We can associate three fundamental safety leadership styles to the effectiveness of a safety culture: tough-coercive, tough-controlling, and tough-caring. Let’s take a look at each of these leadership styles.
In this leadership approach, managers are tough on safety to protect themselves: to avoid penalties. 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 culture is fear-driven and toxic. Management resorts to an accountability system that emphasizes negative consequences. By what managers do and say, they may communicate negative messages to employees that establish or reinforce negative relationships.
As you might guess, fear-driven cultures, by definition cannot 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, fear-driven thoughts, beliefs and decisions may be driving their behaviors. Bottom-line: a fear-driven safety culture will not work. It cannot be effective for employees and managers at any level of the organization. It may be successful in achieving compliance, but that’s it.
Managers primarily using this approach 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. Managers displaying this leadership style may not have a high level of trust in their employees. Hence, they must control them.
This leadership approach is most frequently exhibited in the “traditional” management model. As employers gain greater understanding, their attitudes and strategies change to better fulfill their legal and financial obligations. They become more effective in designing safety systems that successfully reduce injuries and illnesses, thereby cutting production costs. In a tough controlling environment, 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 take on the role of a cop rather than a consultant. A safety cop is responsible for enforcement and control while the safety consultant is responsible for education, analysis, and arriving at solutions.
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 used as a controlling strategy. Tough-controlling leadership styles may or may not result in a fearbased culture.
Managers are tough on safety because they have high expectations and they insist their followers follow the rules, and they care about the success of their employees first. This is a self-less leadership approach.
The tough-caring leadership model represents a major shift in leadership and management thinking away from the more 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 obligations to internal customers: their employees.
- 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. Rather than being the safety cop, the safety manager is considered an internal consultant who is responsible for helping all line managers and supervisors demonstrate leadership by “doing” safety. Line managers must be the cops, not the safety department. 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 leaders are not reluctant in administering discipline when it’s justified because they understand it to be a matter of leadership. However, before they discipline, managers will first evaluate the degree to which they, themselves, have fulfilled their obligations to their employees. If they have failed in that effort, they will apologize and correct their own deficiency rather than discipline.
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.