Improving Health and Safety Culture with Transformational Leadership

Just by virtue of being transformational, a leader can improve health and safety outcomes. If you are a transformational leader, workers will understand that you care about them, their health, and their safety, which will allow them to work in a safer and healthier way.

Many people say that success comes from a mix of luck and hard work. You might need to hit at the right time or otherwise get lucky, but if everyone works hard, your business will be more productive and thus more successful. But as a leader, how do you convince everyone to work as hard as they need to in order to get the job done well? Where does the luck stop and where can you work as a leader to increase your chances of success, while helping to ensure a safe workplace?

In the more traditional mode of leadership, known as transactional leadership, a leader will focus on the task at hand or the output of that task, whether it is a product or service. While your employees might work hard, they will be less invested in your organization and product if they feel you only care about their work. With transformational leadership, a leader will focus on not just the task, but also the person doing the task. This style of leadership shows that you, as a leader, truly respect and value the people in your organization, which in turn will inspire not just hard work, but also excellence and dedication from your employees.

By showing those you work with that you care about them you can achieve better results

“Imagine a stick figure without a head,” says Rick Fulwiler, PhD, CIH, CSHM, a program director at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, President of Technology Leadership Associates, and the former Director of Health and Safety Worldwide at Procter and Gamble. “That is a model of transactional leadership – focused on work, tasks, and output. Now add a smiley face and a heart to that stick figure. That’s how a transformational leader sees the workforce – as a whole person, with a head and a heart. By engaging the whole worker in the work process, whatever that process is, you end up with a better product.”

Transformational leadership principles can help you succeed whether or not you’re an executive at your organization. By showing those you work with that you care about them, you can achieve better results in a more positive workplace. Transformational leadership skills can also help you become a better parent, friend, teacher, or with any other intrapersonal relationship you might have, as it is a way to show people you value them.

“Ultimately, there are two things that transformational leadership does,” says Fulwiler. “The first is to drive engagement. The second is to develop a mutual self-interest in output between the leader and the employees. This mutual self-interest is demonstrated and established through listening and communicating.”

Listening, according to Fulwiler, is the most critical transformational leadership skill set that everyone should develop. It is something that most people don’t do as well as they think they do, but it is the key to caring about others, which is the key to getting excellence from them.

“Transformational behavior is the best behavior you can have,” says Fulwiler.

Transformational Leadership in Workplace Health and Safety

Just by virtue of being transformational, a leader can improve health and safety outcomes, according to Fulwiler. If you are a transformational leader, workers will understand that you care about them, their health, and their safety, which will allow them to work in a safer and healthier way. Rather than emphasizing the safety record, says Fulwiler, a transformational leader will emphasize that what they care about is the people who might be getting hurt. Convincing your employees that you value them will help them be free to work in ways that prioritize their safety.

As an example of the effect of transformational leadership on health, safety, and environment, as well as productivity, Fulwiler cites Paul O’Neill, who served as CEO at Alcoa, the aluminum manufacturer. The first thing O’Neill said when he became CEO was that the most important thing in the company is to make sure that no one gets hurt while working there. During O’Neill’s tenure at Alcoa, not only did the safety record improve dramatically from 1.86 lost work days to injury per 100 workers to 0.2, but profits also went from $3 billion to $7.5 billion.

“O’Neill said that putting profits over people is always a stupid idea,” says Fulwiler. “It’s very powerful when a CEO puts that idea out there.”

Furthermore, there is evidence that prioritizing people in any workplace will lead to better profits. When a leader can show that they care about their workers, the workers are more likely to care about customers, which will positively impact business outcomes. Being safe is positive for business, both in terms of the tangible value of healthy workers and the intangible benefits of having workers who feel valued and safe at their workplace. As Fulwiler puts it, “you’ll get excellence out of someone if they’re convinced you care about them.”

How to Become a Transformational Leader

While Fulwiler says there are many skill sets one can use to become a more transformational leader, he and his colleagues have identified five interrelated leadership skills that are most critical to develop:

  • Listen: While many of us might think of ourselves as good listeners, few of us have had any training on how to listen effectively. Listening is an active process, and a transformational leader demonstrate a willingness to actively listen to workers. This means striving to understand before being understood, listening for meaning and feeling instead of just facts, and not interrupting.
  • Communicate: In addition to being able to genuinely listen to employees, transformational leaders must also be able to communicate effectively with them and with customers. This means communicating in the language of workers and customers, so that they understand not just what it is you’re asking them to do, but also understand that you recognize them as people, rather than just their output.
  • Care: This, according to Fulwiler, is the most critical skill set for transformational leaders. Being a transformational leader means caring about the person doing the task. To become an effective transformational leader, you must be able to demonstrate this caring, by being demonstratively interested and sensitive to the needs of others. This is especially crucial when it comes to health and safety.
  • Be collegial: To be a truly transformational leader, you should be able to connect with people in a very real way. While not everyone can be friendly all the time, a transformational leader should be willing to interact with people at all levels of the organization and make them feel at ease. This can be accomplished by expressing empathy, sympathy, and gratitude, being willing to coach others, and being comfortable speaking in front of groups.
  • Engage: A transformational leader should be able to engage workers both above and below them in their organization. This entails demonstrating personal connections with those you are trying to engage, to show that workers are more than their output. According to Fulwiler, the crucial piece of engagement is linking the workers’ needs with the company mission, which will ultimately help optimize productivity.

Dr. Rick Fulwiler directs Management and Leadership Skills for Environmental Health and Safety Professionals at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. To learn more about this opportunity, click here.