Using Servant Leadership to Empower Employees to Lead Safety Cultures

Annette Thom, Safety Advisor

Have you ever been in a OCIPs: a Strategy for Safety and Savingsposition where you were directed to present a safety initiative from management which you knew would not be accepted by the front-line workers? You take the initiative and all its materials, posters, etc., and then present it to the first shift. You see eye rolls, hear moans, and groans. Pretty much the reaction you expected.

Most safety professionals have been in this position, but have you ever wondered why so many employees have this type of reaction and roll their eyes at the safety initiatives? We all have our opinions, but one reason may very well be what is known as the Great Man Theory. The theory is based on how leadership has been defined for centuries and generations.

The theory is built on the idea that some people are greater than others, and that great leaders are born with the ability to lead. The theory bases itself on the idea that the rest of us are followers and should regard what leaders direct and say with awe. This archaic theory has had a profound effect on our safety culture, but until we effect change on the outdated ideas of business hierarchies then our probability of shifting a safety culture will be even more difficult than we initially thought.

This self-serving theory extends to hierarchies and businesses, too, and has become the status quo for many companies. The Great Men/Women assume they have all the wisdom and expect us to follow their commands without question or criticism, as this as is how it has “always” been done. People who have never climbed a scaffold or held a power tool are the leaders dictating safety initiatives, policies, and programs, and are penalizing workers who refuse to follow their orders. Unfortunately, their approach to leadership tends to promote negative behaviors, devalue participation, encourage fear, and suppress creativity. What once worked no longer provides the model needed in today’s business or safety initiatives.

A far more effective way to encourage safe workplace behaviors is a completely different approach known as Servant Leadership, which takes the traditional power leadership model and turns it upside down. Established by Terre Haute, Indiana native Robert Greenleaf, servant leadership assigns decision-making and other leadership roles to front-line employees as they perform their day-to-day tasks.

Safety management is a natural component of servant leadership. Instead of being a directive from a Great Man/Woman, it derives the initiatives from the employees who are most affected and who understand the hazards involved with their daily tasks. By believing that their own safety and that of their co-workers is in their hands, they take responsibility for the outcomes.

When front-line employees are given power over the direction of their safety programs and how they apply safety to their day-to-day tasks, they begin to self-monitor themselves and each other regarding safety. They become invested and use behavior-based observations in a non-formal environment.

An excellent example was a program I initiated while serving as the safety manager for a production facility where safety had not been a priority. After getting to know the employees and observing the work, I proposed the development of a collaborative safety committee made up of workers across all functions and shifts, with no involvement from supervisors. I explained to the front-line workers I’d be there to help them organize and plan their meetings and to serve as a resource when needed, but I wouldn’t tell them what to do.

Initially, management was cool to the change from their traditional top-down approach to safety. But after they noticed growing enthusiasm on the part of the employees, their perspective began to shift. They approved a trial run, as long as I agreed to share updates at their weekly management meeting. They also allowed overtime pay and shift flexibility so the workers who had been selected by their peers would have adequate time to meet.

I provided the support and guidance, and removed hurdles as their safety manager, but it was the front-line employees who owned and facilitated the process. At meetings, the committee members shared the hazards associated with their day-to-day tasks and discussed strategies for mitigation. The improvements were immediate, as noted by an employee who turned to me and said, “We’ve accomplished more in one month than management has in the last two years.” The management team was also impressed, thanked the participants for their efforts, and made the committee an ongoing element of the facility’s safety culture.

Servant leadership allows employees to use their knowledge and creativity to engage in the business of safety. It gives them the power to protect themselves and their co-workers so people are less likely to be hurt on the job. Having a safety vision and including front-line employees in the decision-making process removes barriers for them to accomplish the safety goals within their work environment.

Moving to a servant leadership approach is an important and impactful safety culture change. It’s a reminder that leaders are not actually in charge of people, but that they are charged with the care of people. Servant leadership is all about caring, because a servant leader actually puts everybody else’s well-being in front of their own. A servant leader gives the opportunity to the employee to take control and help others, and when allowed to do so most employees will do step up to the invitation.

Convincing front-line workers that they can take responsibility takes effort and building of trust, but the other side of this roadblock is convincing the organization’s leadership of the benefits. Management needs to accept how their role should change, for the benefit of all. Now, instead of being the Great Man/Woman in charge, they have become a partner with the front-line employee, and must share full responsibility when a plan does not produce the desired results. Taking responsibility of a failed initiative, devised by employees, is an example of the actions of a true servant leader.

What makes a great safety servant leader? As noted earlier, it involved putting the benefit of others ahead of one’s self-interest. When it comes to safety, servant leaders walk the talk and lead by example. They have open-door polices and a willingness to listen to any safety ideas, solutions, and concerns, because they value the front-line employees’ insight and contributions. Servant leaders also seek opportunities to help their team members become the best they can be by giving them responsibilities that enhance their strengths and promote their careers. Are you ready to become a servant leader, and change your safety culture?

The servant leadership model assumes that there’s a leader in every one of us. Servant leaders are not born, they are developed. In a safety context, it can deliver both great results and great human satisfaction. What company or leadership team would not want to see that result?

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