Want better safety outcomes? Try servant leadership!
Check your ego
Twenty-five years ago, as a young safety professional, I struggled to find a set of leadership practices I could call my own. In 1996, I wrote about many of the leadership practices I was already using but found more clearly established in Servant Leadership (Sarkus, 1996). Since then, I’ve helped my client’s leaders better understand and use servant leadership as a powerful base of influence and some of the results have been nothing short of remarkable.
Check your ego
Generally, servant leaders look out for others before taking care of their own needs. They typically place their agenda aside – they’re not self-serving. They principally choose to serve others through a vision for safety, listening, empathy, persuasion, and the empowerment of others. The selfless dimension of servant leaders helps them to better influence the safety-related attitudes and actions of their followers because they aren’t manipulative. Trust is critically important to the servant leader, particularly at the worker-level, and evolves into greater efficiencies and an improved safety climate (Goh & Low, 2014).
Servant leaders and trust
Engaged workers are formed when supervisors are credible (having both expertise and trustworthiness). Workers commit to their supervisor and their goals because that supervisor is well liked, respected, and credible. In terms of influence, individuals tend to work in (safer) ways to maintain a positive relationship with a leader who cares about them and has high expectations for safety.
As we know, relationships do matter, and the servant leader has a strong desire to care for his workers’ safety above their personal needs. Uniquely, the servant leader understands the ethical dimensions that relate to their role as a leader, which in turn guides their intentions and actions to care for their workers, even when production challenges may compromise worker safety. Credibility, or even trust alone, leads to broader forms of positive organizational change.
Self and collective-efficacy
When trust is nurtured, servant leaders don’t continue to rely exclusively on their own power and influence, but desire to give it away — to empower others. I continue to see more organizational leaders create better and safer workplaces by increasing a worker’s self-competence and confidence (their self-efficacy). These same leaders help to empower their workers as peer-leaders. These champions for safety positively influence the attitudes and actions of their co-workers. Overall, improvements in individual and collective efficacy lead to a greater shared commitment to the mission of a given group — and in our case — getting the job done safely, efficiently, and effectively. Servant leaders create more servant leaders and a larger sphere of influence for safety, beyond what any one leader can do, alone.
Climate for safety
How do things change even more? Well, the worker’s perception of what’s going around him becomes more positive — that’s the climate for safety. Workers like what they see. There’s a good overall view about how people are treated, and workers appreciate leaders who treat them fairly. Regarding safety-related discipline, there’s a deliberate intention to apply fairness which translates into greater employee safety engagement and ownership. It also leads to more openness in communications within work groups and increased reporting of near-misses largely because the fear of punishment and harmful peer pressure is appropriately diminished — first through the servant leader and then through their workers. I’ve seen greater forms of empowerment, ownership, and a sense of community, where nearly everyone looks out for their co-worker’s safety, predominantly when leaders serve first.
Can you see the progression?
The servant leader has a strong desire to care for others and their safety. This in turn builds greater forms of trust as the servant leader persuades, gives away more power — creating more servant leaders. The effect now becomes broader and wider — shaping a more open and positive climate for safety and a greater sense of community and ownership (Walumbwa, Hartnell & Oke, 2010).
Servant leadership and servant leaders aren’t about making everyone happy. Servant leaders are about possessing and sharing a personal vision for the critical importance of safety because they’re concerned about every individual, especially their safety; and have a parallel concern for productivity.
“Good leaders must first become good servants… and for something great to happen, there must be a great dream. Behind every great achievement is a dreamer of great dreams. Much more than a dreamer is required to bring it to reality; but the dream must be there first.” — Robert K. Greenleaf
I’ve always had a great dream for safety, how about you?
- Goh, S.K. & Low, Z.J. (2014). The influence of servant leadership towards organizational commitment: the mediating role of trust in leaders. International Journal of Business and Management, Vol. 9, No. 1, 17—26.
- Sarkus, D.J. (1996) Servant leadership in safety: advancing the cause and practice. Professional Safety, 41(6), 26-32.
- Walumbwa, C.A., Hartnell, C.A. and Oke, A. (2010). Servant leadership, procedural justice climate, service climate, employee attitudes, and organizational citizenship behavior: a cross—level investigation. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 95, No. 3, 517—529.