Guaranteed Non-Leadership in Safety

Guaranteed Non-Leadership in Safety

imageI was sent this ASSP “professional”, “peer reviewed” article today and asked for a review: Assessing the Quality of Safety-Focused Engagements

The first thing we learn about this paper is its source, published by a safety association and 6 authors all with mechanistic backgrounds in engineering related fields. None of this should be surprising from an association that recently played word games by changing its title from an engineering association to ‘professional’. Of course, it’s not professional.

We learn very quickly in this paper (regardless of critique of the authors) that this paper is about the mechanics of leadership, not a ‘being’ of leadership. Then when we read about the method of research we also learn that of those consulted 50% were engineers. So, what we have here is an engineering view of leadership and as we read the paper we see very quickly the same old tired assumptions of safety trotted out as if this offers something to learn.

The first question we should bring to this paper is: How do safety engineers frame our worldview of leadership? The whole paper is framed around assumptions of measurement even seeking measures of qualitative attributes that of course can’t be measured. Poor olde Safety seeking measurement because it cannot cope with qualitative research. I wonder what your scorecard is for parenting? How do you score as a partner? Of course, such questions only make sense to safety engineers and by any measurement, a sure-fired way to wreck any relationship.

Measurement and Safety should never be the framework or foundation for understanding leadership.

One of the first things we need to know is that Data Cannot Drive Leadership ( ). Don’t be duped into thinking this article is about leadership.

So, before we get started on this paper a quick clarification. No research is neutral or objective, including mine. What we judge as effective and ethical is determined by our worldview and ontology, how we are oriented to learning and risk. My worldview and ontology are not framed by engineering or safety indeed, I find the worldviews common to both alienating and unhelpful to an ethical approach to risk and leadership.

So where does the article start? Injury rates, framed against what safety is not. Splendid, if you want to validate safety as injury rates, this is the place to start. Apparently, this is key to ‘Safety system elements’.

The whole of the first page is an apologetic for measurement and metric. Performance is not understood as the presentation of being or the proxemics of relations. Safety ‘’n this article makes no mention of all the critical qualitative performative signs needed for practicing presence with others, neither does it have any cognizance of any Social Psychological characteristics of leadership.

Leadership is NOT about a scorecard of attributes as measures by Technique!

We learn from the start that: ‘The authors’ objective was to create and demonstrate a process for creating valid, reliable quality-based measures of safety performance (i.e., quality-based safety leading indicators) that is built on a strong statistical and scientific foundation.’

Glad that bias is declared. Of course, when it comes to matters of trust, care, helping, integrity, humility, understanding, relationship, community – THERE IS NO SCORE! Indeed, any effort to find scores for such qualities destroys the integrity of the quality.

The article uses the notion of culture as if such is given but you can be sure, you won’t get a good definition of culture from engineering. A mechanical worldview is completely oblivious to the importance of linguistics, semiotics, poetics, social psychology, education and learning, Historiography, ritual, gesture, religion, the collective unconscious, ethics, politics etc to an understanding of culture.

The article then goes on:

‘Leadership engagements are the practice by which organizational leaders emotionally connect with employees to positively influence their commitment, motivation and well-being within the work environment’

So, we learn early on that leadership doesn’t require an ethic of risk and though the word motivation is used, it is clearly assumed by discussion as a behaviourist idea. Would we expect anything better from safety engineering?

As the article progresses we learn that even conversation and engagement are viewed as a Technique (Ellul). The beginning of effective learning about engagement and conversation is that neither are understood properly from an assumption of utility.

What we see is that the authors have focused on engagement between a leader and employees where safety is the primary purpose and focus of discussion. This is a sure-fire recipe to kill off any chance of leadership. The last thing a leader should carry as an agenda to a conversation with persons is an agenda about safety. How interesting that the article also makes no mention of risk.

Then the safety humdinger:

‘For example, leaders are viewed as inspiring, caring and confident when they communicate safety as their ethical responsibility, demonstrate that safety should not be sacrificed for other competing business priorities (e.g., work pressure), and accept personal responsibility as the leader (Koestenbaum, 2002; Turner et al., 2002).’

How interesting to have an article that espouses ‘ethical responsibility’ in a global industry framed by a number with no ethic of risk! Of course, this enables this article to carry forward an idea of leadership that has no ethic of helping, the word ‘helping’ nor ‘ethic’ gets any mention as a foundational disposition for leadership.

We then learn what engagement is about:

‘Through engagements, leaders can generate dialogue on recent safety successes or failures on site to promote shared analysis, problem-solving, learning and correct decision-making among employees’.

Framed by whatever ‘safety success’ is the focus of engagement in this article is on productivity, not on the essentials of leadership such as: suspended agenda, open questioning, listening, helping, person-centrism, vision, meaning, purpose, or an ethic of powerlessness! All of these critical qualities essential to leadership and in establishing trust, get no mention.

The centrality to effective leadership is: understanding persons, Socialitie, motivation, perception, ethical self-awareness, social psychology, relationships, ethics, moral being and a helping disposition. All get no mention.

Just do a simple audit of the language in this article and look for all the critical concepts to leadership that are missing. If you are looking for an alternative to this mechanistic view of leadership, perhaps look here: there is a neat reading list to get you started.

One of the consistent things about safety engineering is its anxiety about standardisation evident in this article quest for a ‘scoring protocol’. Then I had a look at the ‘scorecard’ and not one quality critical to leadership ‘counts’ a mention. Indeed, most of the qualities this article chases bear no relationship to effective leadership. None of the criteria are a part of effective engagement. There is no mention of listening, humble enquiry, helping, suspending agenda; nothing on culture, linguistics, language, discourse, ethics, etc all critical to effective leadership and culture.

The article concludes on measurement, the darling of engineering. What are these measures? Non-measures.

  1. Be genuine? Really, how can genuineness be discussed without mention of ethical disposition? The article contains no critical questions about being disposed to helping, selflessness, community, listening? BTW, there is no measure for ‘being’ genuine, because there is no discussion of being, just as there is no discussion of personhood.
  2. Demonstrate care – yet no mention of a need to critical understand of power and presence, yet plenty of arrogance typical of safety packaged as engineering.
  3. Humility gets a mention but is still focused on utility and work? There is nothing in the article about open questioning,
  4. Safety as a priority, please? More dumb safety and sure way to demotivate workers. There is no mention of what motivates persons or what disposition is essential for motivation. You can be sure no one read Beyond Pleasure and Pain by Tory Higgins ( )
  5. Then we get to more darlings of safety, hazards? Apparently, this is ‘What matters most’. The foundation of effective relationships, engagement, conversation, trust and care is to suspend such agenda from any approach to engagement.
  6. Finally point is about appreciation and feedback yet, these are again discussed as Technique an through the lens of utility.

Not safety-focused leadership but person-centred leadership

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