The Role of Leadership in Promoting a Safety Culture

Jim Weigand, DuPont Sustainable Solutions

With many companies today struggling to adjust to new business pressures arising from the current economic environment, the necessity to "do more with less" has become increasingly commonplace. While this can present significant challenges to a business's prospects for growth and profitability, there is one effort that companies can pursue to help them thrive in the midst of today's increasingly complex business realities.

Companies that endeavor to integrate environmental, health and safety management (EHS) into their operations are not simply rewarded with lower incidence and injury rates among employees, but they also can realize increased financial and social rewards as a result.

DuPont is an excellent case study in how EHS management can translate to a stronger bottom line. With a total recordable injury rate that improved 13 percent compared to the previous year, 2012 was DuPont's best year ever. At the same time, DuPont saw 3 percent revenue growth in 2012, exceeded its target for fixed cost productivity, and many of its businesses delivered strong sales growth, earnings growth or margin expansion.

While there are many factors that contribute to effective EHS management within a company, the most critical is strong, committed and engaged leadership within an organization. At DuPont, strong leadership from the C-Suite to middle-management has been the most important component of a successful management system that integrates EHS in every corner of the company. In fact, in the early 1990s, former DuPont CEO Ed Woolard chartered a discovery team to define a path to achieve sustainable improvement in safety while building business value.

One of the major outcomes of this effort was development of the Bradley curve, which enables an organization to understand where it is currently situated along the journey toward attaining a culture that effectively implements EHS processes, and what needs to be done to achieve improvement.

The Bradley curve has become a leading quantitative indicator used extensively both inside and outside of DuPont to measure and rank an organization's maturity or relative culture strength (RCS). While it is based on three major domains – leadership, structure, and processes and actions, – the journey begins with and sustains itself primarily through leadership.

But in today's business environment, the more formal definition of leadership and how it is applied within an organization is evolving. Organizations are now facing new realities and business trends in which a smaller, more global workforce must assume greater responsibilities and transfer knowledge among one another more often. Workers now must be brought onboard and trained quickly to handle multiple tasks, and that is happening more frequently as employers navigate a changing workforce.

The emerging trend of distributed teams of employees working with colleagues across practice areas or groups, and not exclusively with a consistent set of co-workers on a single project or task, is becoming the norm. There is reason to believe that organizations that gain and maintain high levels of relative culture strength are better prepared to adapt and thrive in this environment.

As a result, different leadership is required today to effectively move an organization along the Bradley curve to achieve interdependence and to successfully integrate EHS processes. This leadership requires less over-the-shoulder management of employees and more freedom for smaller groups of individuals to work independently on tasks. Employees then increasingly assume a mindset and behavior of "being a leader" as opposed to "needing a leader."

High levels of organizational success come from such a combination of formal and shared leadership. In fact, shared leadership enables organizations to progress along the Bradley curve more rapidly. The more leadership-ability workers assume and demonstrate across various teams within the organization, the more interdependency is achieved to enhance EHS as well as other functions.

For organizations to capitalize on this trend, managers must first recognize the need to change their own approaches toward leadership. Hierarchical mindsets toward leadership are still deeply ingrained in today's business culture. Successful managers will recognize that their traditional roles are evolving and begin to encourage shared leadership within their organization, in effect becoming change agents themselves.

By understanding they no longer have all the answers and by seeking input from workers they supervise, managers will show they value collaboration and, in the process, empower workers to find solutions and assume leadership roles.

A recent sampling of 445 members from 62 teams in 31 stores of a national home-improvement company showed managers could effectively empower team leadership if they "delegate enough autonomy and responsibility to all members of their team, involve the team in decision-making, and encourage the team to self-manage its performance."

Of course, implementing shared leadership is not without its challenges. For example, consensus and decision-making can be difficult to achieve. It probably comes as little surprise that team attitudes, turf battles and individual career goals can be impediments to decision-making. This points to the benefit of organizations striking the correct balance between formal and shared leadership.

Also critical to successfully implementing EHS is the quality of leading by example. A leadership structure that demonstrates a commitment to EHS and conveys its importance through actions is essential to gaining acceptance and implementation of processes by employees.

At DuPont, this is achieved through a concept called Visible Felt Leadership, in which leaders emphasize a demanding, uncompromising and ever-improving safety culture, and establish expectations that are clearly and universally understood, accepted and practiced. Furthermore, leaders ensure these expectations are promoted by every manager in the organization. There is direct engagement by leadership with employees in all aspects of driving EHS as core values within the company.

This engagement is an essential component. It does more than convey leadership's passion and commitment to EHS throughout an organization. It also reinforces leadership's commitment to empowering workers rather than simply directing them, a necessary change to traditional management practices. Empowering and engaging employees helps increase EHS performance in all areas.

The new realities of today's business environment present a challenge for organizations seeking to effectively integrate EHS across their operations. Overcoming this challenge requires adapting long-held approaches toward leadership from that of a top-down structure toward that of a shared leadership approach that empowers and engages employees to take accountability for themselves and their teams to make sound decisions and achieve results.

The good news is this new leadership approach can accelerate an organization's journey toward interdependence which, in turn, can deliver higher levels of EHS integration, increased financial returns and improved social rewards.

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