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March 30, 2015

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Transformational health and safety leadership

Nelson Mandela in Glasgow, Scotland, on 9th October 1993. Mandela was in Glasgow to receive the 'Freedom of the City' honour.. Image shot 1993. Exact date unknown.

Progressive managers that treat the workforce as a valued resource and use coaching skills to involve workers in planning and organisation can transform the workplace. Nick Bell, Colin Powell and Peter Sykes explain.

I sometimes overhear supervisors in conversation with workers discussing health and safety in a very natural and constructive way. These positive health and safety conversations indicate and help to build a positive health and safety culture.[1,2] But how can we get the best out of these conversations and what are some of the direct and indirect benefits?

On the shop floor, health and safety conversations take many forms. Occasionally, they are structured in some way. For example, managers trained in the safe and unsafe acts (SUSA) approach have a model to guide them through the discussion to a constructive outcome.

Usually, conversations are less structured. Some scenarios can illustrate a few of the different purposes of, and approaches to, health and safety conversations.

SCENARIO 1: A production manager is considering altering a production line and sounds out the views of maintenance staff and operatives on the implications to production and health and safety.

SCENARIO 2: A supervisor receives a safety alert from a sister site where there has been a serious incident. She calls her team together into a ‘huddle’ to share the incident and the lessons learned.

SCENARIO 3: A team leader gets a reminder to review a risk assessment. He chats with workers to get their perception of the hazards involved in their work and how the existing controls are working.

SCENARIO 4: A supervisor sees a forklift driving down a warehouse aisle with an elevated load and stops the driver for a discussion.

SCENARIO 5: A senior manager undertakes a safety tour and speaks with a worker to get a feeling for how operations are running and what the risk is of something going wrong.

SCENARIO 6: A manager sees a pair of workers diligently complying with their safe system of work and tells them he is pleased.

Different strokes
There are very practical benefits with all the scenarios above. Risk assessments, the planning of work and the organisation of the workplace will be better with the benefit of workers’ insights. Workers are being given the information or opportunities to help them appreciate the risks posed by their work. They will also have greater ownership of, and commitment to comply with, any controls that they help to devise.

However, a degree of skill and the right mindset is needed to get the best out of the conversations. For example, in scenario 4, the supervisor could:

  1. Scream blue murder at the driver.
  2. Decide it’s best not to irritate the driver so chats about last night’s game.
  3. Tell the driver what he’s doing wrong, then leaves once the load is lowered.
  4. Have an open-minded discussion, hoping to understand and improve a risky situation.

Which of the above is most likely to bring about a genuine and lasting positive change? Personally, we’d plump for D. ‘Catching’ people doing something right and praising them, as in scenario 6, is extremely motivational[3] and promotes a sense of fairness and respect in the workplace. It’s even possible to have an open-minded discussion with folk who are working safely: we might come away with valuable insights that we can apply elsewhere.

These communication skills can be taught. In a Scandinavian study[4], construction site foremen were coached in safety communication. There were already frequent, daily discussions on issues of production and quality: the foremen were coached to include health and safety at the same time. There were significant increases in the amount of safety communication and significant and lasting increases in safety standards at the site.

However, simply increasing the amount of safety communication will not guarantee improvements in safety. Workers may just see the communication as ‘lip service’[5], or can be undermined if the supervisor does not ‘walk the talk’ themselves.[6] Clearly, our communication needs to be effective.

Transforming leaders
Effective communication skills are a hallmark of transformational leaders. Transformational leadership is associated with improvements in health and safety climate and performance[2] and a range of other organisational benefits.[7]

The strength of an organisation’s transformational safety leadership has been cited as one of three predictors of workplace accidents.[8]

Transformational leaders promote followers’ personal development, encourage them to examine problems to find new solutions and enable them to try new things without fear of failure.[9,10] Empowering leaders therefore increase workers’ abilities and self-belief.[11]

When applied to health and safety, a transformational approach increases workers’ capacity to manage risks by developing and drawing on their abilities (e.g. spotting, understanding and controlling hazards) and increasing their confidence.

