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Leadership in Developing a Culture of Safety First

Karen Passman 140

Part 7: Perspectives on Safety in Yachting
To see the full schedule click here.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a reported 80% of incidents and accidents at sea are caused by human error. The interesting question is why?

Are we putting people in positions of authority without the appropriate training? Are we asking them to make important decisions when they lack the qualifications or experience? Or is the problem more complex than this?

During the 2000/1 BT Global Challenge Round the World Yacht Race, there was only one vessel out of a fleet of 12 whose crew, without exception, wore their lifejackets at all times. Only one boat followed a simple rule of basic deck safety, day and night, rain or shine. That yacht was BP Explorer. The other vessels certainly had similar rules, but from time to time they were broken, by crew and skippers alike. 

No one suffered any consequences from this simple lapse of judgement, and therefore it went practically unnoticed. However it leads us to ask a more fundamental question about leadership. How do those in positions of authority shape the culture of a vessel with their leadership style? And how do they influence crew behaviour with regard to safety? 

The truth is that no matter how much training is conducted, no matter how many skills are tested or drills executed, simply knowing what to do does not translate into actually doing it. Crew regularly take risks on board - for the thrill, to save time, or simply because they’ve always done it that way. Short cuts, whether slight or serious, exist in every field. However, what we do and how we behave is much more about human nature than knowledge. 

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Examples of this can be found from the junior level all the way up to captains and management. Everyone has had a boss who preaches to “do as I say and not as I do”. The problem with this rather old fashioned philosophy, specifically in the yachting industry, is that the notion trickles down through the hierarchy, from the captain to the officers, then the chief stewardess. The result can be a very dangerous place to work. 

Knowing v Doing

Once this culture of short cuts and risk taking sets in, those who resist it run the risk of being replaced for making too much noise. I spoke to one chief officer who was fired by his captain because he stood down the tender crew on a moonless night, believing it was too risky and unsafe for them to navigate three miles of unlit buoyage to shore. I know of numerous captains who have been fired for insubordination when in their eyes they were simply following regulations and looking out for the safety of their guests and crew. 

In a recent crew turnover survey over 20% of yacht crew reported the existence of bullying on their vessel. Amongst other factors, this can result in high crew turnover which is prevalent in the industry, and it's often an indication of poor leadership.

Crew placement agents will tell you that one of the main concerns of crew when deciding whether or not to take a job is stability onboard so a yacht with a reputation for keeping long term crew is more desirable than one with high salaries or a glamorous itinerary. When your chief stewardess burns through 18 junior stewardesses in a 24 month period, it is tempting to conclude that there are no good people out there. Perhaps the real problem lies in the leadership.

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The same survey revealed that 64% of junior crew left their last position as a direct result of the leadership they experienced. According to Michael Schofield, research conducted in the UK and USA suggests there are 10 indicators of poor leadership, which in turn will lead to a breakdown in relationships resulting in people leaving their jobs. 
Not surprisingly, all of them can be found in yachting:

  • Not listening:not making the time, interrupting, or multi-tasking - taking calls or checking emails at the same time

  • Micro-managing: double checking work and de-valuing the individual’s competence

  • Focussing on the task:being treated like a number rather than a human being

  • Not enforcing standards:some people “get away with it” while others don’t and a general lack of fairness

  • Not managing expectations:unclear of what is expected of you and the standards

  • Lack of feedback: without it how are individuals able to perform and develop

  • Communicating on a need to know basis:believing that “knowledge is power” leading to frustration and disengagement

  • Making decisions in isolation: not involving the team in the decision-making process

  • Passing the buck:taking credit for successes, yet blaming others for failures

  • Lack of humour:taking self too seriously

Unfortunately for the industry, it seems that many crew members in senior roles vastly underestimate the importance of the leadership aspect of their jobs. As one captain told us, “Driving a boat is one thing but leading, managing and motivating crew is completely different. Being a leader is a complex role which requires handling various managerial tasks as well as personnel.”

Returning to the issue of safety onboard, many yachts conduct regular safety meetings to identify safety issues. How effective these are will depend on the culture aboard and the style and openness of the leadership. And there are many different styles, both positive and negative. There is no simple answer or obvious course of action to appeal to every question or circumstance. However most can agree that there are certain behaviours that are almost always asking for trouble.

