In basic terms, leaders have people follow them whilst managers have people who work for them. Therefore, leaders need to understand that a certain skill set is required to become an effective leader who can attract followers and not just employees. Here is a summary of the most important skills to have as an effective safety leader.
It is well known and proven that when leaders demonstrate commitment to safety, the safety culture within an organization improves. [Pidgeon, 1991.] Leaders need to demonstrate their commitment through their behaviors and decision making authentically. The workforce needs to believe that safety is their leaders’ priority, that they want everyone to go home safely and are doing everything they can to ensure this happens. How do you demonstrate the commitment?
Questioning is a communication skill. Knowing what questions to ask and when can help a leader determine competence assurance and make sure the relevant controls are in place to stop something bad from happening. For example, asking a leading question such as “Are you going to do a toolbox talk or a pre-job brief?” may result in the correct answer but only because you have led them to answer how you want them to answer: “Yes we are going to do a toolbox talk”. Using open questions and asking in a caring manner such as “Tell me about what you are going to do next?” will more likely elicit responses which are true and accurate even if that answer is not what the leader is looking for.
Listening is a significant component of effective leadership communication. This might sound obvious, but do leaders really listen? Passive or conversational listening will be spotted immediately and could devalue the relationship a leader has with his followers. The art of listening involves not only hearing what someone has said, but comprehending it, and where appropriate rephrasing and repeating it back to them to ensure the information being listened to has been understood correctly. Effective listening can be perceived as caring by the workforce as it can lead to people feeling that their leaders want to hear what they have to say. This can help create followers.
As a leader, if you say you are going to do something, do it. Failing to do so can lead to a disappointed workforce where workers feel that their leader lacks consistency and honesty. Disappointment by one’s followers can lead to disloyalty. Integrity is a crucial skill that many leaders really need to grasp and display to people around them. Having integrity means being self-aware, showing your personal values (what you care about) and managing your emotions. Demonstrating these in their behaviors and how they make decisions will allow leaders to build trust with their teams, thus creating followers.
5. Emotional Intelligence (Humanity)
Having emotional intelligence means you are self-aware, and you understand how you come across to others. You can manage your emotions and impulses, you are aware of others’ feelings and concerns, and you can manage relationships through inducing desirable responses in others. If leaders are emotionally intelligent, they will find the balance between showing too many and too little emotions and will become a trustworthy asset to any organisation.
6. Situational Leadership
The ability to adapt the style of leadership used to the situation at hand is something leaders don’t always get right. People have different characters, different emotional reactions to situations and behave differently depending on a situation or person. Leaders specifically need to know when a command and control style is appropriate and when it isn’t. They need to know when they could be coaching or when they could be democratic. Leaders will have their default leadership style, the one they resort to in times of stress. They need to have enough self-awareness to know if this style is appropriate and have the ability to change to a more appropriate style where necessary. Thus, getting the best performance out of their followers.
7. Chronic Unease
Chronic Unease is about having the competence to know if the barriers to prevent an incident are weak, or do not exist at all, and caring enough to do something about it. Having a healthy dose of chronic unease will keep you alert and help you make decisions at the right time at the right level.
Taking accountability sometimes can be hard for leaders to accept. But it is essential for a leader to take accountability rather than giving it to others particularly when it is not called for. Accountability is “a personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results” (Connors, Smith & Hickman, 2004). It’s about having the courage to see something, especially potential danger, then owning it, solving it and doing it. This concept is also known as the Oz Principle. [Craig Hickman, Roger Connors, and Tom Smith, 1994.]
Being locked away in an office or tied to a desk only creates barriers and mistrust with your followers. Being present and visible on the floor provides assurance to people that you care about them and that you see for yourself that everything that could be done for safety is actually done. Visibility may start in a structured manner such as mandatory site walks every day or every week as a KPI, but a leader who is truly authentic and is showing commitment to safety will soon become visible without a structure or KPI. Being visible also allows “touch-time” with the workforce which in turn will build trust and respect.
10. Standard setting
Implementing a just and fair culture means standards for acceptable behavior within the organizations are set. However, it is key not just to set them but to also live by these standards as a leader - walk the talk. If you don’t believe and behave in those parameters, it is unlikely your followers will follow suit and conduct only acceptable behaviors. Leaders must define and communicate clearly the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. People need to know what they are and what they aren’t allowed to do. If there is no clear line in the sand, it is unlikely people will understand what is acceptable and what isn’t. More importantly however is that leaders consistently, across time and space, maintain this line in the sand.
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