trying to push organizational maturity without sufficient expertise can be dangerous to the safety professional’s career. People will eventually accept change, but they seldom forgive it.
When Culture Conflicts With the Individual, Culture Wins
If you’re a safety professional misaligned with the corporate culture you have some decisions to make. If you can be happy working in an organization that is behind you on the maturity continuum it’s no great effort to do the job and do it well. The key is to understand that the current state is neither permanent nor dependent on the current leadership. The organization will evolve and change when it is ready to, and (lacking outside intervention) there is nothing to do but patiently wait. But if you are a safety professional who cannot stand waiting for the organization to catch up to you, you would be better served by seeking an organization more closely aligned to your particular philosophic approach. Staying on and throwing tantrums or becoming completely disengaged doesn’t do you or your organization any good.
Misalingment between the maturity of the safety function and the overall organization is one of the most common sources of frustration and animosity in workplaces today. The adage, “a house divided against itself, cannot stand” has never been more true than when safety and leadership have different visions.
 I understand the fact that I actually work in the safety profession comes as a shock to many of the mouth-breathers who assume, without fact one, that I am merely a safety blogger and journalist. Never under estimate the stupidity of some people.