leadershipTransactional leadership is ok; transformational leadership is even better. That conclusion comes from a study by the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR), which surveyed more than 1,000 plumbers and pipefitters to find out what style of safety leadership yields the best results.

“Workers who believe that both the company headquarters and the field supervisors take occupational safety seriously are more likely to take the time and effort to work safely,” said Pete Stafford, CPWR Executive Director. “But leadership can take many forms: Which are most important?"

A compelling new vision

From the study, Safety Leadership by Example:

Transactional leadership aims to align the existing interests and preferences of team members and the organization of which they are a part; transformational leadership aims to instill team members with a compelling new vision wherein employees can work towards a unified purpose.

In short, transactional leadership is where supervisors reward safe behavior or punish unsafe behavior.

“They are striking a deal with employees: if I get something I want, you will get something you want,” said Stafford.

In transformational leadership, supervisors who are admired for their character, intelligence and skills can have a powerful influence on subordinates.

Idealized influence

From the study:

Both (types of leadership) have been associated with numerous positive safety outcomes, such as improved safety climate, increased safety behaviors, and decreased accidents and injuries. However, leadership is complex and multidimensional, and it is still unclear how these dimensions of leadership differentially relate to safety outcomes.

The researchers surveyed 1,167 construction pipefi tters and plumbers to link their perceptions of leadership with their assessment of safety culture and practices on the job.

Although most facets of transactional or transformational leadership were related to at least one safety outcome, idealized influence – where members admire the qualities and imitate the actions of workplace leaders – accounted for the most variance.

Making safety a priority

“That is,” said Stafford, “When trades employees saw a foreman they admired making safety a top priority, the workers began to make safety a higher priority as well.”

“That matches my experience. Other CPWR studies have shown that incentive programs that reward crews with prizes for safe work can actually discourage workers from reporting injuries when they do happen. This new study suggests that construction workers are motivated better by role models than by rewards for accident-free days.”  

The Differential Effects of Transformational Leadership Facets on Employee Safety appears in the February 2014 edition of Safety Science.

Click here to visit the CPWR website.