The Top 10 Mistakes in Managing Safety Performance

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

June 1, 2004

Mistake Number Four: Thinking that managing safety doesn’t require leadership.

"You manage inventory – you lead people." – H. Ross Perot

This may come as a shocking revelation to the organizations we led, but few managers grew up with the idea in mind that someday, we’d be get to be the leader. That’s not how it happened.

When we were kids growing up in school, we all knew who the leaders were. They were the ones who were the best athletes, had the best personalities, and yes, were the best looking. Everybody–us included–followed them. They made leading look easy–and cool.

We made up for our lack of natural leadership talent by studying hard and getting good grades. Ultimately, that led to graduation, and the beginning of a good career. Then one day, someone noticed what good jobs we were doing, and decided to make us the leaders: We got our first jobs in management.

Then it was our turn to be the leaders. We quickly found out that nobody thought we were all that cool, and employees didn’t necessarily follow our lead. That’s when we decided that the game was all about "managing," and we really didn’t need to lead.

Managing, Defined

Consultant Louis Allen defined the four elements of management as planning, leading, organizing and controlling. They are all critically important to the goal of sending people home safe at the end of the day. Planning is about having systems that put the right tools, equipment and methods in the hands of those who are doing the work. The work of organizing makes certain that the right people are doing the work, and that they have the knowledge, skill, support and supervision they need. Controlling, as Allen defined it, is the work of measuring and following up.

Then there is leading. It’s such a simple concept. Break leading down into the component elements–actions such as communicating, decision-making, listening, motivating–it doesn’t seem all that difficult.

But, that’s not how it worked when we did it. We’d announce an important decision to our staff–communicating it by explaining all the reasons why it made perfect sense–and it would be met with stiff resistance. We’d remind people what we had said before, and they say that it’s the first time they ever heard it. We’d listen patiently, but what we’d usually wind up hearing were gripes and excuses.

Our Most Admired Leaders

Think about the question, "Who are the leaders we have known in our lifetime and admired the most?" We sort through the ranks of coaches, generals, elected officials and public figures; it isn’t hard to come up with a list. Thanks to television and the movies, the odds are high that the names on the list of us baby boomers are pretty similar.

It’s striking what our most admired leaders don’t have in common. Some were brilliant speakers, and others complete introverts. Some led with formal authority, and others just seemed to be able to "create followers" for their ideas. Some were steely-eyed tough guys–like General Patton, and others led in a very passive way–like Gandhi.

What our most admired leaders have in common is a very short list. They all had something important they wanted to accomplish; they acted on their convictions, and their actions produced results. But how they accomplished what they did seems dependent on their personal strengths and personalities. For instance, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry both enjoyed success on the field, following two entirely different coaching styles.

The leaders we admire didn’t have it easy. At some point along the way, most suffered because of what they believed. At the worst, they were shot or put in prison. Or, they might just have been roasted by public opinion and threatened with being fired.

All that helps explain why real leadership is so rare. And why it’s much more comfortable and safe to just manage–plan, organize and control.

When it comes to safety performance, there is always plenty to manage. Perform the inspections; maintain the equipment; provide the training; complete the assessments. As managers, we all knew the drill perfectly well; most of us were really good at these management activities.

The problem with that, as Ross Perot summed up so well, is that "You manage inventory; you lead people."

Managing Safety Performance Demands Leadership

There are always fingerprints to be found on the reasons why people get hurt. Safety ultimately boils down to a people game. With people, there is no getting around the need to lead, and, with that, brings along all the challenges that come with being the leader.

Being the leader is a really tough duty. Thinking we could get great safety results just by managing–but without leading–is one of the biggest mistakes we managers make.

Mistake Number Three: Trying to manage attitudes.

"The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts." – John Locke

It’s a scene that everyone in operations and those of us who have ever managed operations know all too well.

We’ve gathered up the entire department for an important safety meeting–important because we’re rolling out a new company safety policy. Everyone in the outfit is sitting in the meeting room as we walk in to lead the communication session.

There in the front row, where most of the seats are empty, are three of our very best folks. Smiling, happy to be in the meeting, and interested in what is about to be announced, they even look glad to see us. We’re more than happy to see them. In fact, we wish the entire room were full of people just like them.

But life in operations isn’t like that. Occupying the middle rows are more than a few who sit and wait to size up what they’ll hear.

Then there’s the back row.

