Supervisors Should Walk the Talk

supervisors should ealk the talk

It is Leadership 101. Supervisors need to model the behavior that they wish their subordinates to perform. A “do as I say” approach is not particularly effective if the boss is exempt from doing the same. A new study in European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology by Stacey R. Kessler, Lorenzo Lucianetti, Shani Pindek and Paul Spector shows why supervisors should walk the talk.

The Power of Modeling

There is a clear distinction between people complying with a directive and accepting that directive.

  • Compliance means that employees feel compelled to follow the instructions of their supervisors but does not feel that it is the best course of action. If a supervisor is around, employees will comply, but when the supervisor is not present employees will do what they want. Many supervisors complain that their employees will not work hard or do the right thing unless they are present to keep an eye on them. This is one of the reasons so many supervisors resist remote work.
  • Acceptance means employees believe that the course of action suggested is the right one, and so they are eager to follow the instructions that they accept. Acceptance means not having to be present or supervise closely. It means empowering employees so they can work autonomously and professionally.

Modeling is a powerful tool for gaining acceptance. When the supervisor tells employees they must do something, but that supervisor does something different, it is likely to gain compliance when the supervisor is around. When the supervisor takes the lead in performing the desired behavior, it sends a strong message that can help convince employees to accept that it is the right thing to do. In other words supervisors should walk the talk to gain acceptance.

Leaders Should Walk the Talk for Safety

Many jobs can be dangerous. In the U.S. alone, about 5,000 employees die on the job each year, and more than a million are injured. Preventing accidents is of vital importance, but it is not so easy to achieve. Organizations in dangerous industries invest considerable resources to build safety climates, that is, they are places where policies and practices encourage employees to do their jobs safely. Climates can be developed through messaging and training, to encourage not only safety, but other behaviors such as customer service or innovation.

But climate alone is not sufficient because merely emphasizing something in many cases gains compliance but not acceptance. When supervisors are present, employees might follow safety protocols, but when they are not, employees might avoid wearing safety gear and fail to follow safety rules. To gain acceptance, supervisors should walk the talk and model the safety behavior they wish in employees. This means carefully following all the safety rules to send the message that safety is important.

What Did the Study Find?

Kessler and colleagues conducted a study of workplace safety in 53 companies in Italy. They surveyed employees and their supervisors about the safety climate of their workplace, their own safety behavior, and accidents. What they found is that both safety climate and supervisor modeling of safety behavior linked to employee safe behavior and accidents. Supervisors who followed safety protocols had employees who were likely to follow the same safe protocols and had fewer accidents in their units.

Modeling the behavior you wish to see from employees is an easy and effective way to gain acceptance. This is true, not only for safety, but for other forms of behavior as well. Establishing climates by putting emphasis on certain types of behaviors is a good start, but to really encourage behavior, supervisors should walk the talk to move from compliance to acceptance.

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