When organisational health and safety performance begins to stall, Occupational Psychologist Jennifer Webster suggests it might be time to reassess your leadership style.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not aware of too many people in authority who would ask themselves, ‘what sort of leader am I?’
Let’s face it; the majority of people in senior positions seem to be hired on the basis of their past successes. The results they’ve achieved speak for themselves so we automatically assume that they must have the right stuff, right?
Well… it depends.
Imagine the frustration of an organisation’s senior managers, who – despite having an apparently sound health and safety strategy – are still unable to prevent employees from having accidents or near-misses. Health and safety performance has hit a plateau and suddenly questions are being asked.
Chances are the senior managers will collectively scratch their heads and wonder why their strategy isn’t working this time around. Some businesses – especially those wedded to ‘zero-harm’ principles – will not want to hear the old maxim that ‘to err is human’ trotted out as an excuse. Nor are the senior managers likely to navel-gaze at this point to consider whether, perhaps, the problem might be down to limitations of their own leadership. No – instead, they’ll look for other ways to get ‘them’ (the employees) to do the right thing, without realising that what ‘them’ actually need is the right sort of leadership.
The thing is, none of us work in total isolation. Even the lone shepherd has to come down from the mountain every so often to go to market. Good leadership is less about the ‘I’ and more about the ‘we.’
The right kind of health and safety leadership can reduce the probability of accidents occurring and encourage the workforce to report ‘near-misses’ which enable lessons to be learnt. Leadership is all about the quality of our interaction with the workforce, our peers and supervisors, as well as our interaction with the working environment and the organisational culture we find ourselves in.
Health and safety leaders who display a mix of both transactional and transformational leadership styles tend to be more successful at gaining the commitment and compliance of their workforce with health and safety. Transactional leaders set clear goals for their followers and encourage compliance with these goals through the use of punishments and rewards. Transformational leaders lead by example, and are committed to streamlining or changing processes that do not work.
Far from being counterproductive, actively questioning your own leadership style can provide beneficial insights and positive changes in behaviour that can influence others.
So here are a few questions to get you thinking about your own leadership style:
- When was the last time you asked one of your reportees how they were getting on?
- When was the last time you tried to prevent a problem before it happened?
- When was the last time you told someone that you did not have time to listen to them and did not give them a time when they could?
- When was the last time you allowed someone else to come up with a solution to a problem without pushing your own ideas forward?
- When was the last time you set clear boundaries and expectations so people knew what you wanted from them?
When it comes to improving health and safety performance in the workplace, maybe it’s about time that a few more of us asked ‘what sort of leader am I?’
 Clarke, S. (2013) Safety leadership: A meta-analytical review of transformational and transactional leadership styles as antecedents of safety behaviours. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. 86, 22-49. DOI:10.11.11/j.2044-8325.2012.02064.x
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