Safe at the top: exploring the latest thinking in safety leadership, personality and competencies
The focus of safety leadership appears, on the face of it at least, to not have changed too much in in its focus over the last 20 years. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK have long advocated that leaders’ display behaviours that help develop an open and honest culture, involve the workforce, lead by example and ensure systems are working in practice. As an example, the HSE guide ‘Leadership for the major hazard industries’, first published in 2004, outlines many of these behaviours. Examples include ‘I mention health and safety whenever I can and to a wide range of audiences’ or ‘I will develop an open and honest organisation, which is as receptive to bad news as it is to good news.’
In 2012 Lekka & Healy published a research paper, funded by the HSE, called ‘A review of the literature on effective leadership behaviours for safety’. The research analysed journal (quantitative & qualitative studies) papers, policy research and incidents over a 10-year period in order to review theories of safety leadership and identify a framework for describing the key elements of safety leadership. Among the key message emanating from the research were for leaders to be ‘coaching-orientated’, to ‘articulate a clear vision for safety’, ‘show concern for the welfare of employees ‘, ‘encouragement of two-way safety communications’ and ‘the ‘bottom up’ communication of safety concerns’. The review also emphasised that these ‘transformational’ behaviours should be performed in conjunction with more ‘transactional’ ones such as ‘communicating and setting clear goals and standards for safety’ and ‘monitoring and recognising positive safety behaviours’. The review also highlighted that ‘trust in management is an important determinant of safety’ and that ‘consistent safety messages need to be demonstrated at all management levels’. Overall, the review painted a picture of a leader who was proactive, emotionally intelligent leader who is a skilled communicator and able to build a healthy collaborative work environment.
The current focus
All these behaviours and competencies are still extremely important today but in recent years there has been more emphasis and detail on the way these behaviours are achieved and the type of environment/culture that should be aimed for. Two areas that have been given significantly more focus have been ‘servant leadership’ and ‘psychological safety’.
One of the core goals of any leader is to build a collaborative work environment rather than create a ‘them’ and ‘us’ top-down culture. In order to work collaboratively on safety issues leaders need to engage the workforce and their peers which requires self-belief, vigour, variety and emotional awareness. Research has shown that workforce engagement is linked to a wide variety of benefits such as increased learning, taking the initiative (Sonnetag, 2003), job performance (Demerouti and Bakker, 2006) and a reduction in safety incidents (Rigoni & Nelson, 2016). At the same time as this active engagement recent research has shown that leaders also need to take a more humble approach akin to servant leadership where the focus is on how they can help the team. There are many different expressions of this but the general gist is that on focussing on others the emphasis of the leader is on listening, compassion, principles and humility. A summary of 328 research studies has found that this approach to leadership has an even greater impact on safety behaviours than transformational and transactional approaches due to the collaborative and supportive environment that it engenders (Cooper, 2015). In our safety leadership model this effective collaboration is driven by 2 key competencies – ‘engaging others’ and ‘humble coaching’.
|Effective Collaboration||Engaging others||Humble coaching|
|Psychological Safety||Generating an open culture||Reacting constructively||Inspiring trust|
|Proactive management of risks||Seeking the wider picture||Innovating solutions||Coping with risk||Proactive action|
In her academic research and popular books Harvard professor Amy Edmonson has highlighted the importance of ‘psychological safety’ in achieving the ‘open’ culture that has long been spoken about in safety. That is, a culture where people are willing to speak up, ask questions, suggest ideas and in general take personal risks without fear of retribution. This focus on psychological safety has been supported by the research, with positive links being found with reporting errors (Edmonson, A. C. 1996), performance (Baer, M., & Frese, M., 2003), learning (Bunderson, J. S., & Boumgarden, P., 2010) and sharing (Arumugam, V. et al., 2013). In other words, psychological safety is key in achieving the ‘learning’, ‘reporting’ and ‘informed’ dimensions of safety culture that James Reason (1990) identified many years ago. Our model picks up on 3 of the key competencies leaders need to deliver psychological safety – ‘generating an open culture’, ‘reacting constructively’ and ‘inspiring trust’.
