What does good safety leadership look like? Peter Crush discovers why it needs to be less ‘Do this’ and more ‘Let’s solve this together.’
What is leadership? This relatively simple question has been deconstructed and redefined so many times that outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that the academics and authors studying this topic are just as confused. But this is a problem. For while leadership – inspiring others to tread a particular path – is fundamental to all organisations, it could be argued it is even more so in OSH – where the ramifications of not following processes can be catastrophic. So how can we know what good OSH leadership is, if leadership is itself so hard to pin down?
No single definition
‘There appears to be no unequivocal or unambiguous definition of safety leadership and no definitive statement of the roles and practices of a safety leader,’ proclaimed a Cranfield University School of Management and IOSH study Safety leaders: who are they; what do they do? (Pilbeam et al, 2016). Author Colin Pilbeam hasn’t changed his mind. ‘If I were to generalise, the profession probably still hasn’t embraced newer ideas of leadership – such as “shared responsibility” and “authenticity”. But that’s possibly because OSH leadership has its roots more from taking a very “transactional” [process-driven] – or “do as I say” approach, rather than empowering others to come up with solutions,’ he says.
‘For a long time, safety management and safety leadership have been hard to conceptually differentiate, which has tended to favour a “take charge” or “hero leader” approach.’ Where the debate needs to move on, he agrees, is whether this is valid in organisations today.
Experts agree it is no surprise that OSH leadership has historically been dictatorial in nature. ‘OSH, by its nature, remains compliance-driven within many organisations. Reacting to incidents, rules-based approaches and telling people what to do can become a habit,’ says outgoing IOSH president Louise Hosking.
‘When the goal is to reduce occupational injuries, leadership tends to think about things in a very regulatory way,’ adds Professor Nora Colton, director of the University College London Global Business School for Health.
‘However, what our and other research is now starting to show is that organisations with a more “transformational” OSH leadership – championing a vision, and engendering trust rather than purely compliance – tend to have lower levels of workplace injuries.’
Experts generally agree on the cornerstones of good health and safety leadership. ‘The best leaders exhibit values that others want; they instil belief in people; they sell a vision and encourage people to do stuff without them feeling like they’re being asked,’ says Peter Kelly, former senior psychologist at the GB Health and Safety Executive (HSE), now head of programmes at Mates in Mind.
Louise adds: ‘Far better for leaders to encourage people to work through their own solutions, take a step back, be creative, agile and keep adapting if needed.’
Peter says: ‘You can’t expect to be a leader unless you behave like one. Being transactional creates discontent; the qualities of good safety leadership are far more nuanced – being able to measure a situation.’ But he also argues good safety leadership is about being able to ‘challenge the status quo’.
But is what could be considered an internal activist what CEOs want? Perhaps it is all about the presentation. ‘Safeguards typically exist so people don’t get hurt,’ says Johan Jardevall, CEO of automation services company Smart Robotics. ‘But safety protocols seen to exist for their own sake can often be seen as too rigid. So being able to explain why they exist – by having good emotional intelligence [EQ] – makes a good safety leader.’
Transformational safety leadership is still largely absent from boards, and this can be because business leaders still view safety as a regulatory, rather than cultural/organisational, issue. ‘Remember,’ he says, ‘leaders are reflective of the overall culture too, so if the board doesn’t take safety leadership seriously, this can filter down.’
IOSH professional standards on leadership
The IOSH competency framework defines good safety leadership as encompassing ‘visible leadership’ – that is being able to ‘demonstrate confidence, optimism, perseverance and personal resilience as they seek to use their influence across a wide range of stakeholders’. Leaders need to be able to ‘establish a clear case for change, challenge positively where required and be able to gain the respect of others, gaining and maintaining respect as they go’. It prioritises teamwork (‘creating a positive, sharing and enabling environment’) as well as being able to project-manage and manage change.
‘Having the ability to find ways to gain cooperation and buy-in to change is central to the successful implementation of any initiative,’ it says. Finally, it values conflict management as a key skill too. ‘This means being able to overcome differences in opinions relating to business issues and view them as a healthy part of management decisions, at both functional and organisational levels.
‘It’s the responsibility of OSH professionals to work to gain clear agreement on the way forward and ensure they gain full support for the agreed outcome.’
Better leadership required?
But could more organisations be tuning in to the need for stronger safety leadership? ‘Positive and proactive leadership has been pushed as a priority for boards in recent years, especially because of the consequences of getting health and safety management wrong,’ argues Kizzy Augustin, partner at law firm Mischon de Reya. ‘For health and safety leadership and performance to be effective, it must come from the top. Many high-profile cases that have been prosecuted are based on failures by senior directors to manage health and safety well and a distinct lack of proactive attitudes and practices. Directors must examine their own behaviours and the guidance provided by regulators like the HSE.’
