OSH in a changing world

New leads

Our second extract from the book summarising IOSH’s five-year research programme proposes new models of safety leadership. 

Illustration credits: Gary Neill

Words: Colin Pilbeam, Noeleen Doherty and David Denyer

Leadership succeeded its less glamorous cousin management as one of the most pored over topics in business writing and study more than a decade ago. Dr Colin Pilbeam, senior research fellow at the Cranfield University School of Management, with colleagues Dr Noeleen Doherty and Professor David Denyer, chose the sub-category of safety leadership for their contribution to IOSH’s five-year research programme, Health and Safety in a Changing World.

The academics note that previous analyses have focused on characteristics of leaders as individuals, rather than the broader picture of leaders, their followers, and the work contexts they operate in. “Leadership in general, and safety leadership in particular, need to be more broadly conceptualised,” they argue.

As noted in the article in our December 2016 issue summarising the research programme, Pilbeam and his colleagues suggest safety leadership has normally comprised transactional work: ensuring rules are set and PPE is supplied and worn to prevent accidents; and transformational practice, promoting safer behaviour by encouragement and example.

Health-and-Safety-in-a-Changing-World-edited-by-Robert-Dingwall-and-Shelley-FrostIn the extract that follows they outline other leadership models that they suggest are fit for lower-hazard workplaces that account for the majority of employment in western countries. They believe these may be better suited to our changing understanding of leadership and new social norms than traditional command and control techniques.

Plural leadership

Recent reviews of leadership (eg Thorpe et al 2011) have considered approaches that reach beyond the earlier unitary views of leaders as individuals – the model of the heroic leader. By recognising that leadership skills and responsibilities can be dispersed or shared throughout an organisation, these perspectives focus on the process of leadership rather than on the person as leader (Gordon 2002). Denis et al (2012) describe these leadership forms as plural leadership. They identify three strands in this literature that make sense of its otherwise confusing terminology, where labels like shared, distributed, collective, collaborative, relational or post-heroic are often used loosely and interchangeably.

The first strand of plural leadership considers mutual or shared leadership within a group or team, where members collectively lead each other. This participatory approach is encouraged by transformational leadership and is consistent with earlier studies of the emergence of leadership in groups (eg Bales and Slater 1955). These studies noted the need for individuals to play different and complementary roles, embracing ‘task functions’ and ‘expressive functions’ in group leadership. This model demands that individuals are motivated to share leadership responsibilities and that opportunism or ‘free riding’ is discouraged.

Shared leadership has a distinct application in team-based organisations, which are common in low-hazard environments. It involves sustaining a shared appreciation for the importance of safety and giving equal value to those responsible for this seemingly lesser activity alongside those who lead more creative and exciting tasks (Table 6.4). Team working skills, notably valuing others and taking responsibility, are especially important for delivering safety leadership in this mode.

A second strand of plural leadership explores the circumstances where a small number of individuals pool their leadership capacities to co-lead others.

Table-6.4-Key-challenges-and-skill-requirements-of-safety-leadership -in-‘plural’-modeHere the co-leaders play roles that are specialised (ie each operating in particular areas of expertise), differentiated (ie avoiding overlap) and complementary (ie cover all the required areas of intervention). Gronn (2002) suggested that they conjointly exert leadership, having a collectively agreed and common purpose, characterised by reciprocal influence. Currie and Lockett (2011) also include concertive action, where skills and expertise are pooled, permitting individuals to work together closely within a framework of shared understanding, often developed implicitly. It can be challenging to achieve both conjoint agency and concertive action, particularly in relation to safety where the co-leaders may disagree over its importance and the best way to achieve it. Skills of negotiation, listening and communication are required.

A final strand of plural leadership is distributed leadership (Fitzsimmons et al 2011; Spillane 2006), where leadership roles are dispersed or spread across organisational levels over time, so that many people can take on leadership roles at appropriate moments. Distributed leadership, insofar as it is seen to be democratic, encourages collective capacity-building, and increases efficiency and effectiveness by making better use of expertise (Mayrowetz 2008).

Obviously this model of leadership demands that everyone is both aware of and respects the different skills and competencies found throughout the organisation.

It also requires a reduction in power differentials between individuals and groups so that individuals are able freely to challenge others and to assume leadership responsibilities as required (Table 6.4 above).

Leadership ‘in the moment’

In her book Rethinking Leadership, Ladkin (2010) introduced a model of the ‘leadership moment’, which ‘conceptualises the interactive and context dependent nature of leadership’, identifying four elements that interact in the experience of leadership. These elements are leader, follower, context and purpose. Leaders and followers must relate to each other within a particular context as together they pursue a common purpose. These elements interact dynamically so that the followers’ perceptions of context will affect their interpretation of the leader’s pronouncements and the leader’s behaviour will be affected by the followers’. Their combined actions show how the purpose is being understood and lived out.

