Human Skills for Leadership and Learning in Risk

Human Skills for Leadership and Learning in Risk, Lessons from Building and Construction in Canberra

By Dr Robert Long


The most common approach to cultural transformation is through proclamation and manipulation. However, this rarely works. At the time it sounds straight forward. The culture is exposed and declared ‘toxic’ (similar to the recent announcement about the Australian swimming team), decisions are made, an investigation takes place, compliance is sought and policed and, a program for improvement is put in place. Workshops are held and discussion groups follow, care and attention is given and resources are dedicated to change resources. This approach is called by some organisational cultural experts as, ‘cultural change by seduction’ (Neville). This is certainly the challenge for the building and construction industry in Canberra. Indeed, for the building and construction industry Nationally. Unfortunately, cultural change by seduction doesn’t work for four reasons.

  1. The seduction approach does not address the culture at all levels and gets caught up in the ‘cosmetics of safety’, leaving underlying patterns untouched.
  2. The unconscious beliefs of managers often contradict the values espoused in cultural program and employees read the realities of espoused messages as ‘double speak’. When one seeks to influence culture, one is seeking to influence the non-rational, complex and invisible world.

  3. The underlying conflict of intention in safety with reality of business and tendering for the lowest price over the tightest time frame, undoes many of the well intentioned overt messages of seemingly sincere companies.

  4. The continual fixation with paperwork, regulation and legislative responses to all crises ends up ignoring a range of competing psychological goals, namely the by product of ‘tick and flick’ and the fostering of subversive sub-cultures.


Following a spike in fatalities in the Australian Capital Territory in 2012, the government initiated an inquiry ( and published the Getting Home Safely Report. The report can be downloaded here. ( The report lists 28 recommendations for improvement in the building and construction industry in Canberra. There are more than 50 references to culture and the need for cultural change, in the 96 page Report.

At the same time as the government inquiry into safety in building and construction was announced, the Master Builders Association ACT launched the Safety Culture and Leadership Forum at the National Convention Centre on 22 October 2012. The Forum was attended by 300 delegates from Canberra and NSW. The Forum was led by the work of Dr Robert Long in coordination with Worksafe ACT and the MBA. Gregory Smith (provocative speaker and author of Management Obligations for Health and Safety and Mark McCabe (Worksafe ACT Commissioner) also presented. A feature of the Forum was the research work conducted by Dr Long utilizing the MiProfileã survey tool. The findings of the survey and Forum Report are available in the Canberra Building Edition News 3-2012. ( See pages 32-39. This work was also compared to National benchmarks established through the MiProfileã survey data over the last 8 years with more than 18,000 respondents in the building and construction industry across Australia. Dr Long is also working in collaboration with Professor Patrick Zao at the University of Canberra Faculty of Business and Government, Bachelor of Building and Construction Management, on a number of related research projects on culture and safety in building and construction. Professor Zao is known for his excellent work on the risk management and the Beijing Olympics.

Responses and Initiatives

In response to these Reports and the research data, the MBA engaged Dr Long to deliver the Human Dymensions PROACT program ( as a pilot in November 2012. As a result of the success of the PROACT program the MBA has offered PROACT to members in the industry, with substantial number of contractors signing up for the course. The full course commenced in January 2013 with 60 participants and is now offered at four times in 2013 as a proactive initiative for culture change in building and construction. The PROACT program extends over one month and includes on site coaching. The ABC TV 7.30 Report recently documented this initiative (

In addition to this initiative Dr Long has founded a post graduate studies program at a Canberra University in the Social Psychology of Leadership and Learning in Risk. The first intensive Winter School is scheduled for 17-21 June and is filling quickly with registrations. You can find out more about this initiative from here (

In addition to these initiatives Worksafe ACT has launched its “Speak Up’ Program, emphasising the importance of middle managers in safety conversations on site. Worksafe ACT has also scheduled an International conference for June, including an extensive all day workshop with Dr Long on Leadership in Safety, Risk and Culture.

Results and research from these initiatives will be presented in late 2013.

Rob’s third book Real Risk, Human Discerning and Risk with, feature chapters by Craig Ashhurst (colleague and ANU PhD student) on Risk and Wicked Problems, is due out in June. Craig will also be presenting in the post graduate studies program on visual literacies and risk.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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