One thing experts agree on is that, as boards and safety leaders get younger, a more transformational style of safety leadership could thrive. Delicia Maxwell is HSQE [health, safety, environment and quality] manager at utilities company Aptus and, at age 34, says she reflects the type of leadership she knows people now want.
‘Strong, modern leadership is about involving people. Because we want everyone to believe in our values, we have a health and safety committee. We’re not just the type of organisation that sets out the rules – even if we have issues. We ask staff what they think, and all our leaders are coached in leadership.’
Quick guide: How to be a safety leader
A recent international study on leadership found the key to emotionally intelligent leadership is being able to move between leadership styles as appropriate (Talogy, 2022). Dr Jo Maddocks, chief psychologist at Talogy, the human assessment consultancy that wrote the study, identifies three safety leadership behaviours:
Clear, honest and frequent communication
‘Employees want to know what is required of them, what the risks are, and why their employer is asking them to do certain things. Some organisations have been reactive in communications, which often leads to anxiety and lack of trust. Today’s safety leaders must communicate often, honestly and directly.’
Listening and empathy
‘Company supervisors and managers need to display empathy when it comes to safety. Employees may have concerns about changes in the workplace. And many will find it challenging to adjust work habits and routines to new safety rules. They need to be able to express concerns and be heard. Safety leaders from the shop floor to the C-suite must excel at active listening and seeking to understand the perspective of their team members.’
Proactive risk management
‘Tomorrow’s safety leaders must be more proactive in their risk management. In today’s workplace, leaders must be able to develop contingency plans, build emergency preparedness and anticipate novel types of risk.’
Gavin Scarr Hall, director of health and safety at Peninsula UK, an HR and health and safety services firm, says: ‘The defining trait among all great leaders is an underlying social and emotional intelligence in how they organise, manage and motivate people. It’s about looking after people and making sure their needs [rather than yours] are being met at work. You cannot be too focused on the managerial side of things at the expense of the bigger picture. For some, this is a challenge when stepping into a leadership role.’
Everyone’s leadership style will probably be slightly different, but as Louise says: ‘Modern leadership requires us to engage our soft skills, but these are far from “soft” and I prefer to refer to them as power skills.’ She adds: ‘I see OSH professionals wrestle with this – they revert to an “I know what’s wrong, so I’m going to tell you” mode. To me, this is not leadership but autocratic management. If we are creating lists of what we believe is wrong, without engaging others and offering them the space to think through a situation and learn, they move into autopilot. We miss out on opportunities which come from being creative. Better leadership is about having the EQ to be more strategic. The last thing safety leaders want to be seen as is the compliance police. We have so much more to offer.’
Perhaps for this reason, Colin says so-called ‘transactional-transformational’ leadership is a good compromise for safety professionals. This is where safety performance (for example, the use of PPE and safety compliance) is positively related to mainly transactional safety leadership practices (such as planning and monitoring). ‘You need both,’ he argues. ‘It’s a good mix of the command and control that you need for safety, and the more motivational element of leadership.’
- IOSH and Cranfield University: Safety leaders: who are they?; what do they do?: iosh.com/media/3424/safety-leaders-who-are-they-what-do-they-do.pdf
- IOSH competency framework: iosh.com/my-iosh/competency-framework
Dominic Ashley-Timms – CEO of performance improvement consultancy Notion – likens the role of a safety leader to a learning coach. ‘The more leaders tell people, the more they inhibit learning,’ he says. ‘The transition to leadership should encourage others to flourish. Good safety leaders ask insightful questions that invite others to engage and think for themselves.’
Only time will tell if safety leadership transitions this way, but it does have growing numbers of proponents. ‘Leadership that creates people who are the best versions of themselves makes sense,’ says Lesley Cooper, founder of WorkingWell [which contributed to the development of the first HSE management standards]. ‘Leadership in a world of increasing volatility should be about allowing people to have the intellectual capacity to take risk – in the sense of thinking about things differently.’
She concludes: ‘The good news is that OSH professionals are very face-to-face people, and have the capacity to operate with more EQ. Those who stimulate curiosity among their people, and who are not afraid to show vulnerability, will be the successful safety leaders of the future.’
Pilbeam C, Davidson R, Doherty N et al. (2022) Safety leaders: who are they?; what do they do?. IOSH. (accessed 5 September 2022).
Talogy. (2022) Thank you: leading in the future world of work. (accessed 5 September 2022).