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Leadership Commitment: Sending the Right Signals with Dr. Mark Fleming

Safety Leadership Commitment: Sending the Right Signals with Dr. Mark Fleming



Leaders often claim that safety is their #1 priority, but this statement is insignificant if no one is convinced. In this episode, Dr. Mark Fleming, an applied psychologist specialized in safety culture, outlines how senior leaders can maximize the impact of work-side visits. Learn how to use strong signals and the power of stories to send the right message to front-line workers and cooperatively improve overall safety.


Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost for the C-Suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized Ops and The Safety Guru public speaker and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me, Dr. Mark Fleming. He’s a professor in industrial-organizational psychology at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada. With well over 20 years of applied experience in industrial health and safety management in high-hazard industries. Some of the areas of focus in his current research are around measuring and improving safety, culture, safety, motivation, and safety leadership. An incredible thought leader in this space. Mark, really happy to have you with me today on the show.

Great, Eric, thanks for inviting me. Really excited to have a chat.

Excellent. Well, first, maybe to start off, you’ve dedicated most of your life to research. And what I really love is around practical tools to improve safety in organizations. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got started and where your passion for this space came from?

Yeah, well, I’m originally actually from Ireland, but really in Aberdeen in Scotland. And as an undergrad in Aberdeen in the late 80s, Piper Alpha loomed large impact on the city. Hundred sixty-seven people killed, many of them oriels at events and you couldn’t, but you sort of touched by it, although I didn’t know anybody was lost in the tragedy. But you had that sort of sense of that. This was there, that it was present maybe in the back of your mind.

And that’s I lived in Aberdeen for a number of years, got to know people who had been involved. And then when I finished my undergrad in Psych, I went on and did a masters in, ah, economics, human factors. And then that’s really when I started to sort of build my passion for occupational health and safety. And I listened to a presentation about the causes of Piper Alpha from your perspective. And that really got me hooked. And I then took up a job working in as a research assistant on an offshore oil and gas research project to sort of address some of the issues that were identified in paper around risk and around safety culture. And that was in nineteen ninety-three. And I’ve been working on safety culture ever since.

Phenomenal. And thank you for all your work in improving workplaces and so many different sectors. When we talk there’s a there’s a piece of research, you’re doing around information asymmetry as it pertains to safety. I think it’s an incredibly important topic, particularly for a lot of executives that struggle with this balancing act. Can you share a little bit about what this information is? Symmetry is and some background and some of the learnings from it?

Yeah, what are the things? So, there’s been a fair amount of research done on safety leadership in organizations. But when you actually look into that literature, what you find is really what it’s about is about safety, supervision. It’s all the really or the vast majority has been focused on the leadership behaviors of frontline supervisors, those who direct the work and very little research on how senior leaders demonstrate commitment and how they’re involved in the safety of opportunities they should display.

And a number of years ago started to sort of look at this issue. And one of the theories that we chose to investigate was the signal theory, which is when the Nobel Prize for economics a number of years ago. And the basic theory is that in many situations in life and in business, there is what we call information asymmetry. So, one person knows more than the other person in the environment. It can be quite difficult to sort of interact, to make judgments.

And the sort of classic example that’s given is purchasing a second-hand car. When you’re buying it off someone, that person who’s owned the car knows a lot more information about the car than you do. And therefore, how do you make a judgment as to whether it’s a good thing to buy or a bad thing to buy? And that person selling the car has a vested interest in being honest. So, what we look for or what we call signals and signals that are important are those that are maybe cheap for someone who is being very honest or is in the context to sit to provide what would be expensive for people to lie about.

And in the case of a second-hand car, if you offer a warranty to the person who’s purchasing your car, then that if it’s a good car and you have confidence in it, then that’s relatively cheap for you to offer. But if you know it’s a lemon, then it’s quite expensive for you to offer and therefore that would be seen as a very good or strong signal. So, we look for these signals in particularly in situations where there’s what we call the information asymmetry and we make our judgments based on those signals that would be expensive for someone to say.

