We recently received an interesting email from the safety manager of an airline which operates hundreds of flights daily. It says “I am quitting this job along with several pilots because we all are frustrated with the blame culture here. The owner continually threatens that he will fire us if we keep taking the plane out of service for maintenance again and again, and this comes at the cost of safety. We are not surprised because the owner is a farmer operating an airline”.
Most of us believe it is “common sense” to know that “if we don’t maintain an aircraft, we are compromising safety” and everyone will see it the same way. But, just because something is logical does not mean we will all agree on it. This is where we can see that emotions are part of decision making. The safety manager may be basing his actions on care for his customers or fear of consequences while the owner could be focused more on the urgency of profits or believe he “knows better” than the professionals, which could be arrogance.
The safety manager in the above story expects the airline to be run by someone with an aviation background like their own and cites the owner’s farming background as the cause of his problem. What he misses is the fact that many aviation companies are not owned by aviation professionals. In addition to farmers, people in leadership roles in the aviation industry may include politicians, bankers, military veterans, entrepreneurs, brewers, etc. While the safety managers see safety as a value, it is natural that the stakeholders may not see it the same way because they are unique observers.
We see safety the way we see safety and they see safety the way they see safety. Safety coaching is a powerful tool to help them see safety the way we see safety and create a positive safety culture.
While this may sound like an isolated story, frequently we hear statements from employees saying, “management doesn’t care about safety”. Basically, they are talking about the “emotion of care” and its absence. The question here is whether the owner in the above story is aware of his or her “lack of care” and the percentage of risk he or she owns. Even if he or she has some awareness, they may be blind to parts of it because of possible emotions such as fear of short term financial loss, lack of courage, denial, naïveté or greed. It is the safety manager’s responsibility to identify risks and opportunities and make them clear to the decision makers to enable prudent decision making. But if the decision makers don’t see it the way the safety manager sees it, the safety manager could help the leader see it differently. Although we experience more than one emotion at a time, we generally act from the emotion that is strongest. What is possible here is to precisely identify the emotions of each individual and make them a part of every decision to generate the desired action. This methodology is called safety coaching, it is a skill that can be learned and is different from safety training, consulting or advising.
However, coaching requires permission from the coachee and if the decision maker holding authority does not give permission to the coach, no safety improvement can be expected until the decision maker generates a high degree of self-awareness. One of the common reasons why Safety Management Systems (SMS) fail is the lack of top management support. Safety coaching can be a powerful addition to “Safety Promotions”, the fourth pillar of your SMS.