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The Role of Employee Engagement in Safety

A leader’s competence only matters when the team trusts the leader

Published: Monday, May 15, 2023 - 12:03

‘Turning to the men around him, Dodge shouted, ‘Up this way!’ but the men ignored him. Dodge later stated that someone responded, ‘To hell with that, I’m getting out of here.’ The team raced past Dodge up the slope toward the ridge. Four men reached the crest, but only two, Bob Sallee and Walter Rumsey, managed to escape through a crevice in the rock. Dodge survived by lying in the center of his escape fire. The rest of the team perished in the blaze.”

This passage, taken from Chapter 6 of our leadership book, Safety Beyond the Numbers (SafePath Publishing 2022), describes a real-life disaster in which more than a dozen forest service firefighters (smokejumpers) lost their lives. The tragedy is a stark reminder that it’s impossible for any leader or organization, no matter how competent and well-meaning, to be responsible for keeping their people safe. Far from being admirable or heroic, such a belief is in fact the opposite—misleading and patronizing. And sometimes it’s fatal.

Let’s take a closer look at this often-misunderstood but critical aspect of safety.

Wagner Dodge was the most experienced smokejumper of his day. He was smart, decisive, and fearless, and he improvised on the spot a brilliant technique that later became standard firefighting practice. His leadership that day also led 13 people to their deaths. But the fatal flaw in Dodge’s plan didn’t lie in his expertise or his strategy. Instead, it was his failure to connect with his team.

To understand his failure, we must go back to the very start of the mission. This group had never before jumped together. At the time they boarded the aircraft, they didn’t know each other, and more important, they didn’t know Dodge. For his part, Dodge didn’t even know all their names. He used the flight time to quietly refine his plan of attack for fighting the fire. Ironically, this calm, calculated start sealed the fate of all but two of his men.

It’s a fallacy (and a dangerous one) to think that as a leader I can, by my own skill and competence, “Keep my people safe.” This is not to say that a leader’s skill and competence is unimportant. But the leader’s competence matters very little until the leader establishes that they can be trusted and therefore will act in the team’s best interest. A competent boss that I don’t know, and who doesn’t care to know me, is scary. I’d prefer that such a leader be incompetent! At least then they would be less able to harm me. Competence only matters when the team trusts the leader, and that only happens when the leader knows the team, and the team knows their leader. It’s the human connection that unleashes the value of competence.

In the average compliance-based operation, the primary safety goal is to make sure injury rates are below the industry average, and that no hazards exist in violation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules. The company is responsible to OSHA—not to the employees—for safe outcomes. Employees aren’t expected to care as much about injury rates as the company does, nor to be experts in the Code of Federal Regulations Part 1910 (OSHA Standards). How could they be? As a result, employees typically play no more a role in the plan to keep them safe than Dodge’s crew played in theirs.

As a result, safety rules are almost always written by a plant safety team that does have expertise in the standards—and sometimes by a corporate safety team that’s even less knowledgeable about the plant environment. Operational managers have little input, much less the employees who are close to the work. The assumption is that if people will just follow the rules (follow when we say, “Up this way!”) then no one will be hurt.

Unfortunately, people don’t always follow the rules, and when there’s an injury it’s easy to point to at least one infraction that caused the result. In this type of safety system, people are seen as liabilities, since human fallibility is almost always a factor and a root cause of injury. Such a system can only be “improved” by continually adding more rules and finding new ways of taking decision-making out of the hands of the employees. The results of these efforts eventually and predictably hit a glass ceiling.

What’s needed isn’t more rules but more meaningful engagement and human interaction—a safety culture in which employees are taught safe work practices by a trusted and respected leader, and then expected to rely on their own good judgement and competence.

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In Safety Beyond the Numbers, we discuss a concept called the Courage/Consideration Continuum for building effective teams. An illustration of this continuum is shown here. Courage, on the vertical axis, represents the leader’s ability to bring competence, expertise, and value to the team. Consideration, on the horizontal axis, is the willingness to allow the team to assert the value of its experience and competence. Both are essential. By the way, Dodge would not “graph out” very well. He was high on courage and very low on consideration.

When courage is high and consideration low, it results in a team dynamic that’s also low in trust and performance. A leader may believe they can carry the team by sheer will and ability, but that’s never true; it’s an incorrect, self-told story. The team will not follow a leader it doesn’t know and doesn’t trust, and who doesn’t trust them. They’ll covertly resist and withhold their best efforts, including their discretionary energy (effort that’s given freely and can’t be compelled).

Conversely, a strong leader who builds a strong team creates a mutually beneficial relationship. The team is valued and given the room and encouragement to make the good decisions that they and only they can make. Far from undermining the leader’s influence and authority, it increases the likelihood the leader’s directions will be followed. In the words of Maj. Richard D. Winters of Band of Brothers fame (and a direct contrast to Dodge):

“The first example you must set is that you must spend time with the men.... You have to work with the men. And by working with the men, they get to know you. And if you do a good job, that’s how you say, ‘Follow me.’”

The ownership principles described in Safety Beyond the Numbers are also available in a one-day, introductory seminar and as in-house training for organizations of all kinds.

For more information, please visit www.safepath.solutions.


About The Authors

Ken Chapman’s picture

Ken Chapman

Ken Chapman is an industrial psychologist with 40 years of experience working with foundries, generating plants, paper mills, steel fabrication, and other heavy industry. His focus has been on leadership development and building durable safety cultures.

Tony Orlowski’s picture

Tony Orlowski

Tony Orlowski earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering followed by four years as a consultant in the mining industry, ultimately becoming a licensed professional engineer and completing an MBA. For the past 25 years, he has served in a series of leadership roles as a general manager. He is currently an executive vice president in heavy industry.


The Role of Employee Engagement in Safety

ISO 45001:2018 clause and requirements in 5 for Leadership and Worker Participation that their involvement in Decision Making; Consulation and Participation of Workers, and as ISO 9000:2015 QM Princiles also has People Engagement.