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Do Authentic Leadership Behaviors Improve Workplace Safety Outcomes?

May 29, 2024

Group of office workers laughing around a conference tableAuthentic leadership improves workplace safety culture, according to a new study by Stephanie Walker and Daniel Kuchinka, recently highlighted in Professional Safety journal.

The researchers studied five areas of locations of a Midwestern compressed gas distribution company and found that workers more highly valued safety climate in work areas where leaders exhibited authentic leadership behaviors. In work areas where workplace safety challenges were more abundant, leaders lacked effective authentic leadership skills.

The findings underscore the direct relationship between authentic leadership and workplace safety, Walker and Kuchinka say. They also offer advice on how to define and develop authentic leadership behaviors.

What Does Authentic Leadership Really Mean?

Walker and Kuchinka describe authentic leadership as “the impression given that the leader is authentic in their behaviors.” They also identified four factors of this leadership style:

  • Self-awareness
  • Balanced processing
  • Relational transparency
  • Internalized moral perspective

Authentic leadership falls under the umbrella of servant leadership, which “emphasizes the importance of core values and behaviors such as caring, honesty, spirituality, compassion, trust and authenticity.” Servant leaders eschew personal gain to prioritize employee needs, well-being and growth.

What Does the Research Say About Authentic Leadership and Workplace Safety?

Previous studies cited in the article have shown that authentic leadership increases trust, ethical behaviors, employee knowledge sharing, worker motivation and work engagement, all of which can directly impact workplace safety performance.

Based on these findings, the researchers predicted they would find a correlation between authentic leadership and safety climate. They decided to study safety climate, rather than safety culture, because climate indicates workers’ perceptions of safety priorities at a given time, while culture indicates these perceptions over time.

“By measuring safety climate, the organization can have a better perspective on where to make improvements to cultivate an improved safety culture,” Walker and Kuchinka explain.

The study included a survey of delivery truck drivers, salespeople, managers, retail store workers and employees who fill compressed gas cylinders and load trucks. The survey asked them to rate authentic leadership and safety climate on a five-point scale. The researchers then compared results by location.

Sites in the western Pennsylvania and central Ohio work area landed at opposite ends of the spectrum: In western Pennsylvania, the authentic leadership score was 1.6 and the safety climate score was 1.93, while in central Ohio the authentic leadership score was 2.7 and safety climate was 2.36.

Regardless of a work area’s scores, Walker and Kuchinka found a definitive correlation between authentic leadership and safety climate, supporting the idea that higher levels of authentic leadership behaviors contribute to an improved workplace safety culture.

How Do Age and Experience Play a Role?

Analysis of the survey data revealed an interesting trend: Older and more experienced workers — those working a decade or more — reported lower perceptions of authentic leadership and exhibited lower appreciation for safety climate, suggesting they may “even have bad attitudes toward safety,” Walker and Kuchinka write.

This finding indicates that safety leaders must better engage older and more experienced workers because they often impact workplace safety issues directly, like when overconfidence may contribute to an incident, or indirectly, by exhibiting bad attitudes toward leadership or safety, Walker and Kuchinka explain.

How Safety Professionals Can Improve Authentic Leadership Skills

Walker and Kuchinka offer several tips that can help safety professionals improve the four factors of authentic leadership and increase workplace safety.

  1. Boost your self-awareness. Solicit feedback from others, but especially followers (direct reports), to better understand how you are viewed in the workplace. In addition, evaluate your position on issues and show an understanding of how your actions impact others. Example: Ask for candid feedback on how you handled a safety issue.
  2. Display “balanced processing” methods. Intentionally solicit views that differ from your own opinions, carefully cultivate and analyze objective data and listen to others before making a decision. Example: Look for safety incident causes rather than just “guilty” employees.
  3. Improve your relational transparency. Communicate in a direct manner, admit mistakes, encourage others to speak their minds, show honesty, be consistent with emotions and tell followers the truth even when it’s difficult. Example: Provide candid and constructive feedback when you observe someone taking a risky action.
  4. Hone an internalized moral perspective. Show integrity and consistency with your beliefs and actions, make decisions that align with your core values, encourage others to take a position on their core values and make decisions based on high ethical standards. Example: Consistently maintain safe standards over productivity results.

How an Organization Can Create More Authentic Leaders

On an organizational level, executive leaders can deploy authentic leadership development interventions and activities to improve safety climate and culture as well, Walker and Kuchinka advise. These can include:

  • Teaching authentic behaviors to safety professionals and supervisors through interventions such as journaling and the use of self-narratives to support the development of self-awareness.
  • Offering programs that develop servant leaders, with an emphasis on being authentic. Kuchinka developed a training model that includes education, scenario descriptions and hypothetical actions, applied behavior and reflection, both in writing (journaling) and in team workshops.
  • Mentorship and coaching, particularly when employees are undergoing training.

To put it simply, organizations that want to see more positive workplace safety outcomes need to develop better leaders — and there’s research to prove it.



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