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

August 1, 2003

As the first wave of our "Baby Boomer" generation of managers heads for the exits, it’s an appropriate time for reflection. Over the course of our careers, the revolution we’ve witnessed on the industrial landscape and in practice of management has been nothing short of astounding.

When we started out years ago, business was "big," and the world of industry was the place to be. Land a job with a big industrial firm, and then work you way up the corporate ladder, where the opportunities in middle management were enormous.

That scene is gone forever. It’s been replaced with the world we now know all too well: the organization chart’s been flattened; the pace of work frenzied; the demands on performance–production, cost, schedule and quality–unrelenting. The forces of global competition have changed just about everything in our world in industry.

There’s one thing that hasn’t changed: the goal of sending people home safely at the end of the day. As managers in industrial operations, safety has always been an important part of our job. Over our careers, we’ve had the opportunity to experience the highs and lows in managing the safety performance of those entrusted to us. We’ve celebrated milestones and passed out awards; we’ve gone to the emergency room with people we work with and sat in accident investigations trying to figure out what went wrong.

It’s been said that organizations don’t have memories, people do. So, before everything we learned is forgotten, we owe the generation moving into the ranks of management the benefit of our experience, good and bad. We did manage to learn a few things about managing safety along the way; regrettably, most of that learning came the hard way.

What were the lessons we learned about managing safety as we progressed through the ranks of management? What were the mistakes we made on our watch?

That’s what this series is all about: Sharing The Top 10 Mistakes We Made Managing Safety Performance. This is the first of a series of articles that will focus on mistakes. This article will highlight two of them.

"Hope Is Not A Method"-General Gordon Sullivan

Mistake Number 10: Relying on Hope as a Method

Very few of us started out our working careers as a manager: we worked our way up to the job. When we finished our education, we found our first job in the business. Whether that job was as an apprentice, operator, draftsman, engineer, or working in the office, the only person we managed in the first years of our career was ourself.

Not that learning a new job and starting out a career didn’t present its own problems, but as we later learned, managing people presents a set of challenges that very few of us are ever fully prepared to handle.

As our careers progressed, we found out that we liked what we were doing and were good at the work we did. Being good at it and doing our jobs didn’t seem all that difficult. It wasn’t too long before we started to get recognized for our skills-and potential.

Then, one day someone offered us the opportunity to manage others–whether it was what we wanted to do all along or not. Of course, we accepted the promotion.

Of all new assignments we encounter in the course of our career, no one is bigger than the change from managing yourself to managing others. When our new assignment and responsibilities were described, we were reminded "you are also accountable for the safety of those assigned to you." In industry, managers are entrusted with the safety of those who report to them.

Of course, we knew that. We all understood that being accountable for the safety of others came as part of the job.

Did we really comprehend what that meant? Did we fully appreciate that we became responsible for how other people behaved-whether we were standing next to them or not? That this responsibility could weigh so heavily on us as we stood with the family of an injured worker, not sure whether he would survive his injury? That this responsibility would force us to deal with the people we work with in ways that wouldn’t always make them happy to see us?

The truth turned out to be that managing safety performance was probably the toughest part of our job as manager, and one for which we had the least preparation.

Picture this:

You’re looking for a good athlete from within your workforce for a very special business opportunity. You’d like to find someone with great hand-eye coordination and a track record of success in competitive sports.

Fortunately, there are plenty of candidates to choose from. You’re given a candidate list: former high school quarterbacks, guards on the basketball team, volleyball players, baseball pitchers and even a tennis player.

You start interviewing the candidates, searching for the one with the right potential for this special assignment. You concentrate on those who’ve stayed in shape and kept up their skills. Eventually, you happen upon the perfect candidate: an employee who’s been working for you for 10 years; a former baseball pitcher, who now competes in triathlons.

You offer him the job and he accepts. His new assignment, by the way, is to play golf with Tiger Woods next Monday morning in front of a gallery composed of your company’s president and hundreds of his friends. No matter that the candidate you’ve selected has never held a golf club in his hands in his life.

Sound crazy?

Sure. But, in a sense, isn’t that exactly what happened when we were first promoted into management? We were given responsibility for managing the safety of others–even though we had no management experience. Someone with the potential to learn a new set of skills–management skills–is put in a situation where they are expected to be able to immediately perform those new skills, and perform them successfully so that no one goes home injured and everyone who is watching them perform is impressed with their proficiency.

We wouldn’t send a machinist out to troubleshoot a problem with electrical switchgear. At least not without training and some assurance about his electrical qualifications. We’ll promote that same machinist to supervisor, and expect that he’ll be able to manage the safety performance and behavior of his crew. "He’ll do just fine" is what we’ve all said, probably because that’s exactly what happened to us, and we managed to survive the experience.

Big mistake.

