Safety leadership and change through informal networks

Australia is behind in many things and in front of the rest of world in others.  A recent visit by Jon Katzenbach, senior partner with Booz & Company, to Australia indicates that we are lagging on the issue of organisational change.

According to an article in the Australian Financial Review (AFR) on 11 May 2010, Katzenbach talks about changing people’s behaviours in companies  by using informal networks and identifying “pride builders”.  The article is not available freely online but the core elements of the article reflect Katzenbach’s thoughts in a 2007 article in Fortune magazine.

Katzenbach discusses the frustration of the CEO Of Bell Canada.  Michael Sabia had tried to change the behaviour of his customer relations staff with top-down leadership techniques but they weren’t working.  Bell Canada needed to look at leadership in a different way and found that there were people in the organisation who staff admired, who instilled a sense of pride in other employees.  As a result behaviours changed, sales and profits increased.

The AFR article quotes Katzenbach describing these front-line change motivators:

“We found they did things that were personally very affecting.  They would get to know each person very well, they would recognise that each person’s definition of success was quite different – not everybody is in the game to move up the ladder.  Essentially, what they do is to understand how to make you feel good about the work you have to do.”

If this approach to leadership and motivation can work successfully on front-of-house staff, what could be achieved in the context of workplace safety?

Significantly, Katzenbach said, in the AFR article:

“…that if leaders combined top-down enforcement of change with peer-to-peer influence they would accelerate the behavior change…”

This is different from much of the safety leadership information being pushed in Australia at the moment.  Many companies, if they ever get around to it, are still trying to get safety leadership established at the upper executive level.  But Katzenbach’s approach, and the experience at Bell Canada, is that one cannot rely on top-down efforts for behaviour change and that change is best achieved when top-down is combined with the right people who exist close to the front-line of the production.

Executive leadership is insufficient.  Leadership must find the right people and those people are not always at the top of the organisation chart.

The Fortune article mentions the “shadow organisation”.  I believe that this is vital in the realm of workplace safety management and is a pathway to improvement and change ignored by many executives because they are functionally excluded from it.

An easy example can be the feeling an employee can get when they move from being a worker to becoming staff.  They shift from the workplace culture to being in the management culture.  This can be very disconcerting for many as the informal network of shopfloor camaraderie fades once one becomes “a suit”.  Many choose to forgo career development because they know their workplace, or shopfloor, culture and are comfortable with the overalls instead of the suit, and the overtime rather than the bonus system.

I think it is at the top-level of the shopfloor culture where many of Katzenbach’s “pride builders” live and, in terms of workplace safety culture, companies should value the credibility and shopfloor authority that these employees hold rather than believing that these skills and credibility can be applied in the staff or executive world.

The 2007 Fortune article by Jennifer Reingold and Jia Lynn Yang sums up the management challenge well:

“The hidden workplace works because it is outside the traditional structure; therefore, it can’t be treated the same way. Companies must resist the temptation to try to micromanage it. They must also avoid making the opposite mistake – relying on it to solve problems that need structure, such as major cost reductions. The informal organization “is most helpful when you’re trying to influence behaviors that are more emotional than they are rational,” says Katzenbach. It “won’t do everything for you.”

The best managers hit the sweet spot between the two structures by trying to install loose parameters around organizations that often operate independently.”

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories business, consultation, executives, OHS, safety, safety culture, Uncategorized, workplaceTags , , ,

One thought on “Safety leadership and change through informal networks”

  1. Sounds good and looks good providing the foundations are in place and the commitment to comply by the employer is well entrenched. I refer to the BP supposed safety culture which has proven to be \”froth and bubble\”.

    Having champions in the workplace and supporting them in culture change is an excellent means of motivation, providing the intent is sincere, because if it is provably not, then the damage done will not be easily reversible.

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