Becoming an agent of change

25 July, 2015  |  News

“I want to talk about a very simple theme – that when individuals take responsibility personally, everything changes.

“Let’s be more provocative – if you want a successful organisation, life or marriage, make sure you are always the agent of change.”

With these words keynote speaker Dr John Izzo opened Leadership in Action, the 2015 IOSH Conference at the ExCel Centre in London last month.

Speaking to the more than 800 OHS practitioners who attended the two-day event, Izzo, a corporate leadership advisor who works with some 600 companies worldwide, called on delegates to become change-makers, sharing the story of two Canadian high school students who decided they had to do something when they noticed a new pupil being bullied for wearing a pink shirt.

“That night they got as many pink shirts as possible, and contacted as many of their friends as they could.

“Next morning more than 300 of the 350 kids at that school turned up wearing pink – and now there are Pink Shirt Days in high schools in 21 countries.

“This is what we want in our organisations – for everyone, when they see something wrong, to step up and say ‘What can I do about it?’”

Izzo went on to tell of a 1998 visit to Synovus Financial, a relatively unknown bank from Georgia that had been named by Fortune magazine as one of the best employers in the US. “On every wall there were signs that said: ‘100/0’,” he said. “I discovered that meant 100% responsibility – never say ‘It’s not my job’, or ‘Somebody ought to do something about this’, – and zero excuses for not always giving your absolute best.

“If every person in every organisation did this every time there was a safety issue, we’d all be out of work pretty fast.”

He acknowledged that most workers remained reluctant to speak out about health and safety, however, and said a survey of 1000 people had identified three key reasons for this – they didn’t feel it was their responsibility, they had tried to do so but had got a poor response, or they had seen how others were treated when they did so.

The solution was to create an environment of psychological safety, where people could step up without fear of consequences, he said.

“People will take responsibility when we give them responsibility, and if there is one thing you can do in your organisation to get people to step up, it’s to work with your leaders to create psychological safety.”

To show the importance of such an environment he cited a study by the US hospitals’ regulatory agency which found a single factor that reduced the risk of fatal surgical errors by 70%.

“That factor was when the members of the surgical team were on a first-name basis with each other. Why was that important? Because they felt safe to raise issues, and point out things that might be going wrong.”

The test of an organisation’s maturity was how it responded when someone admited doing something unsafe, he said.

“Boeing is a client of mine and a couple of years ago a guy who was in a hurry broke a safety rule and fell into the cone of a multi-million dollar sophisticated thing that was ready for delivery.

“He knew there was no video camera in the area so he wouldn’t be caught, but he knew he’d done some damage so he went to his boss and admitted what had happened.

“He cost the company a lot of money – there was a lot of rework to be done – but Boeing held him up as a hero because he stepped up and took responsibility.”

Izzo said people often believed that they could not make a difference by stepping up because they were only a single voice, but change always began by disturbing the status quo. “We’ve got to empower the heroes so they can step up, give them a vision that makes it their responsibility, and highlight it when people step up because they’ve made a mistake.”

alert24 27/7/15