And if it’s false, but not very expensive, if it’s true. And we decided to then look at that from the perspective of safety leadership, because one of the problems that employees have, senior leaders within an organization turn up and say safety is our number one priority. Safety is really important to us. We want you to do all these things. And then as an employee, well, they don’t know whether that signal is true or not.

So, we tend to have senior managers turning up and saying, I don’t care about safety. All right. So, in general, then it becomes quite difficult for us, for frontline member of staff to make that judgment as to how do I decide whether or not this leader is credible or not. Given that I can’t read that person’s mind, I need to be able to make that judgment based on other information, so what they say is not usually just enough.

So, the study that we that we did was to interview frontline employees and ask them how they made the judgments around their senior leaders’ commitment to safety. So always struck me as odd was that when you go and survey frontline employees, they all have opinions about their leaders, give you commitment to safety. Yet the vast majority, particularly large companies, will never have met the senior CEOs of the organizations where you have ten thousand employees. How many of them realistically would ever met you?

So how could they form these perceptions? So, we were quite curious about that as a phenomenon. And so, we set about doing that a really neat sort of project using signal theory to ask employees how they found those perceptions. And from that, we were able to identify three things that that really employees focus on. What is the status of safety in their environment, which is pretty obvious? So sure, if the safety is how we manage well in the place where they work, they infer well by senior leader doesn’t care about safety.

Right. The behavior of that person’s direct supervisor also is another factor. So, if a supervisor isn’t very good, then they judge the leaders as a reflection of that person. And then and then finally, it was about interactions that had happened between senior leaders and some front-line employees. So those interactions, even though they didn’t interact with them personally, the interactions with other frontline employees actually had a really important role. And that was quite surprising to us. 

And were there any hypotheses as to how many interactions were needed or to permit if there’s a change in leadership to really send a message around that safety leadership commitment?

Yeah, it wasn’t so much necessarily the volume that we were able to sort of pick up on, but that those interactions needed to have sort of an impact in that sort of sense so that, you know, that there was a there was often a really good sort of story. So, in this particular study, you know, we heard over and over again a particular example of the CEO interacting with employees in canteens and giving out his business card.

And if they need to contact him, how to contact him. And, you know, this story was told to us many more times than it was possible for the CEO to assure. OK, so there was it. There is a sort of amplification effect that happens. And if you sort of if you think about it, you know, most of our lives in day-to-day work is pretty dull. And we have colleagues who we talk to, but we tend to talk to them about work or maybe sport or other things.

But often work will take up a main part of that focus. And if you were a frontline member of staff and you’re spending your day and then you’re at lunch and the CEO of your company comes and sits and have lunch with you and talks to you about safety, that that’s a story, right? That’s a story that you’re going to tell not just today, but for quite a number of years in the future, potentially. So that has a huge impact on people’s perception of the commitment to safety.

So, when senior leaders, I think, are going to visit the worksite, they need to talk to as many people as possible because they but also, they need to think about it in terms of, well, what am I being remembered for here? What’s the message that I’m sending to this individual I’m talking to; this one person is representative of a wide number of people who I work with. And how I interact with that person sends a very strong signal about commitment.

So I can say I’m committed to safety, but it’s a much bigger impact if the front line employee is telling other front line employees, hey, I met Bob and, you know, he’s a great guy and he’s actually a regular person, just like you and me. And, you know, the thing we spent most of on talking about was safety. Right. He was entrenched in that. It was interesting in what my concerns were.

He was really focused on that as an issue and he was really knowledgeable about it. And I think while many companies have programs to promote leader worksite visits and, you know, most high hazard safety critical industries will have some form of program. You know, when I look at those programs, if I was a CEO, I would be annoyed. Right. I think that we don’t. Cost them in terms of how expensive they are, they are probably the most expensive safety initiative that most companies have.

If you cost in terms of the opportunity lost and the cost of a senior executive’s time to travel around work sites now, I think it’s very valuable there. I just sometimes feel the programs don’t put enough value on them. Interesting. And I think that if I was a senior leader and when I provide input to organizations and design of these programs, there needs to be a lot more effort put in place to ensure that those worksite visits have a maximal impact and set certainly Europe for success.

