The subject of workplace engagement is becoming increasingly popular, popping up in business magazines, cultural reviews and at safety conferences. Engaged employees have consistently shown to be more productive, healthier, less likely to leave and, most importantly from a health and safety perspective, safer.
Work performance and safety speak to different values, so engagement at work doesn’t necessarily translate to engagement in safety. But both can be achieved by similar means and there’s no reason for a company to not be committed to both—with management leading the way.
The importance of finding leaders
Management is one of the main forces in driving passion and commitment in the workforce. In fact, according to Gallup, workers with highly engaged managers are nearly 60 percent more engaged themselves. This drops to 2 percent when management is disengaged. So it’s highly unlikely that workers will be compliant, let alone committed to safety, if they’re led by someone who is unengaged and/or unengaging.
If organizations want leaders who can inspire engagement, they should start by finding the right people for the job. This is important because engagement increases to 71% for employees who work under managers that know and can articulate their strengths.
Unfortunately, in most cases, people who are promoted for managerial positions get there because they excelled in their previous role, not because they might be a good manager or the right type of leader.
The right type of leadership
What does it mean to be a good leader? Managerial styles vary but one of the most popular ones is embodied by transactional managers—they are results-focused and they use conventional rewards and punishments to gain compliance. Unfortunately, this approach can work in the short-term but does not create long-term engagement.
Conversely, leaders who embrace a transformational style of management can attain impressive levels of engagement in subordinates.
What’s important about transformational leaders is that they aren’t power figures—and yet they still earn more respect from employees than other types of managers get through coaxing or intimidation. And earned respect has a much better chance to inspire true commitment, which means that workers will be more likely to be engaged in safety and remain compliant even when nobody’s looking over their shoulder.
Transformational leaders also inspire engagement by realizing that sometimes short-term goals should take a back seat to the needs of workers. That’s because fulfilling these needs and empowering employees can lead to much higher levels of motivation and engagement in the long run.
For example, if workers complain about uncomfortable PPE, providing them with new, better-fitting models, even when the old ones are still in good condition, can have a huge positive impact. It shows that the leaders are listening and that they care. It also supports and encourages interest and active engagement in discussing safety issues, which can increase PPE use.
Additionally, transformational leaders see the importance of culture and endeavor to help workers see themselves as an integral part of that culture, creating valued relationships and a sense of community. This leads employees to be more likely to contribute to the group’s values and goals, including safe actions and compliance.
Lastly, true leaders understand the value of praise. People often underestimate the importance of encouragement and positive reinforcement. But the manager who chastises workers is not going to get true engagement or even compliance. Because when he or she looks away, things go back to “normal”. But a leader who praises safe behaviors and positively encourages compliance will make workers want to be safe.