Proactive management of risks
The final grouping of competencies is around the proactive management of risks. It’s all well and good having a collaborative culture where people feel open to have their say, report issues and make recommendations. However, if nothing is done about those issues then the workforce will rightly question whether leaders were sincere or just paying lip service. A meta-analysis conducted by Nahrgang and colleagues (2011) identified that hazards, risks and complexity were the biggest job demands placed on employees and led to burnout and safety issues. These demands had a negative relationship with employee engagement, counter-acting the benefits of a supportive environment provided by supportive leadership. In other words, leaders need to act on these demands and provide the resources and support necessary to manage them otherwise the collaborative and safe environment will not be effective. The review of safety leadership conducted by Lekka & Healy (2012) found that some of the recurrent themes across major incidents (e.g. Bhopal, BP Texas City etc) included ‘learning from previous incidents’, ‘commitment to safety’, ‘complacency’, a ‘lack of oversight’ and ‘hazard awareness and management’. All of these themes appear to link to leaders not showing the necessary attention, support and commitment to follow through on providing the necessary resources to manage risks. Our model identifies four competencies that support the proactive management of risks – ‘Seeking the wider picture’, ‘Innovating solutions’, ‘Coping with risk’ and ‘Proactive action’.
Personality and safety
The Mosaic Personality Tasks assessment is an objective measure of the big-5 personality traits (Conscientiousness; Extraversion; Agreeableness; Openness to Experience; Emotional Steadiness). For each of these traits the assessment identifies four facets that map on and contribute to each trait. For instance, Conscientiousness is made up of the four facets Fixed Principles, Bound by Duty, Relentless Focus and Constrained by Caution. A large scale meta-analysis of personality and workplace safety found that Agreeableness and Conscientiousness had the biggest significant impact on safety behaviours and subsequently accidents (Beus et al., 2015). It is likely that these relationships were due to conscientious employees being more likely to follow rules and be focussed, cautious and methodical about their work whereas agreeable employees are more likely to carry out pro-social behaviours such as reporting near-misses and removing hazards that might impact others.
As our competencies are ‘Leadership’ competencies it does not necessarily follow that the focus should be on conscientiousness and agreeableness. The safety behaviours examined in the Beus and colleagues (2015) research were primarily focussed on the behaviours of front-line workers not leaders and it is likely that emotional steadiness, openness to experience and extraversion will all play their part in safety leadership competencies. For instance, Judge, Bono, Ilies & Gerhardt (2002) conducted a meta-analysis and found that Extraversion (closely followed by Conscientiousness and Openness to experience) was most strongly related with leadership performance.
Is the link between some aspects of personality and job performance curvilinear?
An assumption often made is that the relationship between personality traits and job performance are linear. That is, that job performance improves the higher you are on a scale e.g. the more conscientious you are the better it is for job performance. The counter-argument is that there comes a point on the scale where performance dips. As an example, many people believe that if you are too cautious or consumed by detail you may struggle to make a decision! The research in this area is quite varied with some research identifying that selection decisions based on an ‘ideal point’ leads to more favourable hiring outcomes (Carter et al.,2014). Indeed, there are many small studies that identify curvilinear relationships between specific traits with specific job outcomes. For example, leaders that are too assertive are not as effective (Ames & Flynn, 2007); high levels of transformational leadership behaviour led to emotional exhaustion in others (Molines et al., 2020); pilots with extreme dutifulness & self-assurance having more pilot mishaps & incidents (King et al., 2000). However, the largest meta-analysis study between the big-5 personality traits and a combined measure of job performance has found that the evidence for curvilinear relationships is limited, with any expected decline in performance to be minimal (Walmsey et al., 2018). Therefore, at Mosaic we have exercised caution when using curvilinear relationships and only occasionally use the ‘ideal point’ with performance declining slightly at the extremes.
Potential issues with using personality traits for leadership development
The review of leadership by Lekka & Healy (2012) raised a couple of weaknesses associated with using a ‘personality traits’ approach for safety leadership development. Firstly, that there is no ‘one’ universal set of traits that will be effective in all situations. Strengths in some personality traits might help someone excel in one situation but struggle in another. The second issue they raised is that because personality is considered relatively stable over time (Northouse, 2010) it is not possible to train or develop individuals to become better leaders with this approach. There is of course an element of truth with both these statements and raises questions about how personality information is used.
