Servant Leadership and Safety
There is an urgent need to reverse the trend of rising Serious Injury and Fatality (SIF) rates in the UK. The question is how? Dr Dominic Cooper argues that adopting a servant leadership approach targeting the main seven broken safety culture topics could lead to a major breakthrough.
Safety leadership research has shown that servant leaders have double the impact on safety performance than either transformational or transactional leaders, although people tend to use all three depending on the situation. The downside for all forms of safety leadership is that the presence of a known hazard left for another day neutralises the impact of leadership and causes people to silently withdraw from the safety effort. People’s unsafe behaviours also increase, as they negotiate the hazard(s). Thus, eliminating physical hazards is one way forward, but on its own is insufficient.
The main servant leadership attributes are [a] demonstrating a concern for subordinates where the values of those being led are kept in mind by the leader, along with respecting and appreciating good performance; [b] Building trusting relationships which helps to overcome a culture of fear, which in turn is linked to various types of incident, including SIFs; [c] Engaging in honest self-evaluation about the effectiveness of their leadership efforts, which in turn, leads them to facilitate their followers needs to get the job done; [d] Engaging in visible Role Modelling to create norms and expectations for behaviour among their followers; [e] Communicating with clarity while providing advice, feedback, and resources to their followers; [f] Encouraging followers’ personal development to improve their job competencies; and, [g] Fostering ownership and responsibility for performance to ensure that leaders and followers are accountable for the matters for which they are responsible. Together these attributes help to create the supportive environment that is so critical to safety success.
To avoid SIFs and catastrophes, safety culture research has shown us that we need to focus on seven main areas:
- The safety-productivity conflict;
- The culture of Fear and Blame;
- Ineffective Leadership;
- Managerial Non-Compliance to Rules/Procedures;
- Competency Failures;
- Ignoring Lessons Learned.
Examining the wider scientific literature for the potential impact that servant leadership practices could exert on the seven broken safety culture topics, shows that adopting a servant leadership approach could be exactly what is needed to help eliminate SIFs and improve the safety culture. For example, servant leadership [a] improves trust in leadership by around 89%, thereby overcoming a culture of fear and blame; [b] improves the quality of leader-follower relationships by around 64%; [c] Reduces non-compliant behaviours by around 23%, improves individual’s performance by around 32% and team performance by some 38%; [d] improves the quality of communications by around 10%; [e] improves personnel competency by around 35%; and [f] improves organizational learning by around 58%. There appears to be no evidence available which looks at the safety – productivity conflict.
Given the above evidence for the impact of servant leadership on the same areas as the broken safety culture focus topics, it seems to make a great deal of sense to develop the servant leadership qualities of all managers and supervisors to help reduce or eliminate SIFs and catastrophes, while also improving the overall safety culture.
 Cooper, M.D. (2015) ‘Effective Safety Leadership: Understanding Types & Styles that Improve Safety Performance. Professional Safety, Feb. 49-53.
 Cooper, MD. & Finley, L (2013) ‘Strategic Safety Culture Roadmap’: BSMS, Franklin, USA
The Safety Conversation Podcast: Listen now!
The Safety Conversation with SHP (previously the Safety and Health Podcast) aims to bring you the latest news, insights and legislation updates in the form of interviews, discussions and panel debates from leading figures within the profession.
Find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts, subscribe and join the conversation today!