Are You Creating an ‘Obeyience Culture’?

Are You Creating an ‘Obeyience Culture’?

Depositphotos_9783176_xsWhen I started consulting in risk and safety, people would regularly contact me and ask “are we meeting our legal requirements?” or “are we doing all we need to do, ‘under the law’”. Consulting in risk and safety seems to attract these questions, and people expect that this is an area I am interested in. After all, if you’re into safety, you must be focused on legislation, right?

When an organisation focuses only on legislation and rules, people are often treated as objects within a system. This is because the focus often becomes about the system and perfection and there is little understanding of how people make decision and judgments. This may actually increase risk in an organisation because people work out of fear rather than understanding, follow process rather than thinking creatively, and are more concerned with perfectionism than learning.

This is why I’m not that into safety anymore

Some organisations are so fixated on meeting their legal requirements (and the system) that they become blinded to the impact that this has on culture. Companies that focus their attention solely on a system create a culture that demands obedience, in what I refer to as an ‘Obeyience Culture’ – obedience in the name of compliance. This type of culture fosters fear, silence and blame, all of which lead to organisations where surprises are the norm, and unusual events appear from nowhere because people in those organisations do not reports mistakes, near misses or ‘oh dear’ moments. This is because it’s not how things are done in an ‘Obeyience Culture’. So why do these organisations require obedience?

The reason is that leaders in such organisations believe that obeying instructions, following directions and adhering to rules is all that the law requires. You will hear such leaders say things like ‘we just need clear guidelines, standards and processes, and people who will follow them’. Such leaders believe that people are like robots and should do everything that is asked of them, without question. Rules are there to be followed.

In one recent organisation that I heard of, they developed ‘sensible standards’ that had to be followed, and they expected ‘uncompromising compliance’ (which meant a first and final warning if you didn’t follow the standards) from everyone. They told their frontline supervisors that to make it easy for them, that the supervisors had no discretion when it came to breaking the standards. They were expected to punish people, no questions asked. The site leader added, ‘we are doing this to save lives, that’s what we are about’. I’ve become attuned to words like this, and I now listen for the discourse of these words. Words like this are a sure sign that this was an ‘Obeyience culture’.

The irony is that organisations with an ‘Obeyience Culture’, do not deal with risk as we well as organisations with ‘learning cultures’. ‘Obeyience’ creates an environment that is structured, fixed and difficult to change. ‘Learning cultures’ instead provide an environment that is nimble, creative and resilient. So organisations that strive to meet legal requirements and deal with risk through obedience may well just be doing the opposite because in those organisations, people cannot learn when they make mistakes, they must be punished. So why are organisations and leaders seduced into thinking that an ‘obeyience culture’ will help them meet their legal requirements?

The seduction comes from the belief that employees obeying rules means that they, as leaders, are doing what the law requires them to do. This is often what is portrayed in various legal briefings and advice that is distributed to organisations and managers. We are constantly being advised that we must have and review policies, procedures and clear standards and we must create a culture where people follow them – ‘obeyience’. I understand why it is tempting for some leaders to focus on ‘Obeyience culture’, however I wonder though whether they stop to consider the by-products and trade-offs that are created by fostering such a culture?

The by-products and trade-offs include silence and under-reporting. However, there is a greater concern that leaders should be aware of which is the power that they have over people and their behaviour when their focus is on obedience.

Milgram demonstrated this in his social psychological studies in 1962 in which 40 people, all males, participated in an experiment that demonstrated what ‘ordinary’ people will do when they are operating under the authority of another (see Youtube clip below). In the experiments, Milgram had actors, dressed in white coats to demonstrate authority, issue instructions to the participants to administer electric shocks to other participants when they answered incorrectly to questions they were asked. The more questions that the people answered incorrectly, the higher the amount of the electric shock that was administered. The people who were receiving the supposed shocks, were not really strapped up to the electricity, but those who were administering the shocks did not know this. They were told ‘they will learn more, because they get punished when they make a mistake’. Of course, this was not the case at all, there was no learning for the participants who were receiving the supposed electric shock, the real learning was how far people will go, and what they will do, when a person who is perceived to be in a position of authority, administers a command.


Milgrams experiment provides a fascinating insight into the power of authority, and demonstrates just how obedient people will be, even when they feel uncomfortable, and don’t want to do what is asked of them. So what can we learn in risk and safety from Milgram’s experiments, and what do they mean for organisations with an ‘Obeyience culture’?

There are two key lessons for leaders to consider. Firstly, leaders should be aware and reflect on how their own authority and style may impact on the people they are leading. This can often be a difficult thing to detect. After all, if their style is to issue instructions and people always seem to follow these instructions, they may think everything is going fine.

Of course, if this is done in the social context of an ‘Obeyience culture’, they will not hear from their team when things go wrong, because this is not the way things are done in an ‘Obeyience culture’. If you are a leader and you rarely hear of problems, mistakes or errors from your team, you should be concerned that you may have created an ‘Obeyience culture’.

Secondly, leaders need to be aware of and reflect on the overall culture of the organisation they are leading in. Leaders in an ‘Obeyience culture’ may themselves be fearful of the ramifications of not meeting their legal, head office, regulator or other imposed requirements. The irony that is that the leaders themselves may be the subject of obedience. If you are in an organisation that focuses mainly on LTI’s, risk assessment scores and ‘zero harm’ and little on understanding people and motivation, it is likely that you have, or are on the path to an ‘Obeyience culture’. So what do leaders need to be aware of in order to avoid an ‘Obeyience culture’?

Leaders who are keen to understand whether their culture may be ‘Obeyience’, can consider these four questions as a starting point:

· What words are used by leaders across the organisation and what is their discourse (or trajectory)? Words like ‘uncompromising’, ‘must do’, ‘no discretion’, ‘absolute expectation’, ‘we are serious’ and ‘no room to move’ can all be signs that the organisation is focused on obedience.

· What language is used in organisational policies and procedures? Is it focused on words like ‘compliance’, and ‘adherence’, or instead on learning and an open culture of communication?

· How are people rewarded and recognised? Is the focus on injury numbers (lag indicators), or effective conversations (lead indicators, or preferably, not measured at all)?

· How are incidents dealt with? Is an incident, near miss or hazard report seen as a failure, or an opportunity to learn?

Of course, understanding organisational culture is a far more complex task than simply considering these few questions, but they are a good starting point in understanding whether your organisation has, or is on the journey to an ‘Obeyience culture’.

Are you creating an ‘obeyience culture’ in your organisation?

Author: Robert Sams

Phone: 0424 037 112


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Rob Sams
Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

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