Every chair filled. You’d think the meeting was a standing-room-only crowd–iif it weren’t for all the empty seats right in the front row. Spanning the back of the room, arms folded, hats pulled down, and sunglasses on, we’d always see "the usual suspects."

We can’t say that we’re the least bit surprised. We wait in anticipation–dread would be closer to the truth–for what they’ll have to say about the policy. The best we could hope for is that they just say nothing. Of course it never works out that way, and once they get involved in the action, it’s never a pleasant experience.

Every organization is made up of people in the front row, the middle rows, and the back row. Billy Martin once said the role of managing a baseball team was to keep the 12 players who were sure you were nuts from convincing the 12 who hadn’t made up their minds.

If only we could change the attitude of those in the back of the room to be something more like those in the front.

Managing Attitudes

Changing attitude seemed like great idea, and, brother, did we ever try. We paid consultants to run attitude surveys. We put up banners proclaiming, "The A in Safety stands for Attitude." We hung posters in the conference room to remind everyone that "Your safety performance starts with your attitude."

When all else failed, during performance evaluations we did our best to counsel and coach those with attitudes still lacking.

For all our effort, what did we have to show? Rarely anything.

Genius at Work

One of the benefits of growing up in management in the baby boomer generation was that we got exposed to some of the greatest thinkers on the subject of management: notables like Peter Drucker, W. Edwards Deming, Tom Peters and Philip Crosby.

Add to that list Dr. Richard Beckhard.

The name Richard Beckhard might not be quite as familiar to our generation. Measure the impact of ideas on the world of people at work, and you’d find Beckhard to be the equal of Deming. Beckhard’s expertise lay in the field of organization behavior: the relationship between people at work. Just as Deming applied the principals of statistics to manufacturing product quality, Beckhard translated the principals of human behavior to the working world.

A longtime professor at MIT, Beckhard served as consultant to some of the biggest companies and industries around. In the 1970s, when the commercial aviation industry concluded that miscommunication in the cockpit was a leading cause of accidents, the industry hired Beckhard to look into the problem, figure out the causes and make recommendations. Beckhard’s work served as the basis for what is today known as CRM–crew resource management.

The Doctor Makes a House Call

Almost 20 years ago, a small group of managers had the rare privilege of spending a day with Beckhard, in what amounted to an open forum.

If we were expecting the towering presence of W. Edwards Deming, or the dapper elegance of Peter Drucker, we were in for a surprise. Beckhard looked–and acted–like he’d be just as comfortable sitting up in a big chair–as Santa Claus at Macy’s. What a wonderfully approachable icon.

Of course, none of us were smart enough to come prepared with good questions; so Beckhard held class. And the impact was lasting.

CRM – The Inside Story

Beckhard told us all about his experience with the aviation cockpit crew study. "How can you see what’s going on without actually being there?" he asked. His solution: Fly in the jump seat and take lots of notes. We still chuckle at the thought of Beckhard trying to buckle in the narrow confines of a cockpit jump seat. Bet that Santa never had to put up with that.

As he watched life in the cockpit unfold, it became clear that a considerable segment of the airline pilot population, growing up in the military, fell into the trap of giving and accepting orders without questioning command decisions. That unquestioning adherence to the orders of the captain had, on more than one occasion, led to fatal errors in judgment.

>Beckhard on Attitude

A student of human behavior, Beckhard didn’t disagree the soundness of our premise that, by managing attitudes, we’d be fixing the root cause of behavior. But, Beckhard went on to point out, trying to manage attitude leaves you with two problems, neither of which are inconsequential.

The first problem: It’s up to the individual to make the change in attitude. You can’t do that if you’re the manager.

The second problem: How do you know for sure what the attitude is in the first place?

Can You Hear Me Now?

Two simple statements, and two profound insights into the challenge of managing people at work. The real geniuses have the ability to explain things in simple terms the rest of us can understand.

Beckhard made his case on the folly of trying to manage attitude to a small group of managers almost 20 years ago. I’m sure we weren’t the only ones to have heard his message on the subject.

If we’d taken it to heart, we would see fewer posters urging people to have the right attitude about safety; we’d see fewer safety attitude surveys; and hear less about working on "culture" to get everyone thinking the same way about safety.

But most of us didn’t hear the message, and we keep plugging away on changing attitude as the way to improve safety performance.

It’s one of the biggest mistakes managers make, managing safety performance.