For years, organizations have focused on implementing a scientific management style. With one eye always on the prize, management works toward a specific set of goals and objectives that will increase profits or save the company money.

But with the workplace landscape changing so drastically, is this approach still relevant or is there a better way? How does management style influence the implementation of health and safety programs?

Traditional vs. Modern Approaches to Management

The classical management style was introduced in the 1900's by the engineer Frederick Taylor. It consisted of top-down management with an emphasis on task-based jobs and maximizing worker productivity.

Taylorism, as the approach came to be called, promised managers the capacity to analyze, predict, and control their employees and organizations. And therein lies the problem: most organizations and the markets they serve are incredibly complex and unpredictable. In a nuanced, competitive economy driven by innovation, the traditional approach simply doesn’t cut it anymore.

In response to new corporate and market realities, some business leaders have taken a servant leadership or collaborative leadership approach. These modern approaches emphasize the importance of empowering employees and encouraging creative thought throughout the workplace.

Unlike traditionally minded managers who take a top-down approach, servant leaders see themselves as “first among equals” and take on the role of inspiring others. They know that team-building is paramount and are willing to step into the role of a follower when someone else is better placed to lead the team to success on a project. Furthermore, they recognize the importance of giving employees a voice and are open to suggestions from all parts of the organization (for more on the importance of employee feedback, see Implementing a Safety Culture: Speak Up for Safety).

Numerous studies have been conducted on the organizational impact of servant leadership and the conclusions are promising. Researchers note a positive relationship with business and employee performance, creativity, and team innovation.

Shifting Safety Perspectives

When we look at workplace safety specifically, it’s all too easy to revert back to that traditional approach. Every organization has a list of safety dos and don’ts mandated by the safety professionals at the top.

The focus of workplace safety is often reactive, behavior-based, and directed toward a specific outcome or goal: a zero-accident workplace. But focusing on eliminating injuries is an endless cycle with no real way of measuring success. After all, while a zero-injury workplace might be the result of diligence and hard work, it could also simply be a coincidence.

Let’s imagine that the focus was instead on creating an organizational culture that emphasizes problem solving and safer decision-making. In other words, taking a proactive approach to mitigating risk in the workplace by examining the risk factors that lead to injuries rather than focusing only on the injuries themselves. The outcome here is the same—fewer injuries in the workplace—but the process has changed significantly. Time is invested in ensuring that employees consistently have the tools they need to create and maintain a safe workplace for themselves and their colleagues. It’s more about the means and a little less about the end, and it’s about collaboration between management and employees.

And there is some impressive evidence to support this approach. A 2008 study found that the return on investment for health and safety programs ranged from $1.50 to $6.50 for every dollar spent. Other studies have shown an increase in revenue of 20% per employee, a 4% higher profit margin, and 27% reduction in sick leave.

Creating a culture of health and safety pays. Literally.

Signs of Struggle in Your Organization

But it’s not always easy for executives to implement safety processes, particularly when those processes are a shift away from the organization’s status quo (find out how to Get Your CEO to Support Safety with the Curve Approach). Fortunately, there are signs you can look for to identify and offer extra support to reluctant company leaders.

Visible safety hazards. Perhaps the most obvious sign, noticing visible safety hazards in the workplace is a strong indication that health and safety processes are not being implemented effectively.

No written documentation. To be most effective, health and safety processes and procedures should be written down. Objectives should be clearly identified and information should be easily accessible to anyone who wishes to review it.

Lack of engagement. More difficult to spot, a lack of engagement with regard to health and safety issues is another indicator that an executive may not be implementing safety processes to the necessary standard (see How Engaged Are Your Employees? to learn more).

As the subject matter expert, offer guidance to determine how health and safety processes can be best integrated into that particular work environment. Understanding what motivates them and creating an emotional connection can be the key to supporting them through the implementation process.

The Big Picture

Of course, workplace health and safety isn’t the only thing on the mind of busy executives. It’s essential for safety professionals to consider the bigger picture—the business as a whole.

What does this require? Taking a step back. Considering how health and safety best practices and processes fit within the scope of the other business units and their goals. Determining how these units can work together to craft a comprehensive workplace safety plan.

Recognizing that health and safety is one piece of a larger puzzle is key to maintaining a collaborative work environment and ensuring that executives remain willing to work together to enhance the organization’s safety processes.

Ready to Get Started? Here Are Some Tips to Help You Out

Assess. Talk to your employees and gather information. Find out what’s working and what isn’t so you can get a good sense of where change needs to take place. Based on where you want to take the health and safety processes, you will be able to identify areas where the organization’s needs are not being met.

Plan it out. Organizational leadership thrives on well thought out plans. As the health and safety expert, business unit leaders look to you for leadership in this realm. Make a plan that clearly articulates what the organization needs and why it needs it. Emphasize the benefits of an organizational culture that revolves around creating a safe workplace.

Engage. When it comes to health and safety, an informed and engaged workforce is key. Engage with executives and business unit leaders and solicit their suggestions. While safety is an organization-wide concern, every unit has specific needs. Find out what they are and include leadership in crafting solutions that work for their employees.

Revisit and reassess. Things rarely work the way you think they will, particularly in a complex work environment. As safety processes are implemented and the culture begins to shift, schedule regular intervals to revisit and reassess the plan. Engage with leadership and employees to find out what’s working and what could be improved. Change is the only constant, so repeat this often.


Be sure to check out this free webinar: Old and New Views of Safety Management