Is your safety leadership “empowering”?

by on January 29, 2013 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

There’s a direct connection between safety performance and “empowering” leadership, according to a study released this month.

About 500 workers at two nuclear power plants were asked to describe their own safety compliance, participation, and risky behaviors. The workers were then surveyed on how well their individual team leaders demonstrated five empowering leadership techniques.

Researchers found a correlation between those workers who reported their direct supervisors were empowering leaders and those who reported higher levels of safety engagement, as demonstrated by safety compliance, participation and avoidance of risky behaviors. Bottom line: “Bad leader” rankings mean lower worker self-reports of safety engagement, and “good leader” rankings meant higher self-reports.

But what is it?
That’s all well and good, but what exactly is empowering safety leadership? Here are the five leadership techniques tracked by the researchers, each of which were shown to have made a big impact on workers’ safety engagement:

1. They lead by example. All supervisors know to practice what they preach, but those who actually do it get noticed by their crew. Workers will follow that example, because supervisors have sent the crucial message that leadership doesn’t give you a privilege to pick and choose which safety rules to follow.

2. They get team members to participate in decision making. There’s always a fine line between getting input and opening a can of worms. One key is for team leaders to ask for safety suggestions, especially when adapting to changing conditions in the field, and then make a firm decision. Another is openness to safety suggestions, and a willingness to discuss those suggestions with the team. In both cases, team members feel they have a say in the daily operations, and feel empowered.

3. They coach. Empowering leaders teach people how to solve their own problems. Researchers have found that as workers learn more about their jobs and the risks, they take fewer safety shortcuts. Similarly, the team itself will take fewer risks as the team itself becomes more knowledgeable.

Regular coaching gives workers the attention they need to improve, and motivates them to do so.

4. They communicate. It’s not just safety meetings, though that’s a big part of it. Researchers have found a direct connection between frequency of safety-related conversation between workers and supervisors and safety performance.
But supervisors also inform their teams about what is going on in the organization – deadlines, strategies, missions. People feel they belong to the group. Supervisors communicate expectations of performance, and through coaching, help workers set performance goals and achieve them.

5. They care. Empowering leaders care about their people. They show concern that people understand their jobs, feel part of the group; they listen to workers’ concerns. They notice when someone needs help or more explanation. They recognize and reward improvement. When leaders care, workers are more likely to care, too.

Source: Martinez-Corcoles, Mario, et al. (2013). Empowering team leadership and safety performance in nuclear power plants: A multilevel approach. Safety Science 51 (2013) 293-301.

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