Managing Safety Dilemmas

Paul Balmert

Paul Balmert is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and his career in chemical manufacturing spans 30 years. In 2000, Mr. Balmert formed Balmert Consulting (, a consulting practice that is principally focused on improving operations execution, including improving the management effectiveness in leading and managing safety performance. Mr. Balmert is the author of the best-selling book Alive and Well at the End of the Day; The Supervisor’s Guide to Managing Safety in Operations. He can be reached at

V. Scott Pignolet

July 1, 2005

On the horns of the dilemma.”
—George Santayana

dilemma: de-‘le-ma, noun—an argument presenting two equally conclusive alternatives

Trace the word “dilemma” back to its Greek origin, and you’ll find that the word dilemma means “two assumptions.” Two assumptions, or conditions, that are both true—and in opposition to each other.

Here’s an example of a dilemma that anyone who has ever been involved in an accident investigation can well appreciate. Having everyone involved in the event tell you everything they know—including what they did wrong—is essential to finding out what went wrong. But everyone knows all too well that, when they tell you what they did wrong, they’ll get in trouble.

That means that managing the investigation also requires managing a dilemma. It is this dual nature of the dilemma, and the tension it produces, that led to Santayana’s description. You don’t need a warning label to know that those horns are sharp, and are capable of producing a severe injury—literally and figuratively.

The Rational View

We can already hear the guns being loaded by our good friends who disagree with the notion of “equal and opposing conditions.” As rational managers, they know there is bound to be a solution to every problem, even the most difficult. All it takes is time and brainpower.

This we know from firsthand experience, having made the argument a few times ourselves. But the school of hard knocks has taught us that it doesn’t always work that way. Life is not governed by the laws of reason and logic. Reality can put even the most rational and logical of managers and supervisors on the horns of the dilemma. Here are a few safety dilemmas we’ve seen—and experienced.

There are occasions where the supervisor doesn’t recognize that he’s living on the horns of the dilemma. There, the dilemma is subtle; the supervisor knows something isn’t right, but isn’t sure exactly what that is. “My boss tells me that I’m accountable for the safety performance of my crew. But there’s no way in the world that I can possibly control what they do&mdashmost of the time I’m not even out there with them. But try telling that to my boss. He doesn’t want to hear that.”

It’s this situation that is the source of significant frustration for line supervisors and managers. The supervisor blames it on a communication problem, a difficult and demanding boss, or the kind of people and work he supervises. But, since none of these culprits is likely to change, the situation is hopeless. The easiest way out of this dilemma—or so it seems—is simply to ignore it and hope nobody gets hurt.

Ignore it or not, the truth is that what’s in play is a classic managerial dilemma. It’s one of the very first dilemmas many of us experience after being promoted into management: We go from being accountable for what we do, to being accountable for what others do.

In other situations, the dilemma is obvious, leaving the manager to deal with a problem that proves incapable of solution. Picture it this way: At the end of a long and largely unproductive accident investigation meeting, a team member blurts out: “Hey, I thought management said that all injuries are preventable. So, how in the world could anyone have ever prevented this injury? The guy just lost his balance and fell down the stairs. Sometimes stuff happens.” Try answering that question!

There are some dilemmas that can only be appreciated by taking the time to contemplate and analyze. Unfortunately, that function is normally reserved for philosophers and academics. Managers are far too busy to waste time in this pursuit. That may be good news, at least as far as keeping your sanity. There are dilemmas that usually go unrecognized.

Here is an example of what we mean: “Safety really boils down to the management of risk. Probability and consequences can be calculated. With human endeavor, the probability of error will never be zero. That being the case, accidents will be predicted to occur on some frequency, however small. But we said we believe all injuries are preventable. And I happen to think that is right.”

If you hadn’t put your good thinking to the task, you’d never realize this dilemma existed in the first place.

Managing safety performance requires us to manage safety dilemmas, whether they’re real or imagined, obvious or subtle. They have to be managed in some way.

What do you say to the guy asking the question during the investigation meeting about preventing all injuries, particularly the one that seems unpreventable? How do you manage risk without going along with the consequences of probability? How do you manage what you can’t control?

Much of the time, the answers given to these dilemmas aren’t very good. We see it in the classes we teach. The body language from the participants is a dead giveaway that the answer doesn’t fly.

Of course, when the answer comes from the boss, there is seldom a dissenting opinion. At least not then: Comments are saved for later, such as, “Can you believe what the boss said this morning? How could he be so clueless?” That boss comes off as a character out of the cartoon Dilbert. More significantly, the opportunity to make sense of a complex situation&mdasha moment of high influence&mdashis lost. There must be a better way.

There was once a very bright and sincere young man who occasionally used the dilemma as a tool for teaching. He would pose a scenario, and then follow with good questions. His approach happens to be one of the most widely published and read of all teaching techniques. These scenarios can be found in the Bible.

As Paul Harvey would say, “That’s the rest of the story.”