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense in how. What are some of the variables that do you think bring the most value when you’re trying to set up a program or visit that has an impact is in some cases is even a need to balance competing messages around. We got to get this shipment out the door, some productivity pressure. And the flip side, this element around safety is our number one priority.

I think in general, companies have done a better job in recent history of training the safety leaders to be able to have those conversations because it’s not something that people, all people don’t actually good at. So, I think there have been some programs in that space that have been helpful. But I think assuming that they’ve got some input on that, then it becomes prepping the senior leader for the meeting so that when they turn up at the site, they know about this site.

They know things like what have been the recent accident rates, what have been there and the high-profile events that have happened. What are the safety challenges that are experienced here? Also, are there individuals who recently made a contribution and made a good safety suggestion or as a good catch that should be recognized? Right. So, they should be should be sort of familiar and ready for that meeting in the same way that they would be prepped for a business meeting.

They need to see this as these from my staff or their customers. And there are people who they’re trying to influence. Right. So, they should come with that as a have information. And most of the companies will have some app-based process to facilitate these visits. And local safety staff could easily provide that information, background information for the leaders that they turn up and seem knowledgeable to the staff when they talk to them. They know about what’s going on in their workplace, that they can talk about it.

So, they should be prepped. They all should see the orientation as two parts. One part is I’m going there to meet with people to demonstrate to those people that I am concerned about safety. And it’s for me, OK. And when I meet with them, I’m going to talk to them about it. So, I’m going to ask them questions about how they’re finding things, what’s happening, what the challenges are. They are not going there as a safety auditor and with a checklist and find things that are problem or how that stuff is super unhelpful.

Yet you’d be surprised at how many leaders are set up in that sort of context where they really know what they should be doing, particularly if you’re you know if you’re a VP of finance. Right. And you’re turning up at, you know, a pipeline installation project. Well, what do you know about it? Right. Very. So, in those contexts, you can you need to set that someone should be responsible for setting that person up for success and providing some guidance.

So, if you’re very unfamiliar with workplace hazards, you need to have someone who’s going to be your buddy, who’s going to take ideally frontline member of staff, maybe at Occupational Health or Safety Committee member who’s going to look out for you, make sure that you’re not going to get injured or hurt, but also be able to provide you with some interaction and some chat. And your role is to be there to talk to people and understand what’s going on.

And then you have a secondary role, which is to be able to step back and say, how are things functioning as an external leader here? What’s the relationship going on here? What’s the culture in this environment? Because they write you as an external person to that work. So, we’re talking about larger organizations. You can get a really good feeling for what’s the relationship between employees and managers, and is that a concern for me? So, there’s a communication piece, but there’s also a data collection piece that that leader is doing to say, you know, how are we working here as an organization?

Do I have any concerns about the operation here? How are they managing those conflicts between production and safety which are going to exist? So, it’s not to say they don’t exist, it’s just how we manage them that’s important. And one of the key priorities I’m taking away from this is to go back and share my colleagues. So, I think that it’s viewing it in a slightly different way. But more importantly, I think organizations should be valuing that activity much more than they often do.

And they should be putting much. More resourcing to make making sure that that that’s valuable piece of time, right? If you see that manager, senior manager, worksite visit as a piece of gold, how are you going to maximize the impact of that goal? Sure. Just saying, oh, well, we do a worksite visit program and they have to do so many years, let them off and do it. And they’re rubbish at it, but I suppose they have to do it.

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So, in your used car example that you had shared, is there something as well that the leaders can leverage a bit as a proof point, a bit like your scenario about a warranty, something that demonstrates that this is a genuine commitment to it? Because everybody, as you said, says I’m committed to safety, that I’ve talked to front line workers, and it’s the same thing. Some bite and some don’t, depending on how that person shows up.

