In the job of safety management, professionals often find themselves caught in a paradox. Despite being appointed to oversee safety, they lack the authority to enforce it. This dilemma is what we refer to as the “Artificial Authority Trap.” In this blog post, we’ll explore the nuances of this trap and how safety managers can navigate through it to become effective influencers and leaders.

Understanding the Artificial Authority Trap

The Artificial Authority Trap is characterized by a false sense of power when it comes to safety decisions, policies, or practices. Safety managers, despite being tasked with the responsibility of managing safety, often face challenges in gaining the necessary support from the management team and the workforce. Have you ever experienced eyes rolling during a manager’s meeting when you bring up safety issues?

Or perhaps you’ve sent multiple emails without any response, only to be told they weren’t read or seen? These scenarios are indicative of falling into the Artificial Authority Trap.

The Root Cause: Lack of Understanding

The root cause of this trap lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of the safety manager’s role. The higher-ups may recognize the need for safety but lack a comprehensive understanding of the intricacies involved in the job. Safety managers are often appointed because safety has become unmanageable within other departments, leading to a perception that anyone with “safety” in their title can handle it.

However, safety can’t be in charge of safety in the same way a CFO isn’t in charge of purchasing decisions or an HR manager isn’t in charge of employees. Safety managers may guide, coach, and serve as subject matter experts, but they lack the authority to enforce compliance since employees don’t report directly to them.

Common Mistakes Leading to the Artificial Authority Trap

There are several common mistakes that safety managers make, contributing to the Artificial Authority Trap. These include:

1. Lack of Effective Communication:

Communicating in terms of laws, fines, and accidents may alienate others. Safety managers need to speak the language of the business and highlight the benefits of safety for the organization and its employees.

2. Overcomplicating Systems:

Implementing overly controlled systems discourages empowerment and autonomy. Safety programs should encourage participation and engagement rather than stifling decision-making processes.

3. Failure to Align with Business Tasks:

Constantly labeling everything as “safety” separates safety management from other business functions. Safety committees, for instance, should be seen as employee committees addressing various topics, including safety.

4. Focusing Solely on Accidents and Injuries:

When discussing costs, safety managers often focus solely on accidents, injuries, and insurance. However, the impact of safety extends beyond these areas, and highlighting this broader perspective is crucial.

Breaking Free from the Trap

To escape the Artificial Authority Trap, safety managers must first understand their position in the line of power within the organization. Recognizing that they aren’t in the employee’s chain of command is essential. Instead of trying to control, safety managers should focus on influencing others positively.

Moreover, effective communication, understanding accountability, and reframing the perception of the safety manager’s role are critical steps. Safety managers should position themselves as guides and coaches, emphasizing their expertise in safety rather than assuming a role of direct authority.

In conclusion, the Artificial Authority Trap is a challenge many safety managers face, stemming from a lack of understanding and common mistakes. By adopting a coaching approach, improving communication, and aligning safety management with broader business tasks, safety professionals can break free from this trap and become influential leaders in their organizations.

Take Action

Shift from an enforcer to a guide by embracing influence over control. Reframe communication, position yourself as an expert collaborator and continuously adapt your strategies to break free from the artificial authority trap and elevate the impact of your safety programs.

How Safety Managers Fall Into The Artificial Authority Trap
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Safety Brye: [00:00:00] There's a conundrum in safety management. We are hired to manage safety, but we can't be the safety police. They put us in charge of safety, but not the people who actually work within our scope. They judge us by our safety performance. And not all the work that we actually put in on a daily basis. Now, before we can actually fix this problem, we need to name it.

So, today we are talking about the artificial authority trap. Let's get to it. Hey there, safety friends. Welcome to the Safety Geek Podcast. I'm Brye Sargent, CSP, and 20 year Safety Professional. After spending years training safety leaders across the globe for a large corporation and creating safety programs from the ground up over and over again, I am now sharing my processes and strategies with you. At the Safety Geek, you will learn how to manage an

[00:01:00] effective safety program that increases your management support and employee engagement, all the while helping you elevate your position and move up in your career. If you're ready to step into the role of a safety influencer and leader, you're in the right place.

Let's get to it.

So what is the artificial authority trap? So tell me if you can relate to this. Do you bring up an issue during a manager's meeting and then watch everybody's eyes roll as you look down the table? Have you sent three emails in the last week and got no response from anybody? Or you've been told that they didn't read it or they didn't see that email?

And do you keep addressing the same issues over and over again, three or more times? Is more than 20 percent of your time handling minor issues that the

[00:02:00] management team should be able to take care of themselves? And are you given a time limit when you actually want to discuss an issue? Like, hey, yeah, you can bring it up at the meeting, but you got three minutes.

Have you been told that the safety program is not progressing quick enough? Or you're not working fast enough? Or have you been told that? I never see you around asking if you're actually doing your job. Those are all signs of the artificial authority trap. And the way that I define it is this false sense of power when it comes to safety decisions, policies, or practices.

And I say it's a false sense because we think we're in charge, but all those scenarios that I just gave you show that you're not really getting the support for what you're supposed to be doing. And the main

[00:03:00] reason why this happens is because the powers that be, the people that hired us, the people on the management team, they don't fully understand what we do.

They understand that safety is needed and that there are regulations that they have to follow and that there are steps to take to keep people from having injuries, but they don't understand the nuances of how we have to do our job. And they hired you because they know that they needed someone to do it or because safety has gotten out of hand, or maybe HR or maintenance or quality or someone else was doing it, but it just got to be too much.

