Three Models of Safety Leadership

Every day, employees, supervisors and managers have many opportunities to communicate and act in ways that demonstrate safety leadership. Unfortunately, these opportunities often 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 Leadership Models

The way we perceive cultural norms, or “the way things are around here,” partially depends on the leadership styles of the supervisors and managers with whom we work. We may categorize safety leadership styles into three basic approaches: tough-coercive, tough-controlling, and tough-caring. Let’s take a look at each approach.

Tough-Coercive Leadership

When using this approach, managers are tough on employees for selfish reasons: to protect themselves and to avoid OSHA penalties. The leader’s approach to controlling performance relies on the threat of punishment (to hurt). The objective is to achieve compliance to fulfill legal and fiscal imperatives. The organizational culture created is largely top-down, controlling, and fear-driven. Top management is fearful and lacks confidence. Consequently, managers resort to an accountability system that emphasizes the threat of punishment to get things done. Managers say and do things that communicate threatening messages, which creates and reinforces negative relationships. 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 never be truly effective in achieving a world-class quality of safety because employees work (and don’t work) only to avoid punishment. In fact, all employees and managers work to avoid punishment. Bottom-line, the culture is not healthful to employees and is counterproductive to everything the organization is trying to accomplish. The employer may be successful in achieving compliance, but that’s it: You can forget about excellence.

Tough-Controlling Leadership

Managers employing this leadership strategy are tough on employees to protect their job and control losses. They have high standards for behavior and performance, and they control all aspects of work to ensure compliance. They may not communicate threatening messages, but they feel the need, due to a fear of failure, to control some or every aspect of their “subordinate’s'” worklife.

This leadership model most closely exhibits the characteristics of “traditional” management. As employers gain greater understanding, attitudes and strategies to fulfill their legal and fiscal imperatives improve. They become more effective in designing safety management 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 still rely primarily on discipline (negative reinforcement) to influence behavior. Positive reinforcement is given less thought and is considered a secondary strategy to control employees. 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.”

Withholding recognition for good performance is common in cultures in which managers employ tough-controlling leadership styles, 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 other results are not as positive as they might otherwise be. Why? Although excellence is requested, the safety management system is designed to produce compliance behaviors and little more.

Tough-Caring Leadership

As you might guess, tough-caring leadership is the only approach that really works. Managers using this leadership approach are tough on employees because they care about the welfare and success of their employees. They see their “associates” as persons as well as positions. Working relationships are horizontal rather than vertical. Leaders attempt to support their employees rather than control them. This is the only self-less leadership approach. The tough-caring leadership model represents a major shift in leadership and management thinking from the selfish tough-controlling model to the selfless tough-caring approach. The tough-caring approach moves beyond control to support as a strategy. Managers understand that complying with the law, controlling losses, and improving production can best be assured if employees are motivated, safe, and able.

Managers know 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,” performing the role of an internal consultant, may be appointed to help line managers “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 discipline, but only when it’s justified. They understand discipline to be a matter of leadership. Leaders will evaluate the success to which they effectively fulfilled the obligations they have to their employees before they contemplate discipline. If they have failed in meeting employee obligations, they will apologize and correct their own deficiency rather than discipline the employee. If they have met all obligations, they will discipline to help, not hurt, the employee. What are you likely to hear a tough-caring leader say?

  • Positive reinforcement – “If you comply with safety rules, report injuries and hazards, I will personally recognize you.”
  • Positive reinforcement – “I want to encourage you to become an active member of the safety committee.”
  • Positive reinforcement – “If you make suggestions and help make improvements, I will personally recognize and reward you.”

As you can imagine, 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. Now imagine how touch-caring leadership in safety will impact the organization’s productivity and quality!