April 27, 2022

When safety is at stake, clarity and context seem to matter more than inspiration

Examining the complexity of leadership and follower dynamics yields insights into workplace safety interactions
When safety is at stake, clarity and context seem to matter more than inspiration

Transformational leadership is rightly lauded when it helps to develop new markets, delivers new products, and generates outstanding financial results. In general, it’s the leadership style with the most attractive qualities at face value — who doesn’t want to be associated with change, innovation and inspiration? Yet, new research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that in the realm of workplace safety the ambiguity inherent in change leadership may inhibit safe employee behaviour. Other leadership styles often seem to be more successful.

The research team of Zhanna Lyubykh, Nick Turner, Sandy Hershcovis, and Connie Deng from the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary conducted a meta-analysis of published and unpublished research into the impact of five styles of leadership, three constructive and two negative: change-oriented, task-oriented, and relational, in contrast with passive and destructive.

Lyubykh et al. conducted a quantitative examination of 175 articles that included 104,364 employees from North America, Europe and Asia.

The Haskayne research team looked closely at how the five styles of leadership impacted seven widely accepted building blocks of workplace safety: tangible outcomes, compliance, participation, knowledge, motivation, shared climate and attitudes. On a general basis, analysis showed that climate, attitudes, knowledge, compliance and participation were positively influenced by the positive leadership styles, and that accidents and injuries were reduced.

Passive leadership, where leaders avoid action until mistakes arise, saw more negative effects on climate, knowledge, motivation, compliance and participation, and also made injuries more likely. A destructive leadership style, often marked by abuse, made everything worse.

Looking at the styles in more detail, the team found that task-oriented leadership outperformed all other styles in creating a safety climate, followed by relational leadership; and relational leadership outperformed in forming positive safety attitudes.

But, confounding expectations, task-oriented leadership had a much smaller share of the effect on safety attitudes. In fact, change-oriented leadership was more effective here. Even so, task-orientation was again the biggest factor when it came to safety motivation, participation and compliance. Overall, task-orientation had the biggest effect on four areas of safety: climate, motivation, compliance and participation.

Perhaps surprisingly, transformational leadership only had a sizeable effect on climate and participation.

Though these findings might seem counterintuitive, the Haskayne team offers an explanation based on the data. It seems likely that because safety concerns vary in their relevance to the individual, leadership styles will vary accordingly. For example, attitudes and knowledge are focused on the individual, so relational leadership works well. In contrast, safety climate and motivation operate at the level of the group, where task-oriented leadership prospers.

The team proposes that task-orientation offers employees clarity whereas they may be confused by the more ambiguous messages of relational and change leadership styles in certain contexts. Perhaps instead of looking for a ‘best’ or ‘worst’ style, researchers — and businesses — should look at a combination of styles that together produce high-performance outcomes.

The importance of context was re-emphasized when the team overlaid considerations of national culture, in terms of employee response to power hierarchies; the level of industry risk; the age of the workforce; and general versus safety-specific leadership.

In countries where more hierarchical work practices are expected, there is lower tolerance for transformation or passivity, and more acceptance of task-orientation and even intimidation. Similarly, when safety risks are perceived to be high, task-orientation prospers, and intimidation is tolerated. In terms of age differences, older workers are more likely to reject the transformational leadership welcomed by younger colleagues.

In the safety realm, there seems to be no overarching leadership style that works for everyone, everywhere, every time. Instead, leadership needs to flex within its context, allocating resources with care in order to engage both individuals and groups in highly charged safety environments.

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