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What does a leader need to focus their time and energy on, to improve their organisation’s safety?

It can be well argued through evidence-based research that a leader plays a critical role in improving an organisation’s safety. While in the field it’s not always clear what attributes and practices a leader must pursue to improve their work team’s safety climate and performance. Just before we launch into the discussion it’s important we define some key terms, if we are going to rely on these to measure effective safety leadership.

The definition for safety climate is based on the work supporting the NOSACQ-50, an innovative diagnostic safety climate tool. The tool has been developed over the past decade and has been successfully deployed across multiple industries and continents. Safety climate is defined, “as a workgroup’s members’ shared perceptions of management and workgroup safety related policies, procedures and practices.” 

The definition for safety performance is drawn from several studies that have looked at a large body of existing safety research. Safety performance is defined as, “an increase in safety participation, compliance and risk mindfulness leading to a reduction in incidents and injuries”.
 
In order for the evidence-based findings to be useful it must provide, in an everyday operational context, practical decision-making guidance for senior through to frontline leaders. In other words, what does an operational leader need to be mindful of, both in their thinking and actions, to concretely improve sustainable safety performance? What does the leader need to commit their time and energy to, in order to change people’s safety behaviours?
 
The leader is faced with a myriad of choices in how they could expend their time to improve safety. Do they work on making sure the safety system, policies and procedures are clearer? Do they put more effort into conducting quality risk assessments? Do they spend more time in the field engaging in behavioural observations? Do they work on their presentation skills in order to improve their safety talks? Do they make sure that their actions line up with just and fair safety principles? Do they get more involved in safety incident investigations? The list of legitimate leader led safety activities is endless.
 
Over the last decade Sharon Clarke a safety researcher from the UK, has wrestled with this question of what a leader needs to focus on to really change peoples’ safety behaviours, leading to an overall improvement in an organisation’s safety performance. In 2013, she published a helpful article in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology titled ‘Safety leadership: A meta-analytic review of transformational and transactional leadership styles as antecedents of safety behaviours’, which shone a bight light on the safety leadership question.
 
In 2011 a comprehensive search of the research literature on safety climate, behaviour, compliance, participation, injuries and leadership was undertaken. A staggering 800 plus papers were found on the topic. A study was included in Sharon Clarke’s meta-analysis if it had relevant measures, data was measured at an individual level and was drawn from an organisation wide sample. 103 studies were found to meet this criterion.
 
The key findings from the meta-analysis provide a helpful roadmap for what a leader needs to do in order to influence people’s safety behaviours, strengthen the safety climate, increase safety participation and compliance and reduce the number of incidents and injuries.
 
The Mindful Safety Leader needs to consider adopting and/or enhancing the following top 5 safety leadership practices:

  1. The effective safety leader needs to go beyond solely relying on transformational leadership practices and actively demonstrate transactional leadership behaviours and traits, and clearly its not an either or option. Transformational leadership is expressed through a relation-oriented approach, where a process of social exchange occurs between leader and follower, building increased trust and liking. In exchange for the leader’s demonstrated concern for safety and well-being, followers show greater safety participation and engage in behaviours that drive improved safety performance. The increased trust encourages employees to go beyond the formal set of expectations and requirements.
  1. Actively pursue four transformational safety leadership practices:
    • Personal Consideration - individuals feel considered and valued through the leader taking a direct interest in the person’s safety needs, concern and development.
    • Inspirational Motivation – the leader sets out an appealing safety vision, which captures peoples’ imagination, optimism and enthusiasm for fulfilling the safety goals set before them.
    • Idealised Influence – the leader instills a sense of confidence through the demonstration of consistent “bar reaching” safety behaviours, which inspires people to follow their example.
    • Intellectual stimulation – the leader engages followers to gain a fresh understanding of safety issues, finding innovative ways to solve problems without embracing risky solutions
  1. Practice active transactional leadership where the principles of High Reliability Organisations are evident, in particular raising awareness of what can go wrong and preventing the failure well before it might occur. The research suggests this is achieved through the proactive monitoring of people’s behaviour and importantly addressing individual and organisation errors before they lead to a problem. The transactional leader effectively defines role and task requirements and utilises transparent contingent reward when expectations are met.
  2. Utilise both transformation and transactional safety leadership to strengthen the work team’s safety climate, which in turns influences people safety perceptions, motivations and behaviours.
  3. Recognise that safety participation and compliance are required to improve an organisation’s safety performance. In order to build safety participation greater focus is given to transformational leadership principles, and likewise to improve safety compliance greater focus is placed on active transactional leadership principles. 

To hear more about how these Top 5 Safety Leadership practices can be developed and the empirical evidence that supports this approach then please join the upcoming Mindful Safety Leadership Webinar.
 
Invitation to Mindful Safety Leadership Webinar
Marc McLaren from Generative HSE is hosting a Mindful Safety Leadership Webinar on Friday 14th November 2014 at 2 pm, daylight saving time. Register now.