The safest workplaces don’t just have comprehensive rules and standards—they feature great leadership, too.
“Health and safety improvements are best achieved when health and safety are supported by the organisation’s culture,” says a Safe Work Australia spokesperson. “Leaders in organisations have a vital role to play.”
Here, Dr Dan Caprar, a psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of Sydney Business School, identifies seven essential traits for leaders hoping to improve workplace safety.
1. Encourage speaking up
Creating an environment in which employees feel able to report health and safety concerns as soon as they arise is crucial. “Leaders who don’t encourage the signalling of problems miss out on the opportunity to address those problems in the early stages when they are easier to address,” he says. “Worse, employees who feel the need to ‘cover up’ or work around safety issues are both less safe and less productive.”
2. React appropriately
Encouraging employees to signal problems isn’t worth much if those problems are not taken seriously. “If you dismiss a problem, explain it away, get angry or blame the bearer of bad news—which, by the way, is a common response in leaders who feel overwhelmed or not confident in their job—employees will quickly become disheartened and less likely to share in future,” Caprar says.
3. Understand all processes
Taking an interest in, and interacting with, workers across all levels makes employees feel valued and “seen”, which encourages safety reporting. “Knowing what happens in the organisation overall—what decisions are made, how employees feel and what concerns they have—is essential. This feeds into a key leadership capability, ‘sense making’, or the ability to understand what is happening within the organisation and outside of it.”
4. Don’t know it all
A humble attitude can help leaders achieve good results in several areas, especially around health and safety. Adopting an “I don’t know everything” stance can lead to better decision making. “Leadership today requires a learning mindset: constantly paying attention and noticing the dynamics at play, experimenting with new approaches and reflecting on how particular interventions help or don’t.”
5. Nudge don’t force
When leaders become aware of a health-and-safety issue, a common first instinct is to come down hard with consequences. Smart leaders can instead achieve results by creating small changes in the environment that prompt employees to make safer choices, Caprar says. Placing green arrows along the safest route across a factory floor is a simple example. “This is called ‘nudge theory’: that is, influencing behaviour not by coercion but by designing systems that naturally guide the person towards particular choices or behaviours.”
6. We’re in it together
“The idea of a hero who is in charge and who makes all the tough decisions is outdated,” says Caprar. Good leadership is more about encouraging others to make the best decisions on behalf of the organisation—especially around safety, as leaders rarely operate on a company’s frontline. “This means allowing others to be visible, supporting them in taking the spotlight, and creating systems that encourage and drive desired behaviours and choices.”
7. Performance isn’t everything
Safe Work Australia says many workplace injuries occur because employees are rushed, not because there is no safe option available. Yet most employees in high-risk occupations are aware of the risks. “They take those risks due to pressure or incentives to achieve a certain result,” Caprar says. “If a leader, for instance, rewards high performance without paying attention to how that performance is achieved, compliance with safety procedures will not be a priority for employees. So good leaders will take a broader, systemic approach to productivity.”
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