Through developing a number of ‘competencies’ based on personality traits we are essentially saying ‘this particular mix of personality traits may make it easier (or harder) to perform a certain aspect of the job well’. The same personality traits may not be as relevant for other aspects of job or indeed may make it harder (or easier) to perform well. So, indeed, there is no ‘universal’ ideal profile. This is just real life though, no one person is good at everything or finds everything easy. Personality is complex and it is in the understanding of how various traits interact in different situations that real value can be found.
The second issue (the stable-ness of personality) is really linked to the whole purpose of using a personality assessment to support leadership development. The purpose is to help people understand themselves better. To understand and be much more aware of their strengths and weaknesses and why they may find some things easy and other things difficult. In developing this understanding, the individual is able to improve the way they manage situations and certain aspects of the job. They may decide that others are more suited to certain activities or that they can do things differently to improve performance. Although, personality is thought to be reasonably static, there is no reason why performance can’t be improved through understanding and planned activity. Examples include a leader:
- who is not a naturally innovative may decide to rely more on colleagues to provide ideas and suggestions.
- who does not naturally reflect on their shortcomings may decide to spend more time reflecting and discussing their actions and behaviour with others.
- who is low on cautiousness may make a point of running critical ideas past a more cautious colleague.
- who is not broadminded may make more efforts to not jump to conclusions (or at least to act on their assumptions) when an incident occurs.
Developing the Mosaic Safety Leadership Competencies
The Mosaic Assessment is unique in that it measures personality both objectively through short online tasks and also using a self-report measure through a questionnaire. We use these scores to create an average score for each facet and for clarity and insight display when there is a difference between the objective score and the self-report score. These ‘blind spots’ are particularly critical in helping leaders understand aspects of their personality that they may not have been conscious of, but may have been hampering their performance.
INSPIRING TRUST – breakdown of facets mapping on to this competency
When developing our Safety competencies we had a number of decision to make 1) which safety leadership competencies to include? 2) which facets were relevant and mapped on to competency? 3) how did the facets map on to each competency? The image above shows the competency ‘Inspiring Trust’ and how the facets map on to this competency. To explain how this works, these are some of the features of our Safety Leadership Competencies:
- Measures Competency Potential. The assessment measures Competency Potential not the individual’s actual competency. The competency scores are derived from personality scores which tell us about how the individual is likely to think, feel and act in situations. For instance, in the example competency profile above we would expect to see someone sticking to their principles quite rigidly and prioritising the fair treatment of others. Someone who behaves in this way is likely to inspire the respect and trust of others. One of the key components of trust is integrity, and this highly principled approach to the treatment of others is likely to be seen as a display of integrity.
- Higher is not always better. As discussed in this article we have occasionally highlighted in our competency model that some of the personality facets can be counter-productive at the higher end. As an example, the facet ‘Swayed by Sympathy’, as the name suggests, is characterised by decisions being impacted by sympathy over objective reasoning at the higher end. As the image above clearly shows the ideal score when it comes to ‘inspiring trust’ for ‘Swayed by Sympathy’ is 6 or 7, where the leader is sympathetic to others but not to the point where it clouds their decisions. Similarly, ‘Taking Charge’ is also ideally scored at 6 or 7 where the leader takes charge but not at the ‘extreme’ scores of 9 or 10 which may on occasion break trust when the other party feels micro-managed.
- Blockers can impact competency potential. The ‘Inspiring Trust’ profile above shows two blockers (the maximum allowed for any competency). These will not always be shown, only appearing when the participant scores in the ‘danger zone’, which could be either the top 3 or bottom 3 scores depending on the facet/competency combination. In this case we can see that trust could be damaged by someone who is very low on ‘selflessly helpful’ and/or ‘Bound by Duty’. In these cases, the participant might be at risk of behaving in a way that might make others feel that they don’t have their best intentions at heart (e.g. by not helping them) or by not acting with integrity (e.g. breaking important rules or not following through on promises).
