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Construction site supervisor and workers

A World-Class Safety Culture Starts with Frontline Leadership Skills

By Eduardo Lan

Most of the executives and senior leaders we talk to understand the crucial role that foremen and supervisors play in determining the success of any business, operation or project in all aspects related to productivity, quality and safety. After all, it is they, foremen and supervisors, who set the day-to-day agenda, tone, priorities and overall direction for all workers and lead the organizational subculture that drives daily decisions and behaviours out on the frontlines, where it most counts. It is no wonder, then, that frontline leadership is often referred to as the point at which “the rubber meets the road.” According to Hansen, J. . T. L. (1987), “despite a number of successful efforts in establishing self-supervising work teams, the traditional first-line supervisor (FLS) continues to be one of the important persons in any work organization.”

At the same time, many of the executives and senior leaders we advise readily acknowledge that they are less than fully satisfied with the performance of their foremen and supervisors. Oftentimes, they believe they could provide better oversight of the workers they supervise, along with higher levels of productivity, quality and safety. In terms of safety, organizations look to foremen and supervisors to be safety leaders, model safe behaviours, and integrate safety into all aspects of the job planning process, including at toolbox meetings, post job debriefs and shift handoffs. Doing this effectively, however, requires certain key safety leadership skills that many foremen and supervisors lack, even though “a growing body of research supports the importance of supervisors’ safety leadership in promoting employees’ engagement in safety (Conchie, S. M., Moon, S., & Duncan, M., 2013).

This gap in safety leadership skills is not surprising.

Most foremen and supervisors rose up through the ranks by being exceptional individual performers, which may be a desirable quality as an individual worker but is often in sharp contrast with the skills required as a leader who is responsible for collective performance. Moreover, few foremen or supervisors receive the comprehensive training, mentoring and coaching they will need to be high-performing leaders, whether in terms of safety or production. As such, many of them struggle to be effective leaders, which has a negative impact on all those involved and on the organization’s results, including those related to safety culture and performance. We propose that this gap is the responsibility of the organization, and not of the individual foremen or supervisor (Hansen, J. . T. L., 1987). This is good news, as it means that there is something that can be done to close the gap which is in the hands of the organization.

At Propulo Consulting we specialize in helping organizations transform their safety culture and develop safety leadership at the senior and frontline levels, including superintendents, foremen and supervisors.  Stay tuned for our next blog on the importance of foremen and supervisors creating their ‘why’ for safety.

References:

Conchie, S. M., Moon, S., & Duncan, M. (2013). Supervisors’ engagement in safety leadership: Factors that help and hinder. Safety Science51(1), 109–117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssci.2012.05.020

Hansen, J. . T. L. (1987). Management’s Impact On First-Line Supervisor Effectiveness. SAM Advanced Management Journal (07497075)52(1), 41.

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