442277 The Safety Leadership Paradox

Monday, April 11, 2016: 1:30 PM
360 (George R. Brown )
Charles Cowley, CCPS, London, United Kingdom


Commentators on industrial disasters have repeatedly criticised leaders for tolerating or even creating the organisational conditions that led to those disasters (Reason, 1997)(Flin, 2003)(Hopkins, 2006)(Hackitt, 2012)(Moure-Eraso, 2015). However, there is no common understanding of how leadership influences the level of reliability and safety of organisations that operate with high hazard technology. The lack of consensus also extends beyond leadership to the wider theories of organizing.

This paper argues that the inability to manage the tensions between prevailing paradigms of organization and leadership is a major contributory cause of organizational accidents. A paradox of organizational form occurs in balancing the need for operational discipline and hierarchy implicit in ‘system safety’ theory (Leveson et al., 2009) with the need for mindful sense-making and competent improvisation of the ‘High Reliability Organizing’ (‘HRO’) paradigm (Weick, 1987) that demands a shift to a more organic form. In parallel, a second paradox also exists between the current dominant leadership paradigm of leader-centric ‘command and control’, rooted in leader-follower and contingency theories, and the shift to a new ‘enabling’ paradigm of leadership as a relational phenomenon, socially-constructed within context, enabling adaptive processes and emergence of change.

The traditional paradigm of organizational reliability and safety is based on systems, procedures, operational discipline and rule-following, exemplified by the ‘system safety’ school of thought  coupled with the current dominant leadership paradigm of ‘command and control’ that focuses on the characteristics and behaviours of leaders, particularly top leaders, exercising formal authority and supervision within hierarchies, and of followers complying with instructions.

This paper challenges these traditional paradigms, proposing that what goes on in organizations that successfully manage high hazard technology on a continuous basis is significantly more complex than the implicit assumptions of these paradigms suggest, in that emergent adaptive processes are at work throughout the organization, including the operational ‘sharp end’, continually identifying and overcoming system weaknesses and human errors before they can lead to disaster, and that this emergent adaptation and sensemaking occurs as a result of flexible organizing and ‘enabling’ leadership (Uhl-Bien and Marion, 2009)

This is not to say that the ‘system safety’ and ‘command and control’ paradigms are wrong, but instead that they are not completely correct. Equipment and systems that are well-designed and constructed, and maintained and operated by competent people using well-developed procedures, are the foundation of reliability and safety of high hazard technology. But analysis of major accidents routinely shows up system weaknesses and errors that could have been identified and corrected but were not, and it is proposed that this can be attributed at least partly to inflexible organisation and a controlling leadership that was taking inadequate account of the operational context and failing to reconcile important paradoxes of control vs adaptation.

This paper argues that a new paradigm of organizing for high reliability and safety is needed that draws on richer theories of both organizing and leadership as processes that enable adaptation appropriate to the context, superimposed on or interwoven with the essential operational discipline of traditional ‘system safety’ and ‘command and control’ theories.

This is the subject of a current research project at Cranfield University School of Management.

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See more of this Session: Committed Culture - Obtaining Operational Discipline
See more of this Group/Topical: Global Congress on Process Safety