To BBS or not to BBS?

Behavioural and Transformational Leadership Approaches to Workplace Safety

Regulators and industry alike are turning their attention towards safety leadership as a means to further gains in safety performance. This strategy positions leadership as the key conduit between the organisation’s social context – the safety climate and culture – and employees’ safety behaviour. Importantly, research supports the key role played by safety leadership given that a plethora of studies have demonstrated the impact of interventions such as leadership soft-skills training on employee safety outcomes.

Although tangentially related to safety leadership, the behaviour-based safety (BBS) movement is distinct in its approach because it focuses on changing the behaviours of direct reports rather than the behaviours of leaders. Further, the main objective of ‘traditional’ BBS programs is to increase safe work practices and decrease/extinguish unsafe or risky work practices rather than develop new safety skills/competencies, as is the case during most safety leadership training.

Given that leaders typically occupy an important role in BBS programs – acting as observers/raters of employee safety behaviour and applying corrective feedback and recognition to achieve more effective behavioural outcomes – it stands to reason that combining safety leadership soft-skills with a BBS-style approach would result in better employee safety behaviour than either approach on its own. However, in many organisations BBS and safety leadership training are implemented exclusively – either one or the other. Consequently, the maximum impact of these interventions may never be felt.

This study investigated the separate and combined effects of safety leadership and the BBS-style approach. To do so, a multisource safety leadership feedback survey was conducted with 32 leaders from a Middle East oil and gas company. A total of 141 direct reports and 32 managers provided feedback on each leader (in addition to the leaders’ self-ratings).

To measure safety leadership, we focused on a particular dimension that would augment the effects of the BBS approach – leading by example or role-modelling effective safety behaviours for subordinates to follow. We predicted that this ‘transformational’ safety leadership skillset would enhance the effectiveness of the BBS style for several reasons, including: 1) subordinates are more likely to replicate or ‘copy’ the behaviours of leaders and 2) a leader may be seen as more trustworthy or ‘authentic’ if he/she demonstrates what is being encouraged (i.e. the behaviours targeted by the BBS program).

Results of the study largely supported our predictions; specifically, that a BBS approach whereby leaders encourage workers to show specific safety behaviours and also role-model these behaviours themselves, is more effective than either of these approaches used alone. The key diversion from our predictions was that the effectiveness of direct reports’ safety behaviour when leading by example was high, regardless of leaders’ encouragement of specific safety behaviours (the BBS approach). In conclusion, we recommend that organisations in heavy industry should consider safety leadership interventions either in addition to or instead of traditional BBS programs if they are seeking the biggest ‘bang for buck’. If resources are scarce, we recommend focusing on safety leadership training over a BBS-style program.