The Emerging Role of the Safety Professional, Part 4

Practicing transformational leadership provides your roadmap to success.

In this series, we have laid out the emerging challenges that safety professionals are experiencing, the new skills we must possess to operate in this new era, and the challenges we will face if we decide to remain stagnant. Safety is taking a much more central role in the emerging world, but safety professionals who remain rooted in their past successes and approaches may find themselves become less and less relevant. So what is the pathway to success? How do we increase our relevancy? In addition to new skills and knowledge, safety professionals also must become change leaders. To complete this series, we look at how leadership style can help safety professionals become more effective influencers of safety -- and organizational -- performance.

Transformational Leadership Style
Fundamentally, a safety professional must have sound management skills. He or she must be able to outline staffing requirements, select the right people into the department or organization, know where to get answers to technical and regulatory questions, and be able to lay out a project plan for a new initiative.Yet, in a business landscape of increasing complexity and diversity of demands, safety professionals also must become change leaders.

A change leader generates great enthusiasm and energy within his or her direct reports and those around them and acts in a way that makes others want to listen and take heed. This is not to say the safety professional must become a self-centered egomaniac; in fact, he must become just the opposite. Leadership is about a person’s ability to give people a sense of purpose and understanding regarding the work they do and move people to action.

James Macgregor Burns coined the phrase “transformational leadership” in 1978 to describe just these qualities. Burns defined this leadership style as “inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and the motivations, the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations—of both leaders and followers.” Since then, transformational leadership has become a wellstudied and documented leadership style. Transformational leaders have been shown to:

• Lead work groups that are consistently rated as more productive and flexible

• Contribute more leaders into the pipeline

• Attract and retain desirable people to the organization

• Score higher in safety leadership best practice scores Transformational leadership can be understood as having four defining characteristics or dimensions.

They are:

Challenging: The leader provides subordinates with a flow of challenging new ideas aimed at stimulating them to rethink old ways of doing things.He or she challenges dysfunctional paradigms and promotes rationality and careful problem solving. Behavioral examples of intellectual stimulation include: encouraging followers not to think like him, creating a “readiness” for changes in thinking, encouraging a broad range of interests, and putting forth or entertaining seemingly foolish ideas.

Engaging: The leader helps others commit to the desired direction. She coaches, mentors, provides feedback and personal attention as needed, and links the individual’s needs to the organization’s mission. Behavioral examples include: creating strategies for continuous improvement, promoting self-development, encouraging others to take initiative, and coaching and counseling.

Inspiring: The leader sets high standards and communicates about objectives enthusiastically. He articulates a compelling vision and communicates confidence about achieving the vision.Behavioral examples include: helping followers achieve levels of performance beyond what they felt possible,demonstrating self-determination and commitment to reaching goals, expressing optimism about goal attainment, and arousing in followers emotional acceptance of challenges.

Influencing: The leader builds a sense of “missionbeyond- self-interest” and a commitment to the vision. She gains the confidence, respect, and trust of others; considers the ethical consequences of her decisions; appeals to others’ most important values and beliefs; and instills pride. Behavioral examples of influence include: engendering trust in the leader’s ability to overcome a crisis, acting as a role model, sacrificing selfgain for the gain of others, and creating a sense of joint mission and ownership.

Transformational leadership is not mysterious. It is comprised of observable behaviors, and its effect can be measured through discussions with people who are in contact with the leader.

Becoming a Transformational Leader
Transformational leadership creates a will to go above and beyond self-interest within the organization. The challenge for safety professionals is learning how to direct that will toward an investment in safety—in other words, learning how to tie a transformational style to safety practices. To illustrate how leadership style can influence best practices, let’s use examples of two well-known leadership best practices: credibility and collaboration.

Transformational credibility.Credibility as a safety leadership practice describes a person’s willingness to admit mistakes to self and others, give honest information about safety performance even if it is not well received, and follow through on safety-related commitments, among other elements. To illustrate how to leverage credibility behaviors using a transformational style,we will look at the credibility behavior of giving honest safety performance information.

Many organizations suffer from spending too much time on low energy/low potential events. Leaders will discuss every OSHA recordable equally, and an incident with high potential for severe injury (such as a near miss associated with a failure in the lockout/tagout system) will get the same level of attention as an incident with low potential for serious injury (such as dust in the eye).While someone’s getting dust in an eye is important, its potential for life-altering injury is extremely low. A safety professional who points out this apparent inconsistency and advocates for a change in how events are prioritized adds to her credibility.

One could approach this task in a number of different ways, but the most powerful and influential way would be to use the challenge dimension of transformational style. For example, you could set up a group discussion with the people you want to influence and ask them to consider why events are handled the way they are. Instead of telling people how they need to think about the issue, a transformational safety professional would engage others in a conversation, posing questions such as: What message are we sending when senior leaders spend as much of their time on low energy and low potential events as high potential events?

Transformational collaboration. Collaboration as a safety leadership practice is about promoting cooperation and teamwork, asking for and encouraging input from people on safety issues that will affect them, and seeking out and listening to diverse points of view regarding safety. Collaboration behaviors are often most called for in changing direction. Change is difficult, and people are generally comfortable with the status quo unless there is an extremely compelling reason for change.New directions are made easier if people are engaged in the process and contributing to decisions along the way. The safety professional who gets into the field and seeks input and feedback from the people he depends on to implement the change is more successful and sets the stage for success.

Collaboration in decision-making should not be confused with consensus, which is a process by which a group comes to a joint decision. With collaboration, the leader still owns the responsibility for making the decision but seeks others’ input before deciding. Practicing collaboration behaviors using a transformational style might take the form of using the engaging dimension mentioned earlier.When a decision or initiative allows time for input, the safety professional can approach the decision by soliciting input in a way that encourages others to take initiative in identifying solutions, rather than providing a set of options for them to choose from. The safety professional might also coach others to take on new roles within the new initiative, thereby giving people a more personal way to buy in to and support the change.

Exciting Times
An increasingly large body of research shows that excellence in safety performance correlates with excellence in other performance metrics, such as productivity, profitability, quality, and customer service.Workplace demographics are changing, with employee populations growing more diverse in background, belief, and geography. So, too, are business practices and norms.A focus on culture and safety climate, and on developing safety leadership skills at all levels, can provide a surer path to success and sustainability than any single new program.

These truly are exciting and changing times. For safety professionals who grab the reins and develop transformational leadership skills and continue to personally challenge their level of understanding and beliefs, there will be greater opportunities and, with them, a much more rewarding job. Finally, by working on these attributes and skills, the safety professional will remain a relevant and welcome member at the table with other senior executives.

Read the entire "Emerging Role" series: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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