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One Direction: Aligning Management and the Workforce for Safety Engagement

Oct. 8, 2014
When management and the workforce are aligned and engaged in safety, excellence is on the horizon.

My last few published articles and several of my recent presentations have focused on the importance of transformational leadership – not just in EHS, but also in other important functional areas such as cost, quality and production. As I continue to grow my knowledge in leadership, it's become apparent that the concept of engagement is gaining traction.  

As an example, the Harvard Business Review's May 2014 cover story was "Blue Ocean Leadership: How to Engage your Employees and Stop Wasting Everyone's Time." The June issue of HBR included a piece titled "Motivational Tools that Improve Engagement." The opening paragraph in the May HBR cover story reinforced – in a very powerful way – my belief that there's a tremendous opportunity awaiting those who have the skills to engage the workforce.  

"It's a sad truth about the workplace: Just 30 percent of employees are actively committed to doing a good job," reads the HBR cover story. "According to Gallup's 2013 ‘State of the American Workplace' report, 50 percent of employees merely put their time in, while the remaining 20 percent act out their discontent in counterproductive ways." 

The Gallup "State of the American Workplace" is a highly respected report. What it says is there's tremendous potential for achieving improved results if organizations can grow the percentage of employees who are actively committed (engaged).  

Does safety performance relate to this? Of course it does – as does performance in any important business output, be it cost, production quality or customer service. The opportunity lies in our ability to increase the percentage of engaged employees. But how do we accomplish this?

Engaging Senior Management

You might recall that one of the failures of the early advocates of behavior-based safety was that they focused on the workers and not on management. Eventually they got it right and included the importance of involving management in the behavior-based safety approach. Engagement is no different: It must start with senior management being willing to become engaged in the safety process.  

A case in point: In 2008, Cintas Corp. began a journey toward world-class workplace safety and health. Cintas already was focused on being world-class in other important business-output areas such as customer service. To the company's credit, Cintas realized that its management style was too transactional and had to become more transformational if it was to achieve this lofty safety objective.  

Figure 1 depicts the results at a Cintas plant three years after a highly transformational general manager took over. Note not only the tenfold improvement in safety results, but also the significant improvement in other key performance indicators such as profit, cost, turnover and customer satisfaction. This is proof-positive that transformational leadership and engaged executives and workers not will only achieve excellence in EHS but also in other critically important business outputs.

Cintas took its executive committee off site for a 1 ½-day workshop on safety, devoting an entire afternoon to transformational leadership. This was the start of its senior management getting seriously engaged in the safety process. (See Fig. 1)

In my work with executive committees from other large corporations, I've observed that senior managers tend to be much more transactional than transformational – in other words, focusing on hard-number outputs such as top-line sales and bottom-line profits. This should come as no surprise to anyone. But can a transactional leadership team be expected to truly engage the workforce in anything? No and heck no.

Engaged Excellence

The principle of engaging the workforce isn't new, but the practice of engaging the workforce hasn't been broadly applied. Peter Drucker was a strong proponent of workforce engagement and transformational leadership, but I'm not sure he ever used either of these terms. The following piece taken from his obituary aptly describes Drucker's position as it relates to engaging the workforce:

"[Drucker's] concepts turned companies away from treating employees as cogs [in a wheel], persuading management to think of workers as assets and partners – which is how the best companies behave today." 

What Drucker was saying was that we need to engage the whole worker – in other words, we need to get the worker's head in the game. Wasn't this the brilliance behind behavior-based safety? It's my contention that a senior management team focused on being more transformational not only will get workers' heads in the game but also their hearts.

Characteristics of a Transformational Leader

Remember, the workforce won't become engaged until senior leadership is engaged. It's important to understand the difference between transactional and transformational leadership. Simply stated, a transactional leader focuses mostly on the task or the work, while the transformational leader has a balanced focus on both the work/task and the person doing the work/task.  

A transactional leader:

  • Maintains a quid pro quo relationship between the worker and leader, frequently relying on disciplinary action. 
  • Is task-oriented (for example, focusing on regulatory compliance).
  • Preserves existing culture, conditions and practices (the status quo).
  • Is likely to place more focus on the work than on the worker.

On the other hand, a transformational leader:

  • Helps align the worker's values with the leader's values. 
  • Empowers the worker to engage in the work process – to go beyond the worker's self-interest.
  • Is personally engaged with the worker (cares about the worker).
  • Maximizes and optimizes the worker's contributions.
  • Focuses on both the work and the worker.

Transactional leadership isn't all bad. Senior leaders need to understand the benefits that can come from achieving a balance that requires them to become more transformational. EHS professionals might have to "coach up" their management on this concept.  

Of all the skills that a transformational leader must possess, five are critical: listening, communicating, caring, collegiality and engaging. 


While listening is one of the most important communication skills, most of us have had little formal training in listening. 

Keys to listening are:

  • Seeking first to understand, then to be understood.
  • Listening for meaning and feeling – not just facts.
  • Being empathic.
  • Hearing the other person out and not interrupting.


Effective communication means expressing the organization's vision or expectations in a way that resonates with employees at all levels. It also means:

  • Speaking in the language of the 
 "customer" (the workers).
  • Being open to feedback – and even 
 criticism – from subordinates.
  • Starting all meetings with safety, to 
 demonstrate its importance.
Figure 2 describes a simplistic but typical journey that an enterprise takes in achieving excellence. The vertical axis is injuries and the horizontal axis is time. Obviously, higher injury rates will occur if the attitude of the enterprise is merely safety awareness but with no real organized approach to safety and no focused ownership. Compliance also is transactional, since it represents a checklist approach. Once senior leaders realize that they own safety, results start getting better than average. When management actually becomes engaged in the process, results will continue to improve. Management engagement is critical to achieving worker engagement. Once management and the workforce are engaged, excellence clearly is on the horizon.


Caring – the most important characteristic of a transformational leader – means: 

  • Demonstrating genuine concern for others in a visible way.
  • Being sensitive to the needs of others.
  • Being willing to interact with employees at all levels.

Being Collegial 

Collegiality means demonstrating a sense of equality among others (including subordinates). It also means:

  • Interacting with employees in a friendly manner.
  • Relating to all levels of employees and making them feel at ease.
  • Showing gratitude, sympathy or empathy.


Engaging means:

  • Demonstrating a personal connectionwith subordinates.  
  • Helping subordinates commit to and achieve desired goals.
  • Linking the worker's needs with the organization's needs.
  • Conveying a sense of worth to subordinates (in other words, showing them that they're not just cogs in a wheel).


There are two critical messages. First, if an organization wants to achieve EHS excellence, the workforce must become engaged in the safety process – but this can't happen until senior management becomes engaged. That is the "what to do." But the "how to do it" requires senior management to become more transformational and less transactional. This is the message that EHS professionals need to "coach up" in their organizations. 

EHS professionals need to leverage the fact that an engaged workforce not only will achieve excellence in safety and health but also in other key functional areas. This article, and an article in the June 2011 edition of EHS Today ("Transformational Leadership: The Key to World-Class Safety"), can help you get there. 

Dr. Richard D. Fulwiler is president of Technology Leadership Associates, a consultancy that specializes in increasing individual effectiveness and improving organizational capability and results. The former director of health and safety worldwide at Procter & Gamble, Fulwiler is a widely published writer, a sought-after speaker and an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. 

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