Safe Production Leadership Competency Series: Active Caring Promotes Positive Safety Culture

By Kelly Hamilton, Madison Hanscom, & Josh Williams, Ph.D.

A common complaint of employees is that leadership doesn’t dedicate enough time to listen to and respond to their needs. Over time, this can lead workers to believe their leaders don’t care about them or their concerns, which can erode safety culture. Active Caring is a core leadership competency because it demonstrates organizational support and fosters a sense of support and trust among employees, leading to positive outcomes for employees, the team, and the entire organization.

How can leaders demonstrate Active Caring?

Leaders exhibit Active Caring in three primary ways:

• Show personal concern and respect for employees. To do this, leaders can utilize active listening and pay close attention to subordinates’ individual needs (physical, psychological) both inside and outside of work, acknowledging that what happens outside of work also affects the work domain. Research has found that when leaders show personal concern and respect for employees as individuals, those employees are more likely to perform safety behaviors and contribute to a positive safety culture.

• Be open and receptive to safety related information. This promotes psychological safety in that employees will feel safe reporting mistakes. Research has demonstrated that leader receptiveness is related to subordinates’ willingness to raise safety issues.

• Practice empathy, compassion, and humility. Being empathetic and humble fosters a sense of being cared for by the leader and organization they represent. Research has found that supportive leadership positively impacts safety compliance and safety participation.

Together, these behaviors describe people-oriented leadership—the degree to which employees feel their management cares about workers and how they are treated. In addition to the benefits stated above, research has found that people-oriented leadership is negatively associated with risk-taking behaviors and physical health complaints.

Examples from the field:

A new plant manager at a steel mill inherited an unhealthy culture with significant distrust between managers and employees. One of his first acts as plant manager was to set up 30-minute meetings with every employee in the facility to discuss whatever issues were on their mind (safety or otherwise). He called the meetings “30 minutes with Bob” and promoted these meetings in person, during meetings, via email and through other communication channels. When we arrived on site to conduct safety training, a number of employees told us how much they liked the meetings and appreciated his effort. Employees referenced the meetings as an indication the new leader cares about his employees. This simple move sparked a change in the hearts and minds of the employees and demonstrated legitimate Active Caring.

A director in Aerospace regularly held conversations on the shop floor with field level employees. She would provide lunch in their typical eating area with 5-8 employees at a time. She started the conversation with what was going on in their lives (their family, activities, travel plans, etc.) and then would ask about their job. The conversation was solely focused on them, she never brought up her work or activities in these lunches unless they asked. She always remembered employee names and would say hi to each individual by name when walking through the plant, and if time allowed – she would have a short conversation asking about something in their life. The employees felt valued, because she demonstrated that she actually cared. This created incredibly strong morale, and whenever a change was needed in the workplace, they were supportive of her direction.

This post is part of a blog series on Propulo Safe Production Leadership Competencies.

Read about the other competencies:

Walk the Talk
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.”


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