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It's a Question of Leadership

Every day, employees, supervisors and managers have many opportunities to communicate and act in ways that demonstrate safety leadership. Unfortunately, these opportunities go unanswered because they are not seen as opportunities. Employers and manager do not understand that the simple expression of tough-caring safety leadership can result in enormous benefits. The inability to perceive leadership opportunities as they arise limits the company's potential to succeed.

It's appropriate to assume that employees at all levels of the organization are good people trying to do the best they can with what they've got. The problem is, they don't always have the physical resources and psychosocial support to achieve the kind of results expected of them. Why? Ultimately, the workplace culture may not support effective safety management and leadership.

Three Fundamental Types of Leadership

The Tough-Coercive Leadership Model

In this approach, managers are tough on safety to protect themselves: to avoid being personally punished. The manager's approach to controlling performance may primarily rely on the threat of punishment. The objective is to achieve compliance to fulfill legal or fiscal imperatives. The manger and culture are fear-driven. Because the manager is fearful, he or she projects that fear outward, resorting to coercion and intimidation to get things done. They rely on negative consequences that punish. Here are some examples of what a tough-coercive leader might say:
  • Punishment - "If I go down...I'm taking you all with me!" (I've heard this myself!)
  • Punishment - "If you violate this safety rule, you will be fired."
  • Punishment - "If you report hazards, you will be labeled a complainer."
  • Negative reinforcement - "If you work accident free, you won't be disciplined."

As you might guess, fear-driven cultures, by definition can not be effective in achieving world-class safety because employees work (and don't work) to avoid a negative consequence. Employees AND managers all work to avoid punishment...consequently the motivations driving behaviors are likely to be driven by fear and will be selfish. Bottom-line...the culture is not healthful to employees at all levels of the organization. It may be successful in achieving compliance...but that's it.

The Tough-Controlling Leadership Model

Managers are tough on safety to control losses. They have high standards for behavior and performance, and they control all aspects of work to ensure compliance.

This leadership model is most frequently exhibited in the "traditional" management model. As employers gain greater understanding, attitudes and strategies to fulfill their legal and fiscal imperatives improve. They become more effective in designing safety systems that successfully reduce injuries and illnesses, thereby cutting production costs. Tight control is necessary to achieve numerical goals. Communication is typically top-down and information is used to control. A safety "director" is usually appointed to act as a cop...controlling the safety function.

Tough-controlling leaders move beyond the threat of punishment as the primary strategy to influence behavior. However, they will rely to a somewhat lesser extent on negative reinforcement and punishment to influence behavior. Positive reinforcement may also be as a strategy. Tough-controlling leadership styles may or may not result in a fear-based culture. Examples of what you might hear from a tough-controlling leader include:

  • Negative reinforcement - "If you have an accident, you'll be disciplined."
  • Negative reinforcement - "If you don't have an accident, you won't lose your bonus."
  • Positive reinforcement - "If you comply with safety rules, you will be recognized."

Extinction, or the withholding of positive reinforcement, is common in cultures in which managers employ the tough-controlling leadership style because, once again...the manager is more likely to be concerned with his or her own success than the success of "subordinates". Consequently, production, profitability, morale and all other long term bottom-line results are not as positive as they might otherwise be. Why? Although excellence is requested, the safety system is designed to produce compliance behaviors.

The Tough-Caring Leadership Model

Managers are tough on safety and insist all employees comply with safety policies and rules because they care about the welfare and success of their employees first. This approach to leadership is primarily other-centered and selfless.

The tough-caring leadership model represents a major shift in leadership and management thinking from the selfish tough controlling model. Managers understand that complying with the law, controlling losses, and improving production can best be assured if employees are motivated, safe, and able.

Management understands that they can best fulfill their commitment to external customers by fulfilling their obligation to employees...their internal customers. Communication is typically all-way: information is used to share so that everyone succeeds. A quantum leap in effective safety (and all other functions) occurs when employers adopt a tough-caring approach to leadership. A safety "coordinator" may be appointed to help all corporate functions "do" safety. This results in dramatic positive changes in corporate culture which is success-driven.

Although positive reinforcement is the primary strategy used to influence behaviors, tough-caring managers are not reluctant in administering disciplined when it's justified because they understand it to be a matter of leadership. But, before they discipline, managers will evaluate the fulfillment of their own accountabilities first. If they have failed in that effort, they will apologize and correct their own deficiency rather than discipline. What are you likely to hear from a tough-caring leader?

  • Positive reinforcement - "If you comply with safety rules, report injuries and hazards, I will personally recognize you."
  • Positive reinforcement - "If you get involved in the safety committee, you're more likely to be promoted."
  • Positive reinforcement - "If you suggest and help make improvements, I will personally recognize and reward you."

You can imagine that in a tough-caring safety culture, trust between management and labor is promoted through mutual respect, involvement and ownership in all aspects of workplace safety.

Source: Steven J. Geigle, CSHM

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Copyright ©2000-2019 Geigle Safety Group, Inc. All rights reserved. Federal copyright prohibits unauthorized reproduction by any means without permission. Disclaimer: This material is for training purposes only to inform the reader of occupational safety and health best practices and general compliance requirement and is not a substitute for provisions of the OSH Act of 1970 or any governmental regulatory agency. CertiSafety is a division of Geigle Safety Group, Inc., and is not connected or affiliated with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).