Rules are only rules if we have value for them…

30th January 2017

When coaching senior leaders specifically around risk management, I am often faced with their significant frustration around an employee’s role in complying (or not) with ‘the rules’. There is a sense that the manager has done their part and they expect the individual to step up and accept responsibility for their contribution to safety.  “What more can I do?”, “I’ve told them clearly and enough times” and “Why is the manager always responsible?” are some comments I hear fairly regularly from leaders & managers. Often the introduction of a behavioural intervention programme is triggered as a perceived answer to these frustrations.

So are these frustrations justified?

When we think about assessing and controlling risks, I think there are a number of key issues which inform this debate:

1) Assessment: How good is the assessment of risk?  Are hazards, risks and those affected clearly identified?

2) Control: Are the controls likely to achieve the level of risk control required? Has the hierarchy of control been properly used?

3) Communication: How has the output from the risk assessment been shared? Is there consistency between both the managers and front line employees’ understanding of how they could be hurt and how to prevent that happening?

4) Monitoring: Do you actually know if the controls work?  Have you been and looked? Or has somebody done that on your behalf…?

This list could be longer but I believe these are essential for success.  It should be noted that simply telling people the outcome of a risk assessment is only a small part of overall risk management story.

Often, frustration with individual workers’ contribution arises after an incident or an inspection. The manager may then feel like they are on the ropes defending the H&S performance in their area of responsibility.

But what would the world be like if we felt compelled to defend the performance of our area of responsibility every day?

Let’s phrase that more positively.

What would the world be like if every leader and manager exhibited passion and vigour for the safety performance of their area of responsibility every day?

The following benefits would immediately start to materialise:

1) Reinforcing behaviours of leaders and managers would make the H&S vision feel credible and achievable.
2) Confirmation that the actions stated in your business H&S Road Map and Management systems were achievable and genuinely for everyone.
3) H&S would feel valued throughout the organisation.

Rules often don’t feel like rules because no one pays them any attention. The prevailing behaviour of all participants dictate that the rules can be ignored.  In the business context, you may see this evidenced, for example, as the absence of permit to work for tasks conducted during night shift.

Those rules discussed in detail and only enforced after an inspection or an incident are still not really the rules. It may then be the employees turn to become highly frustrated.  “I have worked here for 3 years and no-one ever challenged us around using permit to work for this task!”

Rules that are only applied after incidents destroy trust and further degrade the positive components of a business culture.  The manager is basically telling the front-line employee, “you can ignore that rule…until you get caught/have an incident”.

So when leaders and managers experience frustration with individual employees not following the rules, they should start with a moment of self-reflection and consider the four factors for success mentioned above – have they themselves given value to those ‘rules’ with effective, well communicated risk assessments, checked to ensure implementation day to day?

If the business has perceptible value for the rules, then those rules will be followed. What business leaders really value and really want, they really get.

If you would like to discuss further or set up coaching sessions please get in touch.

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