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Ten Safety Leadership Skills for Success

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

There are fundamental leadership skills leaders need to exhibit to demonstrate genuine “owning it” for safety. These safety leadership skills represent observable and measurable knowledge, skills, abilities and personal attributes that contribute to increased discretionary effort and improved organizational safety culture. Caring about safety is not enough. Good intentions are put into practice through behaviors and skills. The following ten skills and proficiencies reflect safety leadership best practices.

1. Vision for safety. Leaders need to establish broad health and safety expectations for their organizations. This includes supporting proactive safety efforts beyond outcome statistics. It also involves maintaining focus on safety even when other organizational demands arise. This also involves having “tough” conversations with direct report leaders who aren’t setting the right tone for safety.

2. Engagement in safety. Leaders need to participate in safety supporting activities within the organization. This includes talking one-on-one with employees about safety and staying current with proactive safety improvement efforts.

3. Recognition for safety. Leaders should recognize exceptional safety behaviors and involvement in safety improvement efforts. This includes both individual conversations along with open discussions with work teams and groups.

4. Communication for safety. Leaders need to consistently and openly communicate specific proactive safety goals and objectives. This involves an emphasis on efforts and activities and not just safety outcome statistics. Leaders also promote psychological safety and encourage open and honest conversations about safety.

5. Teamwork for safety. Leaders need to support and sponsor safety efforts (and networking) across the organization. This includes promoting teamwork and avoiding unhealthy competition between groups.

6. Empowerment for safety. Do leaders include input from the appropriate organizational levels when making decisions? Do they use an appropriate management style for the situation when working with others to address safety concerns (e.g., delegating, coaching, directing, or supporting as explained in Chapter 6)? Do they set expectations, but allow autonomy and flexibility on goal setting and attainment.

7. Balancing safety and production. Effective leaders emphasize safety as much as production and quality in meetings, group discussions, and one-on-one conversations. Smart leaders address safety within the context of overall organizational performance and share that safety and production go hand-in-hand.

8. Input with safety decisions. Effective leaders always consider safety when making organizational decisions (e.g., scheduling, personnel levels, tools/equipment, policies). This includes soliciting and carefully reviewing employees’ perspectives when making important decisions. In these cases, employees believe management truly understands and appreciates their perspective instead of having an “us vs. them” mentality.

9. Sharing safety successes. Strong leaders share safety successes. Leaders often spend substantial time, energy and money to improve organizational safety, but they might not advertise this with employees. Leaders should not only address gaps but collectively celebrate safety efforts and milestones with employees.

10. Safety accountability. Effective leaders hold supervisors accountable for balancing safety and production demands, modeling safe behaviors, fostering a learning environment, and promoting psychological safety. In turn, supervisors feel supported by leaders to promote safety and don’t believe that production is the only important consideration.

Take a moment and reflect on these ten leadership skills. Which of these do you do well? Where do you need to improve? Tightening up these behavioral proficiencies will make you a more mindful and effective safety leader.

At Propulo, we coach leaders to focus on prosocial safety behaviors and avoid pitfalls that derail safety efforts. We can help your leaders stay on track and make step change improvements in your safety performance. For more information on this topic, read about Safety & Safety Culture at Propulo Consulting.

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