While a reduction in injuries, the creation of a safe working environment or improvements in workforce safety behaviours might constitute the apparent purposes of safety leadership, there has been little research on how these are actually achieved, and how this might differ with context, the degree of follower involvement or the leader’s ambition. Our colleagues at Loughborough studied this through direct observation.

This approach is less suited to the workplaces we studied so we asked employees in stores of two retail chains to keep audio diaries identifying when safety became salient to them during their working day. Some of their responses demonstrated “leadership moments”: for example, when employees chose to relocate or reposition items of stock that were creating potential trip or fall hazards in the stockroom, or when they helped others lift heavy items.

In both of these circumstances, possible injuries were prevented and safer working assured.

OSH-in-a-changing-world.-Illustration-credit-Gary NeillFrom this perspective, safety leadership will remain elusive because it depends on the circumstances in which it is enacted: each moment contributes a small piece to our understanding of the whole. Nevertheless, as Ladkin (2010) suggests, this approach may help us to better engage with leadership in a safety context by clarifying what we need to know about the elements of the “leadership moment”, their interrelationship and subsequent contribution to safety. Are we interested in better understanding how to lead the members of our team to work safely? Are we trying to find out why a particular set of leadership practices designed to achieve safety outcomes worked in one setting but were less effective in another? Are we interested in understanding how the same safety outcomes may be achieved in so many different ways?

Adaptive leadership

Organisations typically develop safety policies and standard operating procedures anticipating that these will provide respectively a safe working environment and safe working practices. Accidents, injuries and near misses still happen. Clearly, these technical solutions, although necessary and beneficial, are insufficient on their own to achieve safety completely. Safety is a problem that arises from the multiple interactions between both human and technological components of a system. Such systemic problems create adaptive challenges, which call for adaptive leadership (Heifetz and Laurie 1997). Systemic problems often demand changes to organisational values and beliefs. Prioritising safety is one such value that often runs counter to traditional organisational cultures which emphasise productivity, standardisation, innovation and creativity or personal development (Denison and Spreitzer 1991). Solutions to the problems of embedding safety (like other systemic problems) lie throughout the organisation and are not merely the responsibility of the director or health and safety manager.

Heifetz and Laurie (1997) identify six principles for leading adaptive work:

  • Getting on the balcony’. Stepping back from the day-to-day detail to assess the bigger picture.
  • Identifying the adaptive challenge. Fully understanding the nature of the existing problem.
  • Regulating distress. Inspiring change and allowing employees to debate issues and clarify assumptions before providing direction so that people are not disabled but challenged.
  • Maintain disciplined attention. Grapple with the issues, digging deeper into the conflicts emerging from different perspectives on the problem and encourage collective problem solving.
  • Give the work back to employees. Supporting and empowering individuals to take both risks and responsibility to find the solution to the problem.
  • Protect voices of leadership from below. Don’t silence the whistle-blower or the deviant, rather take time to explore why they are doing what they do.

Each of these can be applied to the practice of safety leadership, enabling responses to specific safety-related questions and particular safety challenges (Table 6.5). The table also suggests a number of abilities that adaptive safety leaders would need to display to be effective.

Table-6.5-Adaptive-leadership-and-its-application-to-safety-leadershipDelivering safety in organisations is prescribed by government regulations and informed by guidelines promoted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). These largely dictate the diversity of practices deployed by safety leaders in organisations. In part, this diversity of leadership practice is a result of the historical overlaying of leadership onto those managerial practices formerly used to ensure safe working. Rather than emphasising either safety leadership or safety management, which inevitably separates safety from mainstream organisational activity, we suggest that safety may be more effectively delivered in organisations by collating the existing (and future) practices according to three evident safety objectives – caring, coaching and controlling. Not to be confused with the 4Cs for promoting a safety culture (HSE 1997) namely control, cooperation, communication and competence, the 3Cs of safety leadership behaviour could provide a useful diagnostic tool for safety enactment in organisations.

Hitherto, safety leadership has followed individualistic transactional or transformational models of leadership. While these may be relevant to more hierarchical organisations, or where there is a heavy emphasis on supervisory control, they may be much less applicable in networked organisations or where there is a dominance of professional workers. Both of these are characteristics of the service sector. In these circumstances, recent conceptualisations of plural leadership may be more appropriate for delivering safety. Simple technical solutions may not resolve the organisational challenges created by the increasing turbulence of the organisational environment. Assuring effective delivery of organisational safety is one such challenge. Harnessing the principles of adaptive leadership to safety problems may ensure a safer working environment for all.


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