We all know from our personal experience what a great idea this is for teaching values. We believe it is also a very good way to think about how to manage safety performance better. We’ll be putting the technique into play in this series of articles called “Managing Safety Dilemmas.” We’ll pose the scenario, describe the dilemma and make the arguments for the competing cases. Then, we’ll weigh in with our take on what to make of the dilemma.

Remember, we are talking about real dilemmas: Don’t look for comforting solutions. The real value from the exercise comes from thinking about the situation, describing the dilemma, and appreciating the tension that exists between both sides.

Finally, we hope our writing will spur you to join the dialogue. We’d love to hear your view on both sides of these dilemmas. It’s easy; you can weigh in our discussion forum at and see what others are saying, or just send us an E-mail.

The Accountability Dilemma

“To be a tourist is to escape accountability. Errors and failings don?t cling to you the way they do back home.”
—Don DeLillo

Our series begins with a dilemma familiar to anyone who’s attended one of our Managing Safety Performance classes: Let’s call it the accountability dilemma. Early in the career of every new supervisor, he comes face to face with this dilemma. While it applies to all of the supervisor’s responsibilities, we’ll examine it in the context of managing safety performance.

Remember, every dilemma has two competing assumptions or conditions. The accountability dilemma is best summarized by two questions: 1. How much control does a supervisor have over the safety performance of those he supervises? and 2. How much accountability does a supervisor have for the safety performance of those he supervises?

The difference between what a supervisor controls and what a supervisor is held accountable for creates the accountability dilemma. Looked at another way, the supervisor is expected to do the impossible: manage what he cannot manage. No, that is not a misprint!

Every boss is expected to control and influence the actions of subordinates—over which he does not have complete control or influence. This phenomenon is not limited to managing safety performance, or even managing an industrial operation. Every boss in every line of work experiences it. Take the position, “Head Coach, Professional Football Team” as an example.

Remember Danny White? At one time in his life, he was employed as quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, playing under a fellow by the name of Tom Landry. More recently, he was found pacing the sidelines of an Arena Football League team as head coach of the team. Here is his take on the issue of control and accountability: “As head coach, you feel a lot more responsibility with a lot less control in terms of the game. It can be frustrating. I’m the architect who designs an offense to defeat the defense. I put the plan out and rely on the players to execute it.”

This sounds familiar to those of us in the business of managing operations. So does the fact that football players don’t always run the plays the way they should. “As a former player, many times I want to run out there and show them how to do it. But I can’t.” We all know how that feels.

The truth is that everyone in management—from sergeant to supervisor—faces the accountability dilemma. It is the most fundamental dilemma of management, one that has caused more than a few to seek other employment. The greater the gap between responsibility and control, the greater the stress.

If you’re thinking that there is a way to make this one go away, you’re in for a disappointment. The reality of the accountability dilemma is that there is no solution. No one gets to reprogram the computer, or change the rules of engagement. But that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless or unmanageable: There are ways to lessen the stress this dilemma produces. Here are four ideas that can help.

Idea Number 1: Recognize that you really are on the horns of the dilemma.
Pretending that the dilemma doesn’t really exist will only make things worse. Your boss will hold you accountable if someone working for you gets hurt. Don’t expect anything different. You’ll never succeed in controlling what those working for you choose to do. Don’t waste valuable energy trying to “get control.” It doesn’t work that way.

There will always be a gap between what the supervisor controls and is held accountable for. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything that can be done to shrink the size of the gap. The trick is to know where to spend the effort to do that.

Idea Number 2: Call the dilemma by its proper name.
Naming something provides all sorts of useful benefits. The name gives you perspective: This isn’t really all about you. Every boss faces the accountability dilemma. Naming the dilemma invites the opportunity to put the dilemma up on the examining table and probe around for symptoms.

With a name, you know what to look for, and how to treat the symptoms. Note that we did not say, “Cure the problem.”

Idea Number 3: Lead better.
The best opportunity to deal with the accountability dilemma, taming it to the extent possible, is to make the gap between accountability and control as small as possible. Of course, nobody controls other people. So, a better way to think about what many supervisors call “control” is to think about it as “influence.” There are things that every supervisor can control, but they are things, not people.

Dwight Eisenhower, as the general, once remarked: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done, because he wants to do it.” The best leaders manage to do that, and do it so well that the gap between control and accountability is very small.

So, lead better. Look at your own behavior and performance as the leader; measure it, and see what needs to be improved. Then set out to improve what you can control—your own behavior as the leader. Do that, and the gap will be lessened.

While you’re working hard at leading better, realize that there is no such thing as a sure thing. The better the leader, the lesser the gap. But even the best still see the gap, and that can be the cause of frustration. Just ask Bill Parcells, head coach, Dallas Cowboys.

You know all about Bill: Super Bowl appearances with three teams, and two victories. He’s going nuts up in Dallas right now, because he’s got players that don’t seem capable of executing out on the field. But we suspect that it is just a matter of time—and the draft—before he fields a team of players who execute the way he expects.

