Transformational Leadership for Transformational Safety

Developing a transformational style begins with these four dimensions: influencing, inspiring, engaging, and challenging.

A few years ago, a new manager was appointed to oversee the refinery of a multinational petroleum company. In an earlier life, "Joe" had been a behavioral safety observer who recognized the benefits of having an employee-driven initiative to enhance other safety mechanisms. His reports, for the most part, were not convinced. Joe's values were such that he believed everybody to be capable of contributing to the organization beyond their stated roles. Rather than force his beliefs on his subordinates, he used the elements we associate with transformational leadership to get them on board: As a charismatic individual, he naturally influenced them. He had a vision for safety that he communicated broadly. Rather than seem an authoritative figure, Joe coached, taught, and mentored his staff, always modeling the behaviors he valued. He also engaged his subordinates in discussions, inviting them to think outside the box they had previously been comfortable in. The result? For the first time in its history, the site achieved more than 4 million hours without a lost-time incident. Interestingly, Joe didn't take credit for it. He said his team did it.

Just as emerging research shows leadership is critical to safety improvement, it is also showing the quality of that leadership, not simply a strong command-and-control style, is predictive of the best outcomes. Successful safety leaders are not only effective at setting goals and allocating appropriate resources; they also are adept at capturing the imagination and energy of the employees they oversee. While there is a wealth of material defining the theory and philosophy behind this style of leadership, motivated safety leaders (or leaders who want to influence safety) can start to develop optimal safety performance by following a few essential principles.

What Makes a Leader Great?
Since people first began organizing into groups, there have been leaders. Not too long after, people began to study the elements of great leadership. While most of us will probably not become (or work for) an Alexander the Great, it is likely we have had an experience working with a boss who seemed to draw more out of us than we knew we had or who seemed to see our potential. This type of leader is what the academic James McGregor Burns sought to define in his 1978 seminal work "Leadership." Burns, and others after him, wanted a theory that explained why some good leaders struggled even with their best efforts while others seemed to influence followers beyond mere competence toward true excellence. This school of thought describes this dichotomy of leadership (or influence) style as "transactional leadership" and "transformational leadership."

The Transformational Leader
Transformational leadership is the idea that leaders can help transform organizations, as well as individuals--from one level to another--to produce significant and positive change. Transactional leadership, on the other hand, is not concerned with stimulating change in individuals. Instead, it views leadership as a "transaction" between leader and follower. In the business world, the traditional relationship between leader and worker consists of a transaction (e.g., pay for work). Transactional leadership is closely correlated with the control functions of management.

Transformational leaders, however, appeal to a higher level of motivation. Rather than focus on tasks, transformational leaders instill in their employees a sense of purpose. Transformational leaders seek to satisfy higher-order needs to fully engage the follower. The leader raises the consciousness of his or her followers by getting them to reach beyond petty emotions such as jealousy, fear, and greed to ideals that revolve around freedom, justice, and humanitarianism. Followers are thus transformed into "better selves," adding value to the individual as well as to their organizations.

It is important to note that no one style is exclusive of the other. The skillful leadership that resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, was not transformational; it was, in fact, heavily transactional. Similarly, in day-to-day work, leaders use a mix of transactional and transformational styles. While transformational leadership is powerful and yields results, leadership is situational: An effective leader modifies his or her style and approach depending upon the situation and what is called for.

Becoming a Transformational Safety Leader
The primary activity of safety initiatives, whether at the site or corporate level, is to reduce the amount of exposure that occurs in the workplace. While not all exposure is equal in terms of its severity potential, all incidents result from exposure to hazards, and reducing exposure is the primary mechanism of safety improvement. Leaders directly and indirectly affect systems and climate and, thereby, hazards and exposure.

The research shows leaders who have a strong transformational leadership style typically have groups that perform better in various ways, including safety outcomes. For most leaders, developing a transformational style (or nurturing a nascent transformational style) is an excellent way to complement other safety activities. A simple way to start is with what research literature identifies as the four dimensions, or characteristics, of transformational leadership: influencing, inspiring, engaging, and challenging.

The influencing characteristic of a transformational leader creates a sense of mission, stimulates, persuades, and motivates employees to perform more than they otherwise would or believed they were able to do. An influencing leader takes a position and defends it in the face of adversity and places emphasis on the ethics of his or her stance. Influencing leaders believe in their vision and in their ability to achieve it.

  • Own up. Publicly recognize your own mistakes and weaknesses. Rather than diminish your authority, it shows that you have the integrity to look at things for what they are.
  • Be fair. Treat all your employees equally and fairly. Rigorously establish and enforce principles of procedural and organizational justice.
  • Stick to your guns. Hold on to a position you know is right, even in the face of opposition.
  • Champion the cause. Emphasize the correctness and desirability of safety objectives.
  • Trust. Show belief in your employees.

An inspiring leader begins with a vision and finds ways to communicate that vision to employees in a compelling fashion, in a manner that will cause them to achieve it. The inspiring leader ensures employees are clear about their roles and how they contribute to the achievement of the vision. They establish high standards and encourage employees to achieve beyond the expected, for their benefit as well as the organization's. Commitment to the vision and drawing out the best in employees, encouraging initiative, and appropriately supporting direct reports are key characteristics of transformational leadership.

  • Have a big picture. Develop an inspiring vision and ensure it is communicated to employees in ways that resonate with them.
  • Communicate. Discuss the importance of your vision and what it will take to achieve it.
  • Celebrate. Publicly celebrate achievements and recognize employees so they realize they are appreciated.
  • Encourage. Find ways to demonstrate your belief that your team will achieve and even exceed expectations.

The engaging element of transformational leadership incorporates the leader's efforts at teaching, mentoring, coaching, and promoting the strengths of employees, as well as providing an environment in which that development can prosper. The focus is on the developmental needs of the employee as an individual, not as a mere functionary or cog in the business machine.

  • Coach. Personally coach employees on your team or provide coaching for them to help them achieve higher levels of functioning.
  • Lay the groundwork. Make sure developmental opportunities are available for employees and that they have the tools to succeed. If possible, take part in developmental opportunities.

Finally, the challenging leader stimulates creativity and innovation by encouraging employees to question their models and paradigms, seek out different perspectives, and look at the world through different lenses, while allowing them to make mistakes.

  • Foster unconventional thought. Help your reports to challenge the functionality of models, paradigms, and thought patterns entrenched in the organization. Offer opportunities to view the situation in a different light through the application of different tools that promote rationality in the analysis of problems.
  • Model creative thinking. Provide employees with new and different ideas and concepts and encourage them to develop their own.
  • Converse. Engage your employees in discussions and encourage them to think differently about a given situation.
  • Expand. Assign members of your team to networking groups. Not only will they gather information you might not otherwise have access to, but also they'll gain valuable practice in leading and challenging others.

Starting a Transformation
No leader can create world-class safety performance on the merits of his or her leadership style alone. Reducing exposure in the workplace requires a combined and rigorous attention to the combination of leadership, culture, equipment, and systems that affect how work is done. Still, an effective leadership style can help leaders develop teams capable of much more than the leader alone. That in itself, it an excellent start to transformational safety performance.

This article appeared in the June 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the June 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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