Creating the right climate for safety
Leaders need to show their competency, and their caring for co-workers
During my college summer breaks, I worked at a few different high-risk construction sites. On one job, I had a boss who liked to holler and was not very well liked. He was known as Hog Jaws and I’ve mentioned him previously.
He seemed reasonably competent but was all about getting the job done in ways that made him look good. He showed little respect for his workers or their personal safety. I also believe he felt that his commanding size and booming voice was positively intimidating and made him a better leader. He got the job done, but at a cost that was never fully measured.
The following summer, I worked for the same company but for an entirely different kind of supervisor. His name was Jim. He was very knowledgeable, respectful, and he cared about his people. He learned everyone’s name, explained the job and why it had to be done in a particular way. He ate with his workers and cared about their safety. Jim was a great boss who captured hearts and minds!
Later that summer, near the end of one of our shifts, I was operating an overhead crane and in a bit of a rush. I was pushing a few of other cranes toward the end of the facility. While pushing these cranes, I left one of my hooks down and near the opposite end of my bridge. A very bad mistake!
Suddenly, I hooked onto a jib crane below and BOOM! I thought my crane was coming of the rails and I was going to crash to my death. My heart was pounding! The outcome could have been really bad and I thought I was in big trouble with Jim. But he quietly called me down from the crane and explained the importance of where to stow my hooks. Jim understood that I had little experience and barely any training. Jim stayed well into the morning to repair the damaged equipment.
Trust in competency
Research suggests that leadership competencies and knowledge are very important in forming individual and group related trust, but that’s not all you need (Schaubroeck, Lam, Pen, 2011).1 You see, Hog Jaws had job-specific competencies that helped to develop cognitive or head-based trust in his followers, but that trust was limited. Most workers accepted his direction and did what was necessary to get their work done, but little more. Many people did not believe he had their best interests in mind nor their personal safety. Some workers resisted his direction altogether.
Trust in leader’s vision
In contrast, Jim had leadership competencies that allowed him to sell his vision of the job and to work through the changing dynamics of a project. But he also developed emotionally or affective-based trust with his workers through empathy, understanding, respect, and by building ongoing rapport with his workers. This in turn brought about more individual and team-related engagement. He got everyone to believe in each other and molded a collection of individuals into a close-knit team.
Jim had both head and heart power!
Making an emotional connection
Why is it important to distinguish between these two forms of trust?
For one, transformational-based leadership is closely tied to leaders who drive performance through competence, which is often important in dynamic and changing environments, much like we find in construction.
But it’s also important to address affective-based leadership dimensions that relate closely to emotional connections and relationships. This is vitally important for projects that are stable and last for longer periods of time. And this is largely Servant Leadership. These jobs often require an emotional connection, a bit more selfless leadership, team cohesiveness, and aspects of conflict resolution.
Creating psychological safety
Leaders who develop cognitive or competency-based trust as well as emotional or relationship-based trust help to create a climate with greater psychological safety, which subsequently leads to increased autonomy, decision making, and leadership at the worker level. This is also reflective of a positive climate where people feel safe with regard to speaking up about safety-related concerns — and a climate where reporting of serious issues is encouraged, openly discussed and appropriately abated.
What type of leadership do you want?
It’s been more than 30 years since I’ve worked for Jim but I’ll never forget him. Some of the work he planned and directed was exceptionally creative, resourceful, and productive. And on occasion, he likely saved my life!
Jim developed head-based trust as well as heart-based trust. He had great hands-on knowledge, made tough decisions, was firm, and we trusted in him because he showed that he really cared about us.
So I have to ask, would you rather have more Hog Jaws or Jims, and whom would you rather work for?