Idea Number 4: Look to your team.
If the leader doesn’t have control over the actions of those he supervises, who does? The answer, of course, is the individuals themselves. The very best safety leaders we have seen in action have been successful in convincing their team members that they’re the ones ultimately accountable for the results. When it comes to safety, the people doing the work have the most to gain or lose.

Viewed in this light, there isn’t an accountability dilemma. The people doing the work have both control over what they do and the greatest accountability for what results.

So, if you can figure out how to make individuals feel just as accountable for their safety performance as you do, you’ll have done as much as possible to manage the accountability dilemma. We know that can be a tall order. But it doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort. What other choice do you have?

The Risk Dilemma

“If there’s a 50-50 chance that something can go wrong, then nine times out of 10 it will.”

—Paul Harvey

What makes for a good dilemma is for two conditions to be beyond dispute—and totally contradictory. Like a battery, the greater the difference between the poles, the greater the voltage&mdashand the bigger the shock when you make contact.

The risk dilemma, we think, fits this description perfectly, once you understand the dilemma. Unlike the accountability dilemma—which becomes immediately obvious upon becoming responsible for the work of others—the risk dilemma is seldom obvious. But don’t confuse subtlety with intensity; this one is deadly serious.

We recently witnessed the first of the two conditions of the risk dilemma, during an intense conversation among several operating line managers and one of our favorite safety staffers. At issue was a particular step in the manufacturing operation that was causing the linemen misgivings: Were something to go awry, a very serious injury was likely. From what we knew about their process, we didn’t think the odds of that happening were small. But the fix was expensive, requiring an investment of capital and time. The right answer was neither easy nor obvious.

The safety staffer eventually said, “You’ve simply got to manage the risk.” Naturally, we all nodded in agreement. It made perfect sense. After all, isn’t safety all about the management of risk?

Risk: Hazard Times Probability
We’ll admit right up front that our view of risk comes from the ranks of the line organization—and real life. Much of what we know about risk was learned out on the golf course. Trying to carry 200 yards of water on a dogleg right is very risky: A big slice and a high score are pretty much guaranteed.

Later on in life, we learned the concepts of hazard and risk as part of the post-Bhopal community outreach effort in the chemical industry. Yes, living in the shadow of a chemical plant posed some potential danger, but technology and good management rendered the probability of the bad event small.

There were more pressing dangers coming from other hazards, like driving, diet and exercise. And, what about the risk of getting hurt on the job? Every human endeavor creates risk: Managing safety requires managing risk. The process is figure out what might go wrong, determine the odds of that happening, and assess the potential damage should it occur. Then, compare that with what you are prepared to live with and prepared to spend. Risk Management 101.

It all makes perfect sense. The odds of failure are never zero; no sense pretending otherwise. Besides, the world of “zero risk”—even if it were attainable—would be unaffordable. We’d go out of business driving all risk down to zero. Everybody knows that. So, where’s the dilemma?

The Rest of the Story

Let’s start by turning the tables. Suppose it’s your family living across the street from our plant. We explain the risk—hazard times probability—of what might go wrong. You listen carefully, then say, “Let me get this straight, you’re telling me that there is some chance that me and my family might just get killed in our sleep?”

“That’s right. But it probably won’t happen.”

Essentially we apply the same logic to those who work for us. We determine the hazards and calculate the probabilities of getting hurt. Most of the time it stops at that point. But, picture having the same conversation as the one we had with our neighbors. The employee listens carefully, then says, “Let me get this straight, you’re telling me, when I’m doing this job, it’s an acceptable risk for you? Maybe you ought to come out here and do this job yourself.”

Unlike the shared risk from a chemical release to the community, the risk of injury is fully borne by the employee doing the work. As the manager, we don’t share the risk, at least not in the physical sense.

Let’s put this to one final test of fairness. Would we be willing and happy to have our own kids working on the “fatal risk” job for which we’ve determined the risk to be acceptable? Now you’re starting to see this dilemma emerging from the shadows.

Thought of in the abstract, risk is a simple and manageable concept. Start personalizing the consequences, and risk takes on an entirely different appearance. Yes, there are always risks. There have to be—risk comes with human endeavor. Yet, we don’t want to live with the consequences when the roll of the dice comes up snake eyes.

When we tell people that all injuries are preventable, and our goal is a workplace free from injury, we really mean that. No manager we’ve ever met would say after a life-altering injury: “Sometimes stuff happens. As long as it doesn’t happen too often, I’m OK with that.”

Now what? If we didn’t answer the questions differently—”yes” to managing risks and “no” to accepting consequences, there wouldn’t be a dilemma. Which one do you want to give in on: elimination of all risks, or living with the consequences of the occasional failure? How about neither?

Here are three ideas:

  • Recognize the dilemma. Naming the beast is the first step in taming the beast.
  • Avoid being trapped by absolutes. Instead of trying to manage “all risk,” go after removing the “next risk,” and don’t stop there. It’s process known as continuous improvement.
  • Think better about the problems. Turn loose the creative juices. Get more people involved in the solution process. There are always better ideas; we just don’t always come up with them, at least not before somebody gets hurt.