Safety Leadership – What Kind of Leaders Do You Want?

“Safety leadership” is a popular phrase in HSE circles.   A Google search turns up 106 million references for “Safety leadership.”  Nearly three million refer to PowerPoint presentations (heaven help us all!).

Ideally we want every manager and every employee to lead on safety.  But what kind of leadership do we want?  A new study says the tools you use to motivate decide what kind of leaders you get.

Tom Kolditz, who chaired West Point’s Behavioral Science and Leadership Department, writes about a study of 10,000 Army leaders.  The study tracked individuals from their days at the academy on through their careers.

We already know that some people lead because they have an inner motivation.  For example,  they may have an obligation to serve or to help others.   Some people lead for external reasons.  They may want the perks, like more money or recognition.

The study found that officers who were motivated by internal factors (doing good) were much more effective than leaders who were motivated by external reasons (getting the perks).   That is not all that surprising.     The surprise came when they looked at what happens when you mix internal and external motivations.  You would think those leaders would be the most motivated, because they have more reasons to do well.

However, the study found that leaders who had a mix of motivation were actually less successful than leaders who were purely motivated by internal factors.   They were less effective by about 20 percent.

What does this mean for safety programs?    It would seem to say we need to put our efforts into building internal motivation rather than trying to reward crews for showing leadership.

How do we do that?

  1. Stress cause and effect – uncontrolled hazards lead to incidents.  Controlling hazards prevent incidents.
  2. Help workers understand the positive impact that their safe actions have on protecting themselves and co-workers.
  3. Give them the big picture – Safety contributes to effective operations.
  4. Don”t take short cuts on building leaders.  You can’t communicate the message on safety leadership in one safety meeting or with a couple of emails.
  5. Lead by example.   People pattern themselves on the behavior they see around them.

The bottom line is that leaders are built from the inside out.   You can’t bribe people to work safely.  You can’t threaten them into working safely.   It has to come from within.

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