Safety ‘Solutions’ Won’t Move a Hippo!

by Gabrielle Carlton on July 22, 2014

in Gabrielle Carlton,Safety Books,Wicked Problems



Safety ‘Solutions’ Won’t Move a Hippo!

imageSo how do you move a Hippo? Well according to a kids book I read my 5 year old the other night it’s quite simple if you’re willing to learn the message.

So the story goes that there is a Hippo lying on the bridge asleep and in the way. The other animals wanted to get past and to do so they had to move the Hippo.

“You can’t move a Hippo if it doesn’t want to go!” said the blue and green (and very wise) parrot. So the lion decides to order him off to no avail.The monkey wanted to push him off but the Hippo kept sleeping on.

The wart hog thought that bouncing him off would work. Not so. So then comes along a cute little white mouse and he is able to get the Hippo to move. How does he do it? Lets come back to that later.

To me this simple kids story is quite analogous to the risk and safety industry. We try to motivate people in risk and safety by telling and policing expecting results. Then wonder why those results don’t ensue. That’s when I understood that the parrot in this story really gets motivation. The parrot knows that someone will not do something if they do not want to do it.

I’ve been quite challenged over the many years of working in and consulting in the risk and safety industry. How do we get people engaged? How do we get people motivated? How do we get people to ‘own’ safety? These questions I’ve asked in the past myself and still to this day get asked by many managers and safety professionals. How do we get people to do what the procedure tells us to do?



We need to understand that risk and safety is a wicked problem. In other words it’s complex and one that cannot be ‘fixed’ by simple, silver bullet solutions. Risk and safety is complex because we are dealing with humans. Humans, by design, are very complex and are averse to being told what to do. We are not motivated by this. We are not motivated by bullies who just want us to comply, like the lion. We are not motivated by pushing or shoving or bouncing for that matter. If we want to understand how people are motivated firstly we need to understand the psychology of goals, we need to understand human beings.

Risk and safety is quite fixated on systems and processes that we tend to forget that there are even humans involved.

How did the mouse get the Hippo to move? Simple, he asked! Risk and safety may well be a complex, wicked problem but tackling risk (not fixing) can be quite simple. The mouse spoke to the Hippo, he engaged and had a conversation. Quite often we overlook such simple ways to encourage people to engage in the workplace or with the processes developed to assist the workplace. Have a conversation.

I was recently engaged to assist managers with their knowledge and understanding of risk and safety. The way of ensuring this organisation was meeting their obligations was to engage these managers with an audit tool. My method was quite the opposite. I threw away the audit tool and just sat and asked questions and listened. Every single Manager sat there and told me their concerns, issues and wins. I soon learnt the gaps, the problems with the system and where they could use some support. I gained more from those conversations with the managers than any audit tool or checklist could have done. I put the people first, which enabled me to understand the inconsistencies in the system.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the system and the compliance and the auditing that we forget why it’s all there for in the first place. So maybe when we are wondering why our workers aren’t motivated or engaged or owning safety it’s time to take that step back and ask, ‘am I expecting too much from our systems and placing them first above our people?’

Remember you can move a hippo if you know how to motivate. The only way to know what motivates someone is to have the right conversation.

Thank you to Michael Catchpool for his insightful book, “You Can’t Move a Hippo”. I’m sure he didn’t realise how educational it could be even in the risk and safety industry.



Gabrielle Carlton

Gabrielle Carlton

Director & Principal Consultant at Resylience
Gabrielle Carlton
Gabrielle Carlton
Gabrielle Carlton is a specialist in human factors in risk and safety. Gabrielle provides training, advice, coaching and mentoring for leaders and managers. Gabrielle has well over 10 years experience as an advisor and consultant to industry as well as a strong personal background across a range of industries including: electrical generation & distribution, aged and disability in large residential facilities, construction, property management, rail, manufacturing, government bodies and corporations. Gabrielle is able to use her expertise in analysis, training, organisation psychology, research, systems auditing and human behaviour to serve a wide range of needs. She has conducted a Probability Risk Analysis (PRA) using Resylience's methodology Culture and Organisation Modelling in Risk (COMIR). This work was conducted with National power generation companies. Gabrielle has developed and delivered a range of risk and safety leadership consultancies to Tier 1 organisations in Australia.

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