man in scrubs holding mask; wearing a mask is part of demonstrating Leadership Competencies during Covid Re-Entry

Leadership Competencies and Covid Re-Entry

By Josh Williams, Ph.D. and Madison Hanscom, Ph.D.

Leaders are looking for direction to manage employees during COVID re-entry. Leaders need to juggle business realities, employees’ physical safety, and emerging mental health struggles that people are facing. Our leadership competency model is a useful framework to guide leadership behaviors as we begin getting back to work. 

Five leadership competencies

Safety leadership competencies represent the knowledge, skills, and abilities that contribute to increased discretionary effort and improved organizational safety culture. Anchored in years of research and experience, our team has identified five core competencies to optimize safety culture: Actively Care, Walk the Talk, Build/Live the Vision, Recognize Often/Foster Growth, and Drive Thinking and Speaking. Leaders who exhibit these competencies will more effectively lead employees (both onsite and virtually), especially in this challenging transition period.


Active Caring

Leaders exhibit active caring by showing personal concern and respect for employees, being open and receptive with others, and practicing empathy, compassion, and humility. Employees who feel appreciated and believe their leaders care about them take fewer risks on the job than those who don’t believe this (Størseth, 2004, 2006). During this re-entry period, leaders need to create an open environment where employees are comfortable bringing up issues, concerns, and suggestions. Leaders who actively and empathically listen will respond more appropriately. This helps people feel valued and appreciated, leading to greater discretionary effort now and in the future.

Walk the Talk

Leaders walk the talk for safety by role modeling positive safety behaviors, spending time out in the field with employees (at a safe distance), providing respectful safety coaching, and demonstrating integrity and commitment to safety. Leaders who effectively “walk the talk” create improved safety culture, morale, and trust with employees. Doing this is associated with employees following safety rules more often and an overall decrease in the frequency and severity of injuries (Halbesleben et al., 2013). Leaders need to make sure they’re following COVID guidelines (e.g., masks, physical distancing) at all times because employees will be watching now more than ever. They also need to continue stressing the importance of safe work behaviors (e.g., using a harness, proper lock-out/tag-out) to avoid serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs). Setting the right example demonstrates commitment to safety and everyone’s overall health and well-being.

Build and Live the Vision

Leaders build and live the vision by clearly defining the vision for desired safety performance, living these values themselves, demonstrating the vision in daily interactions, and sharing the vision in a compelling way. The primary vision now is ensuring the health and safety of coworkers and expressing concern for their friends and family. Research shows that employees who feel meaning and value for their safety commitment demonstrate higher levels of discretionary effort for safety efforts and initiatives (Griffin & Hu, 2013). More than ever, leaders need to stress compassion over compliance when it comes to working safely for yourselves and others.

Recognize and Foster Growth

Leaders should recognize and foster growth by showing genuine appreciation for employees, investing in team growth, and providing more recognition for desired safety behaviors. Leaders who regularly recognize employees and facilitate growth increase discretionary effort and improve organizational safety culture. Research demonstrates that increasing the quantity and quality of safety recognition improves safety outcomes and safety culture (Zohar, 2002; Kines et al., 2010). Genuine recognition promotes safe behaviors and employees should be thanked and appreciated for working safely with the myriad of distractions and anxieties they’re facing right now.

Drive Thinking and Speaking

Leaders drive thinking and speaking by creating an environment of psychological safety, getting employee input for safety solutions, encouraging system thinking, and reinforcing teamwork and collaboration. Leaders who effectively create this environment increase employee engagement and decrease the likelihood of serious
injuries and fatalities. Research shows that leaders who create open environments where employees regularly provide input with safety issues and decisions experience significant improvements in safety performance (Hale, Guldenmund, van Loenhout, and Oh, 2010). Leaders need to encourage employees to speak up and involve them in important decision-making during this transition period. This leads to better decisions, more open communication, and improved safety culture.


Leaders should exhibit these five core competencies to effectively lead employees during this re-entry period. People are more likely to get hurt when they’re tired, distracted, and experiencing stress. Leaders who display these competencies now are demonstrating their caring and commitment to keeping everyone safe and healthy. People will remember this long after COVID is gone. 


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