Workers may feel empowered to stop an unsafe operation, share ideas in meetings or remind other workers of safe working practices. This could be especially valuable in dynamic settings such as construction or community nursing: situations change rapidly, managers cannot be constantly looking over workers’ shoulders and we rely heavily on workers judging precisely how to apply their skills and knowledge.

Empowering, transformational leaders are also trusted (in part because they ‘walk the talk’), they act as positive role models, recognise good work, care for workers’ welfare and help them find challenge, success and meaning in their working life.[9,10,11]

These aspects of transformational leadership increase workers’ motivation to help manage risks. Workers who feel cared for and respected will have much more positive thoughts and feelings about their manager and organisation. They may begin to see the goals and values of their leaders as being personally important for themselves (i.e. they ‘identify’ with their manager).[12,13] When a respected manager shows that they genuinely care about health and safety (e.g. acting quickly on workers’ ideas) then health and safety may become personally important for the worker.

In short, transformational leadership helps engage workers’ heads, hearts and hands towards supporting the organisation.[14] With improved abilities, empowerment and motivation (and the better planning and organisation that this promotes) workers can perform their tasks better but will also proactively find and deal with areas for improvement.[15] This improves all aspects of an organisation’s performance.[16]

Transformational leadership skills aren’t the only show in town. Setting and monitoring goals, giving feedback and recognising good performance, are typically associated with a ‘transactional’ leadership style.[17] Nonetheless, they are important factors in promoting safety – but still need to be done in a positive way.

Getting on the coach
A transformational approach will not appear by magic, and it is important to get the foundations in place.

We generally recognise that health and safety behaviours are, ultimately, a manifestation of the health and safety culture of the team or company. Similarly, the way we communicate with our workers reflects underlying beliefs and values.

A manager might view their workers as freakishly large and hairy children who must do what they are told. If the manager observes unsafe behaviour, their agenda for the ensuing conversation may be to tell them off and stop their ‘unacceptable’ behaviour.

On the other hand, a manager may view workers as resourceful adults, who have important insights and ideas for improving performance. These managers are likely to approach a health and safety conversation with an open mind. With the right skills, they can give the worker an opportunity to express their opinions. There is likely to be a genuine two-way flow of communication, and both parties may come away with a better understanding of each other’s perspectives and more robust solutions.

Developing the soft skills of first line managers will not be much use if their own managers insist they tear a strip off a worker. It is also problematic if managers are given a bundle of new communication skills, but no support to act on the issues and ideas that these skills draw from the workforce. Leadership starts at the top of an organisation.[18] Therefore, managers at all levels need to do some honest reflection if they want to transform the leadership style in their organisation. Sometimes that process can be a little uncomfortable.

With solid foundations in place, a transformational approach then depends on us using effective, empowering communication skills. These skills can be learned. Executive coaching, for example, has been used alongside training to improve the transformational qualities of leaders.[9,7]

The use of coaching techniques in the Scandinavian study4 illustrates the potential benefits of coaching managers. Managers can also be coached to become effective coaches themselves. A coaching, empowering approach to communication is a key element of a transformational leadership style.[3,8] There have been some cracking articles in SHP about how and why coaching can be applied to improving health and safety.[20,21]

To sum up, a transformational approach will rely on us viewing our workforce as a resource and a source of insights. Communication skills, especially coaching skills, can help us to involve workers in planning and organising their work as well as building their abilities, confidence and capacity to manage risks.

The respect and care that is expressed through a transformational approach helps to engage workers’ heads, hearts and hands: they are more likely to care about the things that matter to a transformational leader and will be equipped with the confidence and skills to turn that care into action.