Crew circle

Leading the Next Generation

There is the classic Authoritarian leader, preaching “my way or the highway,” generally confusing leadership with power. We all know that simply telling crew what to do will not necessarily result in the right actions. Crew may comply to the safety rules while the leader is present, but what happens when they are not on hand? What we often see, particularly with newly promoted leaders, is overly strong-handed behaviour in order to prove themselves in the beginning. Shortly after they become distant, authoritative, and micromanaging. The result is an absence of trust and an eventual lack of respect.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Absent leader, such as the skipper who takes to his bunk in bad weather or the captain who is rarely seen. Delegative or Laissez Faire leadership like this might seem refreshing to crew in the beginning but quickly wears off when it becomes clear that there are no standards, respect, or examples to follow.

Generally the leader most preferred by crew can be described as Participative – typically someone who is a good listener, shares decision making, and develops and motivates crew. This style of leadership is not traditional in the maritime world, but increasingly it is demanded by the new generation of millennials who are taking over.

Obviously a vessel cannot be run as a democracy, but the traditional maritime control and command style of leadership is not proving effective. L. David Marquet, author of Turn the Ship Around! and a submarine Captain in the US Navy, changed his leadership style from authoritarian to participative after  observing how his crew blindly followed impossible commands. Although retaining final authority over decisions, he was able to engage his crew in decision making, thus empowering them and building trust and motivation.

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The reality is that all three styles of leadership are appropriate at different times, and effective leaders move from one style to another, becoming authoritarian during an emergency and letting crew get on with things when they are competent and confident to perform their tasks.

The 2015 Harvard Business Review said that “Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership.” Authentic leadership is built on character rather than style, and the old adage “fake it till you make it” no longer applies. Authentic leaders are typically self-aware and genuine, lead with the heart as well as the mind, hold solid values, build meaningful relationships, and have clarity of purpose.

Developing an Effective Safety Culture Onboard

As a minimum, every crew member should have the right to work in a safe environment and feel comfortable to refuse a dangerous order without fear of retribution. When it’s not possible to raise an issue directly, and we know this can be the case, crew should be aware that they can report unsafe practices via CHIRP Maritime’s confidential incident reporting which can be accessed online.

To achieve a culture of continuous improvement and safety focus, it is important that a crew’s performance, both good and bad, is rigorously reviewed by the crew and not only the leaders. We learn from successes and not just failures. Positive behaviour should be rewarded to ensure that it is repeated, as well as preventing mistakes from reoccurring. By involving the crew in the process, they become engaged and motivated. 

In addition to developing crew individually, it is important to create a culture of team work and mutual respect, where crew support each other. In this environment, speaking up is positively encouraged and appreciated, and there is no place for egos. 

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Improving crew retention is the result of managing the expectations and reasons crew leave as well as an honest examination of the leadership styles on board. Currently HELM (Human Element Leadership & Management) is the only mandatory course that supports the development of leadership skills, and often it’s the only leadership course that senior crew attend - a far cry from the amount of time and money shore based industries typically invest in such training.

And of course we must consider how to recruit the right people in the first place. It is crucial to engage in more robust processes which consider factors such as personality and not just qualifications and experience. In order to do this we may also need to challenge some of the current recruitment remuneration practices. 

Leadership remains at the forefront of a safety focussed culture on board. Becoming the best leader you can be requires self-awareness, dedication, and the humility to keep learning and developing yourself. The practice of obtaining 360° feedback will provide useful insight but to really excel as a leader, captains and senior crew need to keep developing and adopting the habits of great leaders.

In the words of John Donahoe, “Leadership is a journey, not a destination. It is a marathon, not a sprint. It is a process, not an outcome.”

About the Author

Karen has extensive experience developing managers, leaders and teams across a wide range of industry sectors. She delivers highly participative events as well as individual coaching giving you the practical tools to excel in the workplace. Karen launched Impact Crew in 2007 to provide high quality leadership development for the maritime industry and regularly delivers the MCA HELM (human element, leadership and management) operational and management courses, as well as PYA accredited training courses.

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