Transformational Cultures and Leadership Lead to Engaged Workforces

The closer that business and safety leaders can move towards building transformational rather than transactional cultures, the greater the benefits to be seen in business and safety performance.
The closer that business and safety leaders can move towards building transformational rather than transactional cultures, the greater the benefits to be seen in business and safety performance.

A little bit of transformational thinking goes a long way towards engaging workers and building high-performance business and safety cultures.

Employee engagement is particularly important in these COVID times, when many workers have most of their conversations on remote streams rather than live and in-person. And the closer that business and safety leaders can move towards building transformational rather than transactional cultures, the greater the benefits to be seen in business and safety performance, says Richard Fulwiler, president of Transformational Leadership Associates.

Fulwiler, a former industrial hygienist and health and safety director at Proctor & Gamble, says transformational culture building is all about empathy and communication that moves workers to becoming more engaged which means being highly involved, enthusiastic and energized about their work.

“They’re the kind of people you want on your team,” he says, explaining those who are not engaged are emotionally unattached to their work or workplace and disengaged workers tend to be unhappy, resentful and counter-productive. (For more from Fulwiler, please watch the webinar, “People, Public Trust and Profit: Driving EHS Excellence and Competitive Advantage.”)

Engaged workers produce results that are not only beneficial to safety, but also to the overall business. Fulwiler cites a three-year statistical analysis from a Cintas Corp. plant. Cintas provides wide-ranging products and services to businesses across the United States and Canada. Among the results they achieved at one particular operation was a 10-fold decrease in total recordable incident rates, a 191 percent increase in profits, a 49 percent increase in customer satisfaction and a 76 percent decrease in employee turnover.

“What happened in this plant was a new general manager came in who was highly transformational,” he says. “My point is that transformational leadership drives other excellences.”

In the context of safety performance, most business and safety leaders tend to have a transactional approach, which in the context of health and safety means they aim to be OSHA compliant, are task oriented, focused on fact metrics and “on the output” rather than on the people delivering the output. Inclusive behavior is the hallmark of a transformational cultures – not just by supervisory people but also by those on the shop floor. They seek employee participation and are focused on job safety analysis and program development. The values of workers align with those of leaders.

“There’s mutual self-interest and it focuses both on the worker and the outputs,” Fulwiler says, explaining that transactional leadership is not a bad thing, but there needs to be greater weight given to transformational thinking. “If you just move the needle and make them a little more transformational better things will happen – not just in safety but in other areas. Most senior managers tend to be hard-wired transactional.”

Citing research from management consultants, Gallup, Fulwiler says that in a typical transactional work culture, about 70 percent of workers are either not engaged or disengaged vs a much lower 30 percent in a high-performance transformational work system. To build a transformational workplace, leaders must employ three critical skills – listening, caring and engaging.

Active Listening

Listening is about seeking first to understand then being understood, Fulwiler says, citing a guiding principle in Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

“When you’re willing to do that, you build a relationship,” he says. “You engage that other person. You show you care about what that other person is saying.”

Fulwiler says it’s also a matter of listening for meaning and feeling, not just to the words and facts. Don’t interrupt or develop a response while the person is speaking and be sensitive to “words, dance and music,” he says. “What is that person saying? What’s their body language? Are they looking at their watch? What’s their tone?”

Not only should you be looking at and listening to the person with whom you are engaging, but consider your own behavior and ask yourself: Am I really communicating that I care that you’re important? Fulwiler says in an online world, empathetic listening is especially important.

Show that You Care

Caring is expressed by showing interest and sensitivity to the needs of others. You need to continually demonstrate it in a visible way that demonstrates you care about the health and safety of employees. It’s an especially important trait today, as the impact of COVID touches all employees and their families, Fulwiler says.

“It’s wreaked havoc,” he says. “I don’t think any of us haven’t been touched by the tragedy of COVID. Let’s be sure we recognize that…and interact with workers in a manner that says, ‘I care.’”

Link Worker Needs with Company Mission to Promote Engagement

Engaging with workers sees leaders communicating in a caring and friendly manner, conveying a sense of worth to those whom they manage – that they are not just a “cog in a wheel.” To encourage employee engagement, it’s important to link worker needs with the company mission. And, if it’s all one way, you’re going to get average worker performance, Fulwiler says.

Stephen Jenkins, a corporate director of health and safety for Cintas, says his company adopted a greater leadership and cultural focus on transformational leadership after a tragic workplace accident in 2008. It was decided then by the company that it would work towards becoming one of the world’s safest workplaces. Transformational leadership training was the key to getting there. It included in 2010 a day and a half of safety training for their entire management team that focused on helping them become less transactional and more transformational.

Still, Jenkins admits things aren’t always perfect and even he admits to having fallen into the trap of transactional rather than transformational behavior, making the point that it’s essential to always engage workers, especially when you change aspects of their jobs. Jenkins cited his own egregious example when during the early days of COVID, he mandated that workers must wear masks – without having consulted them first.

“A year and a half ago I told everyone in Cintas they had to wear a mask,” he recalls. “I never talked to a single person. And guess what we got?  A poop storm. I violated all my principles and I’ve regretted it every single day since.

“We really struggled because we did not engage (them). We could use the excuse that we didn’t have a chance to engage, but we are still struggling today because we didn’t engage.”

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