So, I mean, I think there’s a couple of different sorts of layers to it. I mean, I think it’s very difficult to believe a leader that safety is number one when there’s no evidence of it. So, fixing things and getting things resolved I think is important. I think also being sort of somewhat realistic about what’s going to happen. So sometimes, I think organizations have talked themselves into a difficult sort of corner when they say safety is our number one priority, which is not exactly true.

Right. And it’s not that that I think everybody that all the senior leaders I’ve worked with, they absolutely do not want anyone to be killed or sure. For right. That caused that question. And I think that’s what we would say is a core value that we want to do the work that we do when we want to do it as safely as we can. Right. But sometimes the message that’s heard of which is safety is our top priority or our number one priority, is that, you know, it doesn’t matter what safety, what it costs, we’re going to have to do it.

And there can be no compromise that we call a zero-risk approach, which is not financially sustainable, not a wise approach. So, because really in that if you take it along that road, really the solution is just to shut the business and there will be no risk. So, there is a risk. We need to manage that risk. And our commitment is to manage that as effectively as we can. But sometimes that sort of message, simply simple messages that, you know, after people come out with causes, then this sort of conflict whereby an employee comes up with an issue and they only sort of solution that they’re sort of expecting as safety is the number one priority is, you know, this thing gets done or doesn’t get done, that we don’t do this work anymore.

And, you know, I think that’s a challenge whereby you have to be able to navigate that sort of conversation. So, you meet with employee and say you have this safety concern, OK, you’re going to ask them what you think the solution is. OK, that seems reasonable or doesn’t. OK, well, here’s how I want you employee to solve this problem. And if you go through those steps and it doesn’t work, then come back to me.

So rather than taking it away, I say I’m going to fix that for you. It’s saying, OK, well, that’s really interesting. Here’s my understanding of how the process works. Have you done all those things? And if they say, yes, I’ve talked to this person, this person, this one. OK, well, and again, that comes back to being prepped. You need to know what the process is. But then if they say, well, you know, well, they’re never going to do it, won’t you say, well, you do those things and then if there’s a problem and then come back to me.

So, you need they need to take some ownership for it. And then also if there has been a situation and you said, OK, well, OK, I’ll look into that, I’ll get back to you then, then you need to be able to do that to say, OK, I’m going to look into what you said to me, you’re going to do that and then you’re going to get back to that. Right. Or get someone else to get back to you.

Right. So, I think that’s the way to demonstrate that you’re setting that clear signal is to have what we call a do say ratio as close as one as you can, as you can have it as possible. Right. Where you if you say you’re going to do something, then you need to do it right. And it could be super tempting for a leader when they’re in that environment talking to that. Oh, I’ll fix that.

We probably know they can. So, they need to be able to be willing to say this is what I can do. Right. These are the limits of it and this is what I can. So, we don’t want to jump over existing processes or you don’t want to fob them off either. So, it would be clear about that. If I’m going to say I’m going to do something, I’m going to have to do it. So have a say do ratio of one.

And then the other tip I give to senior leaders is to use your ears and your mouth in the same ratio where you twice as much as you’re told.

Right. And I love that element also of the point you made around not taking away all the problems away but also helping people solve their own issues because then it becomes more sustainable versus, I show up parachute into a location, then walk away solving everything. It’s not a sustainable solution either. No. You know, and so one of the themes that I often hear is, is this the sense of organizational memory lasting a very long time. I’ve been in some workplaces where people recount, oh, somebody got fired because they made a mistake.

And when you. Try to track down when the last event took place, in some cases, it’s twenty, twenty-five years ago, many CEOs prior and no one at that site was even present. What advice would you give to a leader where there’s an element of, I need to rebuild or shift the trust that’s built-in leadership because maybe 10, 15, 20 years ago, the CEO had a very different stance on safety.

Yeah, so again, the thing about sort of culture and about sort of safety is that it’s really held in the stories that we tell and stories fulfill lots of different roles, particularly in terms of, you know, persuasion and being able to sort of make some sort of point. And so, the problem with old stories and that continue to be told often, they’re not really necessarily true. So, one of the strategies is, is to try and create new stories, will replace the old ones by having some new ones.

