The Face of the Company

The Critical Role of the Front-Line Supervisor in Managing Safety Performance

Paul Balmert, Principal, Balmert Consulting

Ask any leader, “Do you want every one of your followers to go home alive and well at the end of the day?” The answer will be unanimous: absolutely! There’s not a leader on the planet who wants to see any harm come to anyone working in their business. Making that happen is the challenge every leader on the planet faces. This raises a far more useful question: in managing safety performance what leader plays the most important role?

It’s only natural to point to the top executive: the leader who sets the priority; determines the strategy; and has the power to back their words with resources. Without strong leadership from the top, performance won’t change.

A sound argument. But, if that were the case, every CEO who’s ever laid out a goal of zero harm would have long since gotten exactly what they wanted. That safety execution is rarely, if ever, flawless serves as proof that managing safety performance requires far more than leadership from the top.

There’s a case to be made that the most important leaders, when it comes to safety, are those at the site and project level. Like the captain of the ship at sea, these are the leaders that combine power and presence, operating on a scale where managing—and driving—safety performance is achievable.

That would explain the outliers. In a large enterprise, there’s always a division, site or project achieving far better safety performance than all their peers. How did that happen? Was it a random event? The most likely explanation is that exceptional safety performance can be traced back in time to a leader who succeeded in driving safety performance and institutionalized that in the safety culture.

When it comes to making a real difference in safety performance, there’s another management level deserving serious consideration: the front-line supervisor. Leaving the front-line leader out of this conversation isn’t just an oversight; it’s a huge mistake.

Safety Management Work Processes

In managing safety performance, operations employ an array of work processes that begin with design and carry through to the work done out on the job site. They’re all vitally important, together creating a web protecting people from harm. But consider the sub-set specifically delegated to the front-line leader, executed every working day. Together they make the biggest difference in determining who goes safe at the end of the day.

And who does not.

As to what these safety management—and leadership—processes are, it’s a familiar list. Before even assigning work, the front-line supervisor first determines who’s trained and qualified. As the work is being performed, the supervisor serves as the eyes of management. If work is not being performed safely, the supervisor is expected to coach up the follower. As to tools, equipment, procedures and methods, the supervisor is expected to provide the same oversight.

The front-line supervisor runs tool-box safety meetings. They communicate changes in safety policies and procedures and are responsible for making those changes happen. They manage safety suggestions. When something goes wrong, they’re usually the first to know. Most problems aren’t all that serious, leaving the supervisor to determine what went wrong and how to fix it.

How important is the execution of these management processes to bottom line safety performance? Imagine all of these leadership processes flawlessly executed by every front-line leader across any operation: injuries with root causes such as lack of training, procedure not followed, defective equipment, inadequate procedure, wrong tool for the job and lack of communication would be nonexistent. The resultant performance might not be zero harm, but it likely would be very little harm.

Organization Power

Still, driving great safety requires the power of leadership. But there’s more to a leader’s power than what shows up an organization chart. Organization power comes in two forms. There’s formal power: for example, a leader’s authority to make a decision, approve a policy or authorize a payment. That is the power of control—the ability to determine the outcome.

Despite what many leaders have come to believe, there is not a thing wrong with control. Stopping a job that is not safe is the perfect application of control. But there’s a limit to what any leader controls, and the choice of behavior by followers falls outside those limits. That’s a matter of influence.

The informal power of influence is the leader’s capacity to affect their followers’ behavior. This translates into the ability of employees to buy in to a decision, accept change or follow the safety rules, even when the leader is nowhere to be found. Simply stated, a leader’s organization power is the sum of their control and their influence.

Calculating any leader’s control is as easy as reading the organization chart, but measuring their informal power of influence is an entirely different matter. Because the process of influence takes place between individuals, in practice, the leader’s followers determine how much influence their leader has on them. In that sense, a leader’s influence can’t even be measured in the moment: influence is a process taking place over time.

As to what moves the needle of a leader’s influence, it’s not hard to understand: personal relationships, personality style, prior experience, trust. In a word, credibility, which is largely the product of proximity and time.

In the business of influence, credibility is the coin of the realm. That being the case, in the mind’s eye of those performing the work of the business—and working in harm’s way—the leader with the most credibility and influence over them is highly likely to be their front-line leader. Seldom does that come as a surprise.

Performance Visibility

There’s a saying, “Perception is reality.” In managing safety performance, nothing could be further than the truth: reality is reality! In a perfect world, executives would always know reality for what it really is. It is their business.

Consider this Performance Visibility: the degree to which a leader knows reality for what it really is. Unfortunately, reality often escapes capture and reporting by the safety metrics and reports. It can leave the executive, far removed from the scene, flying blind—until there’s a negative event.

There is an alternative solution. When it comes to knowing what’s really going on out on the jobsite, nobody knows better than the front-line supervisor. Improving Performance Visibility can be as simple as asking those supervisors—and encouraging them to speak their minds on the subject.

The Face of the Company

To those doing the work, the front-line leader is the face of the company. Operating with a high degree of knowledge of real reality; faithfully executing safety leadership processes; and taking full advantage of their power of control and influence, a front-line leader can play the leading role in determining who goes home alive and well at the end of every day.

On the organization chart, the road to great safety performance runs straight through the front-line leader. IHW

About the Author

Paul Balmert, Principal, Balmert Consulting, is also the author of Alive and Well at the End of the Day.

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