Leading with Safety: What Motivates Leaders to Improve Safety?

By Krause, Thomas R. | Occupational Hazards, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Leading with Safety: What Motivates Leaders to Improve Safety?


Krause, Thomas R., Occupational Hazards


Throughout the 1990s, many organizations focused their safety efforts on the front-line employee--and many became good at engaging the field and the shop floor in active safety roles. In recent years, we've seen the focus shift to the safety leader--including the safety manager, the plant manager, the head of health, safety and environment and even the CEO.

If safety excellence requires the engagement of employees at every level of the organization, what motivates an organization's leaders to improve safety? This article looks at the question of motivation from the unique perspective of a leader committed to safety.

Approaches to Motivation

The two basic approaches to motivation include the transactional and the transformational. The transactional approach offers something in exchange for each person's contribution to safety improvement. At the front-line level, transactional motivation includes offering bonuses for group performance or incentives for performance of safety activities. At the leadership level, we may include safety as a metric in performance and compensation.

In our experience, transactional motivation (especially safety incentives) produces mixed results. At the hourly employee level, particularly when the contingency is incident frequency, it can actually create more harm than good: Outcomes-based incentives reward me (or punish me) for things over which I have little control, such as the practices of a work group on another shift. Even when the incentives are tied to inherently worthwhile activities (for instance, safety observations or hazard reduction), offering an exchange can undermine the long-term integrity of these tasks, since we treat them as something extra, rather than as routine parts of the way work is performed.

At the senior level, safety incentives work to a certain extent: Leaders are more often in control of the means to achieve outcomes and are ultimately responsible for them. Even here, however, transactional motivation can foster an overemphasis on tactical thinking. If I am measured and compensated on a specific metric (for instance, recordable rates), I am more likely to focus on that area to the exclusion of larger issues, such as exhibiting the values and behaviors needed to be an effective safety leader. While often it is desirable to hold leaders accountable for specific outcomes, relying on these measures alone misses an important opportunity to motivate leaders at an intrinsic level.

The second, and more effective, transformational method of motivation calls for the engagement of the employee, leader or group in the process of improving safety. …

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