Three Types of Safety Leadership Approach


Every day, employees, supervisors and managers have many opportunities to communicate and act in ways that demonstrate safety leadership. Unfortunately, these opportunities go unanswered because they are not seen as opportunities. Employers and managers do not understand that the simple expression of tough-caring safety leadership can result in enormous benefits. The inability to perceive leadership opportunities as they arise limits the company’s potential to succeed.

It’s appropriate to assume that employees at all levels of the organization are good people trying to do the best they can with what they’ve got. The problem is, they don’t always have the physical resources and psychosocial support to achieve the kind of results expected of them. Why? Ultimately, the workplace culture may not support effective safety management and leadership.

The way we perceive “The way things are around here”…can exert a great influence on leadership styles. We can associate three fundamental leadership styles to the three management imperatives discussed above. Let’s take a look at this association.

Tough-Coercive Leadership

In this leadership approach, managers are tough on safety to protect themselves: to avoid penalties. The manager’s approach to controlling performance may primarily rely on the threat of punishment. The objective is to achieve compliance to fulfill legal or fiscal imperatives. The culture is fear-driven. Management resorts to an accountability system that emphasizes negative consequences. By what managers do and say, they may communicate negative messages to employees that establish or reinforce negative relationships. Here are some examples of what a tough-coercive leader might say:

  • Punishment – “If I go down…I’m taking you all with me!” (I’ve heard this myself!)
  • Punishment – “If you violate this safety rule, you will be fired.”
    • Punishment – “If you report hazards, you will be labeled a complainer.”
    • Negative reinforcement – “If you work accident free, you won’t be fired.”

As you might guess, fear-driven cultures, by definition cannot be effective in achieving world-class safety because employees work (and don’t work) to avoid a negative consequence. Employees and managers all work to avoid punishment. Consequently, fear-driven thoughts, beliefs and decisions may be driving their behaviors. Bottom-line: a fear-driven safety culture will not work. It can not be effective for employees and managers at any level of the organization. It may be successful in achieving compliance, but that’s it.

Tough-coercive leadership is not effective.

Tough-coercive leadership is not effective.

Tough-Controlling Leadership

Managers primarily using this approach are tough on safety to control losses. They have high standards for behavior and performance, and they control all aspects of work to ensure compliance.

This leadership approach is most frequently exhibited in the “traditional” management model. As employers gain greater understanding, attitudes and strategies to fulfill their legal and fiscal imperatives improve. They become more effective in designing safety systems that successfully reduce injuries and illnesses, thereby cutting production costs. Tight control is necessary to achieve numerical goals. Communication is typically top-down and information is used to control. A safety “director” is usually appointed to act as a cop: responsible for controlling the safety function.

Tough-controlling leaders move beyond the threat of punishment as the primary strategy to influence behavior. However, they will rely to a somewhat lesser extent on negative reinforcement and punishment to influence behavior. Positive reinforcement may also be used as a controlling strategy. Tough-controlling leadership styles may or may not result in a fear-based culture. Examples of what you might hear from a tough-controlling leader include:

  • Negative reinforcement – “If you have an accident, you’ll be disciplined.”
  • Negative reinforcement – “If you don’t have an accident, you won’t lose your bonus.”
  • Positive reinforcement – “If you comply with safety rules, you will be recognized.”
Tough-controlling safety leadership is not truly effective.
Tough-controlling safety leadership is not truly effective.

Tough-Caring Leadership

Managers are tough on safety because they have high expectations and they insist their followers behave, and they care about the success of their employees first. This is a self-less leadership approach.

The tough-caring leadership model represents a major shift in leadership and management thinking from the selfish tough controlling model.

  • Managers understand that complying with the law, controlling losses, and improving production can best be assured if employees are motivated, safe, and able.
  • Management understands that they can best fulfill their commitment to external customers by fulfilling their obligations to internal customers: their employees.
  • Communication is typically all-way: information is used to share so that everyone succeeds.

A quantum leap in effective safety (and all other functions) occurs when employers adopt a tough-caring approach to leadership. Rather than being the safety cop, the safety manager is responsible to “help” all line managers and supervisors “do” safety. Line managers must be the cops, not the safety department. This results in dramatic positive changes in corporate culture which is success-driven.

Positive Reinforcement

Although positive reinforcement is the primary strategy used to influence behaviors, tough-caring leaders are not reluctant in administering discipline when it’s justified because they understand it to be a matter of leadership. However, before they discipline, managers will first evaluate the degree to which they, themselves, have fulfilled their obligations to their employees. If they have failed in that effort, they will apologize and correct their own deficiency rather than discipline. What are you likely to hear from a tough-caring leader? Here are three examples:

  • Positive reinforcement – “If you comply with safety rules, report injuries and hazards, I will personally recognize you.”
  • Positive reinforcement – “If you get involved in the safety committee, you will be more promotable.”
  • Positive reinforcement – “If you suggest and help make improvements, I will personally recognize and reward you.”

You can imagine that in a tough-caring safety culture, trust between management and labor is promoted through mutual respect, involvement and ownership in all aspects of workplace safety.

Tough-caring leadership is most effective.

Tough-caring safety leadership is most effective.
Source: Course 700 – Introduction to Safety Management OSHAcademy