- Self-Report vs Objective Tasks. The Mosaic Personality Tasks assessment takes two measures of personality, one objectively through online tasks and one through a self-assessment questionnaire. Mostly, these two scores will align and won’t be shown on reports but when they differ, they will be shown. On the profile above we can see that ‘Belief in Own Ability’ has the self-report and objective tasks score shown. The way they are displayed suggests that the participant may have a blind spot for this facet. Their self-report scores suggests that they feel they have an extremely high belief in their own ability but their objective score suggests that their belief in their own ability if not actually as high as they think. This is something that can be explored with the participant.
SAFETY LEADERSHIP COMPETENCIES
|Inspiring trust||Inspiring the trust of others is likely to rely on a leader being able to demonstrate that they are principled, have others’ best intentions at heart and are able to demonstrate competence. The trustworthiness of leaders has been shown to mediate the relationship between communication and safety behaviours.|
|Seeking the wider picture||Seeking the wider picture involves looking for a wider body of evidence in order to make decisions – including facts, evidence and expert, opposing and disparate views. This approach helps avoid tripping up on cognitive bias as decisions are based on more objective and wider sources of data.|
|Reacting Constructively||Reacting constructively involves being restrained and not acting based on emotions or impulse. It involves being able to put yourself in others’ shoes and acting in a fair and measured way based on all the facts. This competency is important for safety as the wrong reactions to situations can set back the culture and lead to under-reporting.|
|Coping with risks||Coping with risks involves taking a strategic and cautious approach to risks. This means thinking risks through carefully and paying attention to all relevant guidance, processes, obligations and rules. It involves carefully considering the impact that decisions could have on the risks for others both now and in the future.|
|Engaging Others||Engaging Others is about finding interesting and novel ways to engage people in safety. It involves giving people the opportunity to give their opinion, feel valued and get involved. This is a necessary skill for safety as it helps maintain an enthusiasm and focus on safety.|
|Humble Coaching||Humble coaching is about approaching conversations with people from a position of genuine curiosity and humility, knowing that you do not have all the answers. It involves asking the right questions in order to build an understanding of others’ concerns and having a genuine desire to help and support. This approach is critical for understanding how work is really done and the actual issues being faced.|
|Generating an open culture||Generating an open culture is about creating an atmosphere feel safe to speak up and voice their concerns, mistakes, questions and ideas. This involves setting expectations, being willing to admit shortcomings and being sympathetic to others. Creating this open and safe culture makes it more likely that people will speak up and share vital information.|
|Innovating Solutions||Innovating Solutions is about the ability to be creative and come up with new ways of looking at problems. This involves being able to see and develop new and adaptive ways of addressing known and emerging issues. These skills might help in emergency situations but also when known methods are not achieving their goals.|
|Proactive Action||Proactive action is about taking the necessary proactive steps to manage risks based on the information that is being received. This involves following through on commitments, keeping focussed when things get difficult and having the necessary self-belief and leadership skills to get the job done.|
There is a train of thought that says leaders should be good at everything. If you get to that position, you should be able to talk authentically with others, be able to solve issues quickly and effectively, ask the right questions, engage others etc. Safety initiatives often involve a blanket requirement for leaders to be conducting a wide variety of activity (e.g. shop-floor walks) or new supervisors are suddenly responsible for delivering engaging toolbox talks. The reality is that every person has a different personality and they will find some of these initiatives naturally easy to do well and others naturally challenging and awkward to complete. The question is should leaders focus on what is natural strength for them or master all these activities? Included in our safety leadership role we devised a profile of likely natural role strengths. The idea of this graph is to help the individual to think through what activities might naturally suit them and which ones they may need more support with.
In summary, in developing our safety competencies we wanted to create a nuanced and thoughtful set of competencies built around building psychological safety, effective collaboration and the proactive management of risks. We believe the insights that leaders in safety critical industries will gain about themselves from completing the safety leadership report will help them to understand themselves and become better safety leaders.
By Johnny Mitchell, Director, Mosaic Assessments Ltd.
A sample of our Safety Leadership report can be viewed here
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