Nick Bell, CFIOSH, runs his own risk consultancy, Dr Peter Sykes is a principal lecturer and Dr Colin Powell is a member of the academic team at Cardiff School of Health Sciences, Cardiff Metropolitan University


  1. Zohar, D., & Luria, G. (2003). The use of supervisory practices as leverage to improve safety behavior: a cross level intervention model. Journal of Safety Research, 34, 567−577.
  2. Clarke, S. and Ward, K., 2006. The Role of Leader Influence Tactics and Safety Climate in Engaging Employees’ Safety Participation. Risk Analysis, 26(5), 1175-1185.
  3. Marsh, T., 2014. The art of communicating. SHP. Available online at:
  4. Kines, P., Andersen, L., Spangenberg, S., Mikkelsen, K., Dyreborg, J., Zohar, D., 2010. Improving construction site safety through leader-based verbal safety communication. Journal of Safety Research, 41, pp.399-406.
  5. Michael, J. H., Guo, Z. G., Wiedenback, J. K., & Ray, C. D. (2006). Production supervisor impacts on subordinates’ safety outcomes: An investigation of leader-member exchange and safety communication. Journal of Safety Research, 37, 469−477.
  6. Simons, T. (2002). Behavioral integrity: The perceived alignment between managers’ words and deeds as a research focus. Organization Science, 13, 18−35
  7. Lekka, C., Healey, N., 2012. A review of the literature on effective leadership behaviours for safety. HSE Books.
  8. Marsh, T., 2013. Mysterious Ways. SHP. Available online at:
  9. Bass, B., 1985. Leadership and Performance beyond Expectations. New York: Free Press.
  10. Bass, B., Avolio, B., Jung, D., Berson, Y., 2003. Predicting unit performance by assessing transformational transactional leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology. 88(2), 207-18.
  11. Martínez-Córcoles, M., Gracia, F., Tomás, I., Peiró, J., 2011. Leadership and employees’ perceived safety behaviours in a nuclear power plant: A structural equation model. Safety Science, 49 (8–9), pp. 1118-1129.
  12. Hansen, A, Byrne, Z and Kiersch, C (2014) How interpersonal leadership relates to employee engagement. “Journal of Managerial Psychology”, 29(8), 953-972.
  13. Hayati, D, Charkhabi, M and Naami, A (2014) The relationship between transformational leadership and work engagement in governmental hospitals nurses: a survey study. “SpringerPlus”, 3:25.
  14. Wollard, K., Shuck, B., 2011. Antecedents to Employee Engagement: A Structured Review of the Literature. Advances in Developing Human Resources. 13(4). 429-446.
  15. Saks, A., 2006. Antecedents and consequences of employee engagement. Journal of management Psychology. 21(7), 600-619.
  16. MacLeod, D., Clarke, N., 2009. Engaging for success: Enhancing Performance through employee engagement. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
  17. Shuck, B., Herd, A., 2012. Employee Engagement and Leadership: Exploring the Convergence of Two Frameworks and Implications for Leadership Development in HRD. Human Resource Development Review, 11(2), 156-181
  18. Bass, B., Riggio, R., 2006. Transformational Leadership. 2nd London: Lawrence Erblaum Associates Ltd.
  19. Mason, C., Griffin, M., Parker, S., Transformational leadership development: Connecting psychological and behavioral change’. Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 35(3), 174-194
  20. Byrne, R., 2011. A little more conversation. SHP. Available online at:
  21. Emery, M., 2013. The Profession – Convert to Type. SHP. Available online at:

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Brian Pyle
Brian Pyle
9 years ago

Ive been in helath and safety for nearly 20 years now either as a rep , or my present position as a safety officer . I decided to take the degree route of education and decided on tranformational leadership within health and safety for my dissertation . When studying the subject , which I strongly agree with , characters such as shackleton were used as examples . Transformational leadership is about selling the same goal , which I have found in my job is two sided sword of a safe workplace and the employees health .Jones (2006) recognised that, while… Read more »