The idea of what it means to manage people well is changing. And subsequently, so are the management styles used by organizations—they now lean toward leadership and growth instead of performance management. “Soft” skills (also known as people skills) are becoming more appreciated, especially in organizations that understand that people want to feel engaged.
Motivation and change are needed to engage employees in safety when old-fashioned management styles simply are not working. Research points to the importance of encouragement, shared information, and praise. Here are a few main points that can help organizations get out of a managing rut and start leading their workforce towards safety engagement.
Recognition is essential to creating a better culture and engaging employees in their work. In one study, nearly half of the employees reported that management’s recognition was vital to their job satisfaction. In safety, this can easily be achieved by giving employees recognition for proactive actions like reminding their colleagues to wear PPE, pointing out unsafe conditions or reporting a near-miss incident to their supervisor.
It’s easy for managers to say that working safely is the workers’ responsibility and they shouldn’t expect praise for something they’re supposed to be doing in the first place. But desired behaviors are achieved by offering praise, not by ignoring them. True leaders give recognition to reinforce behaviors that should be continued in the same thought that people punish undesired behaviors.
Accountability in the context of safety isn’t necessarily about holding individuals responsible for unsafe choices (that’s a completely different subject), but about being accountable for each other’s success. When the organization’s goals include looking out for each other’s safety, it can profoundly change a safety culture by helping workers feel cared for. This inspires a team spirit that makes workers feel like they’re part of something bigger, which in turn leads to a stronger sense of contribution.
A sense of contribution
People need a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. They need a higher purpose and to see the impact of their contributions. If workers understand how their own behavior, safety compliance and active engagement in the safety of others contributes to the company’s overall safety and performance, they are motivated to do even more.
However, this means that the company’s values and purpose have to be consistently clear and linked in an obvious way to safety performance. Inconsistent culture and messages can create a disconnect within the organization and undermine trust.
Understanding the importance of consistency and transparency can go a long way. Sharing information on a need-to-know basis doesn’t encourage safe behaviors or help workers feel more connected to a greater purpose. And if workers can’t see that link, they also won’t see their contribution as important.
According to a 2008 study, “trust influences safety culture by influencing the workforce’s perception of management’s commitment to safety. (…) lower trust of management related to an increase in the number of times workers had behaved in a way that could have caused an accident.”
Safety culture is set by management. Even though important safety messages are often relayed or announced by supervisors and middle management, the attitudes of superiors can hugely influence a workforce’s compliance and safety performance. Additionally, face-to-face interactions are important in building trust, especially given that top management members have few opportunities to do it.
This is why management’s commitment to safety has to be visible, clear and unwavering. Good leaders have a clear and constant position on safety, which makes it easier for workers to have trust in their company and become committed to it.
The right resources can have a significant impact on worker engagement. An article in the Journal of Applied Psychology stated that having the proper resources reduces job demands and the associated physiological and psychological costs. These vital resources include things like positive climate, coworker support and autonomy—a sense of empowerment to get the job done without feeling hindered by micromanagement, which is also tightly linked to trust.
Having the right tools can motivate employees to proactively participate in a safety culture, but these “tools” also have to include knowledge of safety and an encouraging environment. Without the necessary knowledge and support from colleagues and leaders, the likelihood of engagement in safety will drop significantly.
To get management to lead their workforce towards safety engagement, they need to hone their soft skills and focus on what’s important to workers: recognition, accountability, a sense of contribution, trust and resources. Without them, good safety engagement cannot exist.