It got to be too much of their job was being spent on safety. So like, okay, let's hire somebody, but then they don't really understand the job. So they give it to you, and they want you to just take it over. So they hire a safety person, or they promote a safety person, and they just go, Anything that's safety related, give to

[00:04:00] that person. But here's the problem. Safety can't be in charge of safety. Just like how your CFO is not in charge of buying decisions, or the HR manager isn't in charge of employees. Safety can only be the guide or the coach, the support system, or what I like to call the subject matter expert on the side. We can tell them what to do, but we don't have any authority to make anybody do it because they don't report to us.

There's always someone in the line of power that can overrule us, their supervisor or their manager. How can we be in charge of safety? When we can't make sure that policies and procedures and safe work practices are always going to be followed and we also create this problem ourselves through some very common mistakes.

[00:05:00] Trying to get people on our side, we end up speaking in terms of laws and fines and accidents. We send out these long drawn emails that don't match their communication style, and we're not using business language when we're describing and trying to get them on our side. We're talking in terms of safety and not how it benefits them. And we create systems that are too controlled.

So that way it discourages empowerment or basically taking any of the autonomy out of the decision making process. And we lack agreement or understanding of a plan of action and we don't have any clear communication plan on the progress of our activities. And if you're doing these things, it's not your fault. This is how most safety people were trained to

[00:06:00] be safety people. It's how we got started so many people that come to me when I ask about how they learned safety, they were trained by somebody else, or they had to figure it out on their own because the skills of leadership and communication and the psychology of safety and how to actually change behaviors.

Those are typically not taught to safety people until they've been around for 3 or 5 years. Once they've actually gotten most of the low hanging fruit. And now they want to dig deeper and try to get to that zero. That's when they start searching out the unique methods to change behaviors. But if you actually learned it in the beginning, and you started it in the beginning, your job would have been easier.

We are taught to become an expert in safety and to get all of our regulatory programs in place first. Think about it. When you first become a safety person, what's the first thing you do? You make sure that you have your 30 hour

[00:07:00] card. Maybe you work towards your OSHA certification to become a trainer or something like that. That is what most people do. So we're taught to become this expert in safety instead of an expert on the psychology of people and how to get people to actually change their behaviors or their habits. And then we implement these complex project management and accident investigation techniques. How many times have you heard of, like, all the different ways to do an accident investigation and how they have you breaking into, like, a fishbone or like a, a quadrant or anything like that?

We overcomplicate these things and then it makes it even harder for us to build our guide on the side technique and safety culture and safety management is treated separate from other business tasks. We keep calling things by the

[00:08:00] word safety. We call things like, it's a safety meeting, it's a safety committee, it's a safety culture. The moment that you put the word safety in front of it, it's becoming something separate. But this is what we're taught. This is what is out there in most of the literature, is that you have safety trainings. You have safety committees, right? But it's not a safety committee. It's an employee committee

that talks about safety as well as other things. Anyone who's ever been on an effective safety committee knows that it's not just about safety. And another mistake we make is that when we talk about our costs, all we talk about is accidents, injuries, and insurance when we affect so much more of that. So, a lot of the reason why we get stuck in this artificial authority trap is partly because of the management team not understanding our job, but also because of how we talk about our job. So, if you're finding yourself within this trap, if this is resonating with

[00:09:00] you, the first step is to understand where you are in the line of power at your organization so that you can see where you do have power over influence. And I can make you a bet, when I say line of power, I'm also thinking chain of command and I can make you a bet that you are nowhere in an employee's chain of command.

You're just this person on the side. That's like, hi, I'm from safety. I'm here to help. Right? So understand where you are. And if you're not in that line of power, then the only thing you can do is influence. You can't control what someone does. You don't have any authority over that person. And then also you need to understand how accountability works.

And I know that I did a whole episode on accountability, so I will make sure that we link to it in the show notes. And then just start communicating with your team on why your role is more of a coach of the

[00:10:00] coaches role. You are coaching the people who do have authority versus the person in charge of safety. So when somebody starts saying to you, well, you're in charge of safety. You can say, no, I'm the guide about safety. I'm the expert about safety. I'm here to help you with your safety issues. So change your language around it. So that way it's not like you're in charge of safety and instead you're the coach of the coaches.

Now, I hope this gives you a better understanding of why our role in safety management can't be in charge of safety. And that this gets you thinking about how everybody else looks at you within your organization compared to what you can truly make an impact on. And we'll talk more about accountability and all of those things in other episodes, but I really wanted to get this

[00:11:00] artificial authority trap sunk in so that if you find yourself in this trap, you are working your way out of it.

Thank you, my safety friend. I hope that you have an amazing day and I will see you in the next episode. Bye for now.

Highlights From This Episode:

  • The Artificial Authority Trap: Understanding the concept and recognizing its presence in safety management.
  • Challenges Faced by Safety Managers: Exploring the conundrum of being responsible for safety without having direct authority.
  • Root Causes of the Authority Trap: Analyzing why the management team may not fully understand the nuances of the safety manager’s role.
  • Common Mistakes in Safety Management: Examining communication pitfalls, reliance on regulatory expertise, and the implementation of overly controlled systems.
  • Strategies for Escaping the Authority Trap: Providing practical steps and communication strategies for safety professionals to break free from the artificial authority trap.

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN

Take a moment to reflect on your role as a safety manager. How can you shift from being an enforcer to a collaborative guide? Consider implementing communication changes, emphasizing influence, and fostering accountability within your team.

Share your experiences and insights with us, and don’t forget to follow us for more safety accountability insights.

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Hi, I'm Brye (rhymes with sky)!  I am a self-proclaimed safety geek with two decades of general industry safety experience.  Specializing in bringing safety programs to a world-class level and building a safety culture, I have trained and coached many safety managers, just like you, on how to effectively manage workplace safety in the real world.   I would love to help you too.

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