Right. And being able to sort of address them that way and having some sort of also having sort of patience that it will take time for the news stories to replace the old ones and being willing to address them. In some ways, I think companies make mistakes by not directly addressing the sort of the past like to say, hey, that never happened. Right. Or it was slightly different. And sometimes the some of the sort of technical details of the story are incorrect.

And people sort of focus on that rather than just saying, well, what’s going on here? Sure. Why are people saying that story and telling that story? Because they’re not really sure. Should they believe you? Right. Right. And, you know, based on past history, maybe they’re right. So, I think it. What of what? Leaders who’ve done a good job in this space is that they have directly addressed the past and said, yeah, what we did was wrong.

It wasn’t me, but it was people like me. And I accept that it’s going to take a while before you’re going to believe me. But again, let’s be clear. Here’s my commitment. Judge me on my actions and let’s hear those stories and say we’re not going to hear them again. That’s true. Those people were what would it take for me to for you to be convinced that I’m serious this time? So often, you know, leaders seem to want to have all the answers or the senior leadership rather than saying, well, actually, what you’re trying to do is persuade someone of those things are changing and moving forward.

And one of the best ways to persuade them is to ask them what would convince you. Right. And then once you’ve done that, then there’s a much more likelihood that they’re going to believe you. Right. So, they may dream up something, anything less. But you go with that. OK, let’s be sure and let’s work in that sort of process. But let’s keep the focus on it. Right. Right. And also, at the same time, think of, well, what are the new stories we’re going to be able to tell?

And an organization that I worked with a number of years ago, they were designing a new truck for their maintenance staff. And this was an important piece of equipment. It was basically your office. And, you know, the one of the senior leaders in the organization when I was meeting with people, you know, everyone in the central office was super excited about this. They purchased a new series of trucks for a number of years and so went and that’s part of the works I visit.

This city was talking to some staff and they were like, yeah, but that that is just rubbish. We’re getting these new trucks, but they’re just not fit for purpose. This is wrong and that is wrong. The order had already been made, Colonel. So, this was like, oh, no, what we’re going to do. So, the senior leader, because this was an organization where there was not a lot of trust, they cancel the order, calls the order and said, look, we’re not doing this until you guys are happy.

Right. So, we’re going to sit down and we’re going to redesign this process. We’re going to get your input. It should have been done before, but it wasn’t done properly. And you are going this is your office. This is where you work every day. And we’re going to have these four for twenty years. So, let’s see if we can get it right. And, you know, they made changes. They redesigned it.

They tendered you know; they were able to make that process work. And it was one big step to making that sort of change within the organization. And it became a story of the new culture that was it was going to be in this organization. Yeah, we have all our old stories for now, the new one where you need to listen to us to expression. And every time someone got in that new truck, they could say, I designed that truck and story now live.

So, sometimes it does take a bit of cost. And obviously the horrible idea to save people is the back-end cost of that and just flushed down the toilet. But they were able to send a very strong signal and they took the opportunity. So, if you get the opportunity to send a strong signal, take it right. You, my advice?

Yeah, I think that’s a very good example of sending a very strong signal. And there are always opportunities. It’s really a finding, finding them, cultivating them and then making sure you share those stories. So, love your examples around it. I think it’s a really important topic that a lot of executives. I struggle with is really how do I have the greatest impact? How do I send those messages in an hour of my commitment across the organization?

Probably an entirely different topic. And I don’t want to start at all here and not end it. But very briefly, tied to this topic we just talked about a site visit. How does a leader know? How does an executive know how safe their businesses? Because a lot of lagging indicators are horrible indicators of that sense of safety.

Yeah, yeah. And again, I think this actually does sort of tie with the sort of sending the signal is that, you know, leaders, I think, need the better services from their safety professionals. And I say this about, you know, at the moment they’ve sort of, you know, convinced leaders that the way that they should know that they’re safe is that they have low interest rates and that I don’t believe that was ever true. But I think most people now accept that it’s not true.

