Aviation Safety Leadership Is NOT Safety Management
Aviation safety managers and departments heads are tasked with delivering aviation safety management AND safety leadership capabilities.
“Leadership” and “management” are often used interchangeably both in speech and action, but contrary to common practice they are NOT the same thing.
A vanilla definition of aviation safety management is that it is the oversight of how risk is bureaucratically processed in safety management systems (SMS). Of course, involved in this management process are many actions, such as championing for great aviation SMS reporting tools, risk management tools, and creating documentable safety assurance and promotion practices.
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In so many ways, aviation safety management is the quantitative risk management efforts for enhancing the aviation safety management system.
But aviation safety leadership is focused on driving quality interactions within the system, such as:
- Setting the example of a good safety mindset and actions;
- Encouraging good relations between management and employees;
- Inspiring certain types of behaviors; and
- Setting clear expectations about acceptable/unacceptable actions.
While the above examples do sound like something you might read in a generic leadership handbook, the basic point is this: safety leadership boils down to qualitative efforts for creating a great, safe place to work. It’s just as important as safety management.
1 – Encourages Safety Accountability and Responsibility in Employees
Healthy aviation safety cultures universally are maintained by employees who have a sense of responsibility for:
- Their personal safety in the program;
- The consequences of their safety actions for others; and
- Being assertive to take action when things don’t seem right.
In aviation SMS, cultivating safety responsibility will come as a direct result of personal interactions between senior management, safety managers and employees. When accountable executives promote non-punitive reporting policies, and more importantly actually behave with non-punitive actions, organizations mitigate employees' fears of making a mistake.
The fear of retribution from making mistakes is a primary reason why employees don’t speak up or take necessary actions to mitigate a perceived threat.
Four effective practices for safety managers to encourage safety accountability in employees through non-punitive safety culture are:
- Highlighting mistakes without blame by focusing on learning;
- Having a zero tolerance policy towards intimidating behaviors;
- Regularly recognizing good safety actions, such as in a safety newsletter; and
- Aggressive efforts to involve employees in the SMS' process of change.
Point number four is especially important, as it is human nature to have a greater sense of responsibility for things we have “created," or that in which we have a personal "ownership stake."
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2 – Understands That Risk Management Hinges on the Weakest Link
It’s critical for a leader to understand that an aviation SMS is only as strong as its weakest link.
By “weakest” I mean to say someone who is most likely:
- Resistant to the aviation SMS; or
- Has poor safety habits.
One catastrophic mistake can result in serious consequences, even in adaptable, resilient aviation SMS. Weak links are safety risk and hazards in and of themselves.
However, one of the qualities of adaptable aviation SMS is robust teamwork and strong relationships. In such environments, such “weak links” are scarce. Moreover, we all have various faults (or weak links) in our safety attitude, behaviors, or experience, and part of having a diverse, tight-knit team is balancing such faults.
Understanding where weak links exist – whether it be an employee or the strengths and weaknesses of all employees – should be a major concern of every safety manager. The great relationships that mitigate weak links are a direct result of strong leadership. Safety managers should put extra focus on engaging employees/behaviors that are holding back the risk management efforts.
3 – Strives to Create a Healthy Psychosocial Work Environment
Creating a healthy work environment is probably the main difference between a "safety management" and a "safety leader" in aviation SMS. But too often the M.O. of management is that “I’m the leader because I’m in charge.”
Management is a necessary, rule-based, bureaucratic entity in a system. And as important as management is in SMS, it primarily addresses physical safety. Mental and emotional safety in any system is achieved through management leadership.
Remember that in aviation SMS, leadership isn’t a right, it is earned. What aviation SMS need for a healthy work environment is management that is willing to do what it takes to “earn” their position as leaders. Some examples are:
- Zero tolerance for intimidating behaviors;
- Strong and regular informal interactions between employees and management – i.e. management that is friendly and inviting;
- Management that listens to and respects the opinions of employees;
- Non-punitive policies and behaviors; and
- Safety transparency at all levels of the SMS.
The above points aren’t easily achieved. They require constant effort and attention on the part of management to be more than simply “in charge.”
Related Articles on Transparency In Aviation SMS
- Privacy, Transparency, and Confidentiality in Aviation Safety Management
- Why Transparency Promotes Safety Culture in Aviation SMS
- A Key to Transparency in Aviation SMS
Final Thought: The Imperative of More than Prescriptive Aviation SMS
The above 3 points on leadership highlight why prescriptive aviation SMS are a problem. Prescriptive SMS focus exclusively on the bureaucratic side of management’s responsibilities. Their end goal is to merely be operationally compliant.
Of course, compliance is extremely important. But the fact is, safety managers also have a responsibility to be safety leaders and to:
- Set the tone of the SMS;
- Cultivate the psychological and social conditions of the SMS; and
- Demonstrate exemplary safety behavior.
Strong leadership plus compliance are the makings of an adaptable and resilient aviation safety management system.
Successful aviation SMS practice the just culture. Well-drafted non-punitive reporting policies offer employees assurance that your SMS is not a policing tool.
When safety reporting numbers are low, the non-punitive reporting policy is the first item to review. Are you promoting the non-punitive reporting policy? How often? How is the non-punitive reporting policy promoted?
- Safety newsletters?
- Safety surveys?
- Safety banners?
- Regular messages from the accountable executive?
Published May 2016. Last updated March 2019.