Leadership Roles in Behavior-Based Observations

by Terry McSween

During my “Introduction to Behavioral Safety” workshop this year at the Behavioral Safety Now Conference, I had a number of companies participating that already had behavioral safety processes in place. Many of these companies were looking for ways to enhance the functioning of their existing behavioral safety process. In our discussions about management support, our recommendation that leadership participate in behavioral safety observations received a great deal of discussion. One of the participants raised an important question, “how do we transition to management participation in observations, after ten years of promoting ‘employees only’ observations?” While clearly beyond the scope of an introduction to behavioral safety, this is an important question.

Red Flags

Before discussing ways to address this issue, I’d like to talk about the red flags that might signal this as an important issue for locations with a mature behavioral safety. In our view, a healthy behavioral safety process is one that promotes teamwork and a sense of shared responsibility for safety. If a process is characterized as “us versus them” and there seems to be a wall between the safety committee1 and leadership,

then the process is in trouble, and part of the problem may be in the role of leadership established in the original design of your process. In fact, leaving leadership out of the process was very much an established part of behavioral safety until probably five years ago when our studies began to show that involving them as partners in the process created much stronger employee participation. Our data clearly showed that leadership participation in observations resulted in significantly more employees conducting observations (cf. Cook and McSween (2000) “The Role of Supervisors in Behavioral Safety Observations” in Professional Safety magazine). Unfortunately, organizations can have a difficult time changing the expectation that this is an “employee only” process once that belief has become strongly established.


So, how do you make the change? As with most aspects of behavioral safety, the approach will vary depending on a variety of factors. For many organizations though, the best way is to address this as part of a general review and enhancement of the behavioral safety process conducted under the philosophy of continuous improvement. Generally, the first step is for your safety committee to conduct an assessment of the strengths and opportunities for improvement in the behavioral safety process. After the assessment, the committee should develop an action plan to build on strengths and address the opportunities. If the level of employee participation is one of those opportunities, then typically the organization has two areas that need additional attention: (1) the reinforcement that supports participation, and (2) the interface with, and role of, leadership. Both of these factors are critically important to a successful process. While the two are often closely tied together, in this article, I am primarily addressing involvement of leadership in conducting observations.

Education and Communication

Often, steering committee members and other stakeholders will need additional education so that they understand the value of involving leadership and how to define and communicate leadership’s new role. The action plan will need to include (1) training to ensure leadership understands the change and knows how to participate in the process and (2) a communication plan to help employees understand the change. Everyone must have a clear understanding of leadership’s boundaries and responsibilities during behavioral safety safety observations. Because this is often a radical change from the way behavioral safety was presented and sold to employees, this is one of those areas where many organizations will benefit from having outside support to assist with the education and planning.

Fear versus Trust

In general, leadership should only be involved in conducting observations when the employees on the safety committee agree that this is the right time for such participation. If employees on the safety committee decide that the organization is not ready for this type of leadership involvement in observations, the change should not be made. In such circumstances, the organization probably needs additional work to create a level of trust that would make employees comfortable with such a change. Fear is the barrier that creates resistance to this type of leadership involvement. Management must find ways to drive such fear out of the workplace and create a higher level of trust.

Pilot the Change

If the safety committee has reservations about leadership observation, they may elect to pilot such an approach on a limited scale, or a phased approach to implementation. Such an approach allows everyone to get comfortable with the idea and to ensure that the ground rules are clearly defined and communicated.

This is a generic blueprint for how an organization might move toward greater leadership involvement in behavioral safety observations. Obviously, the devil is in the details, as they say, but the key tools are education for the safety committee and involving employees in the decision to change.

1. Throughout this article I will refer to the safety committee, rather than behavioral safety steering committee, in keeping with our philosophy that these should be one and the same, or at least closely linked. A separate “steering committee” can become territorial with respect to their process and the data, which can contribute to distrust and create barriers to the spirit of openness and honesty critical to a successful process.

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