And the problem is we haven’t spent the time building those indicators within organizations. And I think what senior leaders should be doing is asking their safety specialist to say, tell me how you how we know how safe we are. Sure. And if they say it’s not a major risk, the answer is that’s wrong. And that tells you how unsafe you are in one particular way in the past. It doesn’t tell you anything about how safe you are.

Correct about the types of things that are there now. So, let’s be clear that most organizations do not have good measures, just not present. Now, some organizations, I think, are starting to build this data and they’re using it through what I would call micro audits. Right where they do these frequent site-based observations to specific high hazard tasks, not just every sort of single safety thing we do, but here is a high potential activity that could result in a fatality or major event.

OK, let’s go and have a plan where over our organization. We’re going to audit this a number of times and we’re going to not just look at the extent to which we followed all the procedures that we were supposed to follow. But also, did the people performing the task understand those things and how they deal with offsets that may have happened in terms of the planning and execution of that activity? So, what you’re trying to look at are the controls that we believe are in place, in place and to what degree are they right?

And if you can 100 percent all the time, you and I think you’d probably be suspicious of that working well. But it should give you an indication, because that’s really what we’re trying to show when we talk about how safe we are. What we really mean is to what extent are the controls that are in place and are they working as intended, the one that tells us how safe we are. So that would be the expectation. Some organizations, I believe, are building this, although we don’t have good data, but that as a methodology, I think is very doable, although it is it does take resources, and organizations would have to start small with one particular event and then move forward.

But I think all of the other stuff which is leading, lagging, all of that is failure based. And it provides very little reliable insight from what I could be able to see into how an organization could understand how safe they are. But I would start if I was a senior leader in a safety critical business of asking my safety specialist, my most senior safety person, how do we know how safe we are and not be happy or satisfied with the answer.

We have industry lost-time injury rates. Right. That’s not the answer. But that will be a warning sign for me.

Right. And I would propose that some of the listening tours that you talked about before were the executives are at the front line interacting. Also give you a bit of a pulse as to what’s the environment and what’s the risk that we’re playing with here and how aware people of are of those risks and how well controls are in place and how well people understand them and that sort of interaction. But I think to be able to get a sort of systematic practice that that would be would rival what we currently have in terms of injury rates, I think is that is a little bit, you know, for than most organizations.

And presently, what organizations are trying to do is, well, based on what information we currently have, what does it tell us? And that’s not a bad approach. But the problem is we don’t we’re not asking the right questions currently. So, we need to collect new data. And if we look at other parts of our business when played, when we’ve needed new data, we come up with new collection methods. So, it is possible. It’s just not straightforward.

You wouldn’t report. To Wall Street or to the city and say, I don’t have this type of financial information exactly. Or, you know, a company currently, if we use that sort of corporate perspective on safety, all we’re saying often is, you know, if our, if our reports from a conglomerate was none of our businesses, lost money last year, I don’t think as an investor, I’d be too convinced by that. Right. Yeah, that’s often what the safety report to senior leaders is. None of our employees got injured last year. OK, well, that’s good, right?

I mean, it’s like we’re suggesting we should be losing money, right? Does it mean we’re going to be successful in the current? No, doesn’t mean that. All right. Sort of good. But I wouldn’t give me any confidence.

Yeah, absolutely. Well, Mark, thank you so much for joining me today. I think you’ve provided some really amazing insights, really, in terms of how leaders can show up, how executives can show up and show the commitment to safety, how they can start changing the story, the narrative within the business around commitment to safety as such a powerful and important topic and really appreciate all your work and research in this space.

Great, but thanks for the opportunity to have a chat and to be part of this excellent.

Thank you. 

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Dr. Fleming is a Professor in the department of psychology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax Nova Scotia. He has just completed a five year term as the CN professor of Safety Culture. Dr. Fleming is an applied psychologist with over 25 years of experience in industrial health and safety management in high hazard industries including the offshore oil and gas, nuclear power, petrochemical, power generation and construction. He is dedicated to developing practical and valid tools to assist organizations to prevent harm. He holds degrees from the University of Aberdeen, and The Robert Gordon University in Scotland.