"Hope is not a method." Yet, when it comes to the most important role we play as managers in industry, sending people home safe at the end of the day, hope is the method of choice to prepare managers for the assignment.

It was how we started off our careers in management. And, we turned right around and repaid the favor over our careers by doing exactly the same thing to others: taking people with great potential as supervisors and managers; entrusting them with the safekeeping of their crew; yet failing to give them the kind of support and training to function effectively.

It’s amazing that there weren’t more failures when we were moving into management. At least back then we had experienced crews working for us, and the people we worked for seemed to be able to find the time to help and coach us.

What’s the situation look like today? What’s the experience level of those performing the work in our organizations now? How much time do senior managers have to spend with their new supervisors and managers, providing the coaching and development they need?

Relying on hope as the method to teach supervisors and managers how to manage safety performance is one of the biggest mistakes managers make.

Advice worth heeding from those of us who’ve made the mistake more than once.

"My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions."-Peter Drucker

Mistake Number 9: Failing to Ask Good Questions

Make up a short list of those with the greatest impact on the conduct of business in the 20th century, and the name Peter Drucker is bound to show up. As a teacher, author and consultant, Drucker has had a profound effect on those of us who’ve served as managers in industry in the last 50 years. We were taught his methods in business courses and our companies made extensive use of his concepts in running the business.

So, if Drucker found asking questions to be so powerful, why is it that so many managers make so little use of the question as a management tool? What is it about asking questions that makes them so powerful?

Good questions that deserve good answers.

Good questions can do the heavy lifting for managers. A question starts by getting someone else talking. For all of the sophisticated theories that have been offered about the art of interpersonal communication, doesn’t communication fundamentally boil down to someone speaking, and others listening to what is being said?

When a manager asks a question and people begin to answer, the manager gets information about what is going on and what people are thinking. What manager wouldn’t benefit by that?

Questions engage people. It’s hard to hear a question and not start thinking about it. Ask yourself: "What do you think caused the Space Shuttle Columbia to crash?" and you’ll start thinking about foam insulation, high speeds, heat at re-entry, and the loss of the lives of the crew.

Exactly the same thing happens when you ask someone else a question. Even in the cases where they don’t answer, you can bet they’re thinking about your question, which also means they’re paying attention.

Questions can shape the agenda. Who in our generation can forget the famous question "What did he know, and when did he know it?" These questions ultimately brought down a president. Six years later, the question "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" led to the election of another president.

Any manager who wants to advance a cause, like recognizing hazards, would do well to make good use of the same technique, perhaps by asking the people doing the work "What kinds of hazards are you working around that might get you hurt?"

So, if questions offer managers so many benefits, why aren’t they used more often?

As we have witnessed from the front row seats in our careers, managers are far more likely to provide answers than to ask questions. Here’s one perfect–and tragic–example. A company chief executive officer listens to the details of a fatality to a very experienced employee. The accident was in large part caused by the employee’s failure to follow required safety procedures. The CEO’s comment after hearing the story: "If procedures had been followed, this never would have happened."

True. But, how useful was that statement?

It’s never a bad thing to be reminded that following safety procedures can prevent an injury. We suspect that is why the procedures were written in the first place. Wouldn’t this CEO have been better off asking the question: "What would cause a senior employee who knew the rules to take a shortcut that would cost him is life?" Had he asked that question, and gotten the real answer, he would have been shocked.

But he didn’t ask that question. Instead he did exactly what most of us managers do in situations where we are searching for an explanation: we give an answer; make a comment; offer an opinion. Why are we so inclined to do that?

The answer may well lie in the skills that got us promoted into management in the first place. In school, we were rewarded for knowing the answer. When we first started out our careers, we were recognized for what we knew. Our potential for management was recognized in large part because we weren’t sitting in the slow learner row in the classroom.

Collectively, managers are bright people with a passion to excel. Being recognized for knowing the right answer is a big part of what has driven us for our entire lives. We have made a habit of knowing the answer.

Our knowledge may well be our greatest strength, but it can also be our downfall. Knowing the wrong answer is worse than knowing nothing. Many of the problems we’re expected to solve in business–ones that involve human behavior and marketplace dynamics, for example–don’t come with "correct answers." Solving a tough safety problem–like why people aren’t following safety procedures–isn’t a graded test. You won’t find the correct answer on page 47 in your textbook.

Solving tough problems requires good thinking. Asking good questions is part and parcel of good thinking. The best managers ask the best questions.

The good news is that learning how to ask good questions isn’t all that difficult, and can easily be mastered. It’s really just a case of forming a new habit: starting out sentences with words like "who, what, when, where, why and how" and finishing up the sentence with a question mark.

Here’s one example. "How many sentences in this article end with a question mark?"

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to have all the answers just because you’re the manager. No manager ever does. Our unwillingness to admit what we don’t know, and ask good questions, is one of the biggest mistakes we make.