Safe Production Leadership Competency Series: Walk the Talk

Leadership competencies


By Kelly Hamilton, Madison Hanscom, & Josh Williams

It is not uncommon for leaders – who are pulled in many directions at once – to take shortcuts when it comes to safety. This can be detrimental, however, to safety culture and employees’ safety behaviors. In fact, research has shown that when employees perceive their leaders are not acting in ways that align with the company’s stated safety values, it leads to a decrease in safety compliance, a decrease in prioritization of avoiding accidents, and an increase in injuries.

Leaders who effectively “walk the talk” demonstrate to employees that their safety is the main priority in words and action. Behaviors within this competency help to build trust among followers, which is the followers’ belief that leaders will act in their best interest. This in turn helps create improved safety culture, morale, and safety outcomes.

How can leaders Walk the talk? At its core, walking the talk involves leaders acting in ways that align with their stated values and the stated values of the company. Leaders can do this in four main ways:

Demonstrating integrity and personal commitment to safety. To exhibit safety-specific integrity, leaders must act in ways that align with company safety expectations and values and demonstrate a personal commitment to safety in both words and action. Research has shown that perceptions of leaders’ commitment to safety is associated with lower accidents and injuries.

Role model positive safety behaviors. It is important that leaders practice what they preach by following all safety policies and practices themselves, as it demonstrates for employees what safety behaviors are expected and also fosters trust.

Spend time out in the field with employees. Leaders should ensure they have a physical presence by scheduling time specifically for on-site interactions with employees. Visibility demonstrates availability and support, which facilitate work engagement, job satisfaction, and positive safety behaviors.

Provide respectful safety coaching. Leaders should commit to having dedicated time with each employee, such as one-on-one meetings, to further demonstrate support and provide feedback. Providing positive feedback is most effective for cultivating a positive psychological safety climate and encouraging incident reporting.

Taken together, when employees perceive that their leaders’ safety expectations are in alignment with their actions (a concept known as safety-specific integrity), they are more likely to comply with safety guidelines themselves and to prioritize avoiding accidents and less likely to suffer injuries and get into accidents. They are also more likely to experience psychological safety, which is linked to higher levels of reporting safety errors.

Examples from the field:
• Managers and supervisors at a steel mill were concerned about compliance problems with lock-out/tag-out (LOTO) procedures. Rather than immediately threatening employees to comply, managers walked around and spoke with hourly employees running the equipment. They discovered that the LOTO procedures were overly complicated and the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for LOTO were written for engineers, not hourly employees. To solve this problem, they brought in engineers, safety professionals, supervisors, and hourly employees to collectively streamline the LOTO process and revise the SOPs with user-friendly language. Overnight, the LOTO issue became a non-issue. Getting employee input with rules and other important topics leads to better decision making and improved morale. Leaders demonstrated “walking the talk” in this case by being visible, soliciting employee feedback, listening to concerns and recommendations, and following through on action item improvements.

• A plant manager of a mine site found the time in his schedule to attend all morning pre-shift meetings for which attendance was required by workers but not necessarily for himself. He valued pre-shift meetings, and in order to practice what he preached, he made an attempt to show up. His goal was to show support and highlight the importance of these meetings as an effort to walk the talk. This proved effective: the company saw an increase in incident reporting and positive feedback from employees.

• By contrast, leaders undermine safety efforts when they don’t walk the talk. In one company, the safety department fought for months to get employees to accept stricter requirements with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as safety glasses, shoes, and hearing protecting. Unfortunately, their efforts were undermined by a television interview in which the company CEO answered a reporter’s questions (about company profits) on the shop floor, during operations, without any PPE. Many employees saw the interview on the news and decided they too no longer needed to use their PPE. If the leader had work PPE during the interview, it would have sent a message about the importance of doing so and not the message that safety precautions are not necessary.

This post is part of a blog series on Propulo Safe Production Leadership Competencies. Read about the other competencies:
Actively Care
Build and Live the Vision
Recognize and Foster Growth
Drive Thinking and Speaking

At Propulo, we work with leaders to develop micro-habits associated with effective leadership behaviors. We can help your company make safety “who we are” instead of “something we do.”