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The Hidden Benefits of Shared Leadership


Unconventional leaders team up to make safer workplaces

Mooring gang in port to departure ship.

Good leaders make for safe workplaces. We know from several decades of research that people who work for encouraging and supportive leaders follow safety protocols more carefully and are motivated to promote safe workplace practices.  

Past studies have been based on the conventional view of the leader as an individual in a position of authority. But this is not how leadership always plays out. All sorts of employees, regardless of their position, can behave as leaders, encouraging and supporting others. And it’s not unusual for team members to share the load of leadership.

A new study adds to the leadership-safety conversation by examining the link between shared leadership—enacted by “regular” employees—and safe workplaces. It looks at a particular form of leadership, the transformational kind typified by four behaviours: role modelling; inspirational vision-setting; reframing problems; and attending to others’ needs.

Focusing on a high-risk setting (merchant ships), the researchers studied shared transformational leadership and safety behaviours of employees, teams and leaders. In addition, they looked at when shared transformational leadership becomes more or less important for improving safety behaviours. They argued that when employees believe the organization doesn’t care about their well-being, transformational behaviours of peers becomes more important for safety. 

How was the study designed?

The study was conducted with a merchant shipping company based in the U.K. Survey data was collected from 2,139 crew members (considered “employees” in this study) and 98 chief engineers (“leaders”) working on merchant ships. Each ship was considered a “team”. Crew members rated their perceptions of colleagues’ leadership behaviours, their own safety participation and safety compliance as well as their perceptions of organizational support. Chief engineers rated their own perceptions of organizational support and reported their safety participation.

What did the study find?

  • Employees who perceive that their team members engage in transformational leadership behaviours are more likely to comply with mandated safety rules and participate in discretionary safety initiatives.
  • Teams with higher levels of shared transformational leadership display more team safety participation compared to teams that have lower levels of shared transformational leadership. 
  • Shared transformational leadership becomes more effective in boosting employees’ safety compliance when employees perceive a low level of organizational support. 
  • When leaders perceive low levels of organizational support, leadership behaviours enacted by their employees can encourage leaders to improve their participation in discretionary safety initiatives. 

What do I need to know?

Transformational leadership has long been linked to safer workplaces. An earlier study, for example, showed that warehouses in which managers were transformational leaders had fewer accidents. This new study provides evidence of similar safety benefits when transformational leadership is practised by people who are not in traditional positions of authority. 

This study also shows how the social influence of shared transformational leadership is boosted when employees perceive weak organizational support. Perceived organizational support refers to employees’ beliefs about the extent to which the organization values them and cares about their well-being. Previous studies showed that high levels of perceived organizational support can improve performance. When employees don’t believe the organization cares about them, however, having high levels of shared transformational leadership becomes more important for improving safety participation.

The study is a welcome reminder that leadership should be thought of as a set of behaviours that are not limited to people in authority. If shared transformational leadership plays a role in encouraging safety behaviours, as this study suggests, it is critical for organizations to involve all employees—and not just managers—in leadership training initiatives. 

Study Title: Shared Transformational Leadership and Safety Behaviors of Employees, Leaders, and Teams: A Multilevel Investigation

Authors: Zhanna Lyubykh, Duygu Biricik Gulseren and Nick Turner (Haskayne School of Business); Julian Barling (Smith School of Business); and Matthias Seifert (IE University)

Published: Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology; early online publication.