The Emperor has no Clothes – Beyond Behaviour-Based Safety

A great, resurrected article by Clive Lloyd who says: Almost two years since I shared this piece, and I’m quite heartened by how things have changed in the "safety" space during that time. A movement towards Care rather than compliance, and trust-building rather than fear-based approaches seems to be evident. Thanks to the pioneering work of people like Dr Robert Long and others, there also appears to be a growing recognition of the importance of a research-based social psychological understanding of risk as opposed to mantras and platitudes. Let’s see what the next two years brings …

The Emperor Has No Clothes – Beyond Behaviour-Based Safety

We need less safety platitudes and more Authentic Safety Leadership.image

by Clive Lloyd – first published HERE

After spending the last decade as a psychologist specialising in the development of effective safety cultures, I am heartened by the earnest efforts of researchers who have clearly identified key predictors of safety culture excellence. I am also perturbed by the apparent reluctance of many industry leaders to put such tangible evidence-based findings into practice.

Most of my work has been in the mining, oil & gas and construction sectors, and invariably organisations in these industries espouse the “Zero Harm” objective. While a laudable goal, too many safety leaders recite these words as their mantra, yet fail to operate in the very ways required to even approach such a lofty aspiration. The inevitable result of such inconsistency is a cynical workforce that comes to view “Zero Harm” as a mere slogan – a safety platitude. Worse yet is the resulting loss of trust.

Trust has been consistently demonstrated to be a leading predictor of safety performance. For example, in a recent Australian study focussed on the mining industry, Gunningham and Sinclair (2012) found that “ … unless the mistrust of the workforce can be overcome then even the most well-intentioned and sophisticated management initiatives will be treated with cynicism and undermined.”

Read et al. (2010) eloquently outlined the key approaches to safety in the energy sectors. I have summarised and condensed their excellent descriptions below and refer the interested reader to their full article for greater depth.

There are two fundamental approaches to achieving sustainable improvements in safety performance. The most common of these approaches in the energy sectors are those referred to as Behavioural Based Safety (BBS)Programs. These programs are grounded in the operant learning principles that were first articulated by B. F. Skinner (Read et al, 2010).

A second approach is Values Based Safety; this approach draws on research and theories rooted in expectancy and attribution theories, first developed by Julian Rotter (1973) and then extended by Albert Bandura (1997) and most recently by Martin Seligman (2002).

While engaging individuals and working to create and encourage safe behaviours are essential parts of any approach to safety, BBS programs often fail to do this. The reasons for this stem from a fundamental flaw about the nature of human behaviour (Read et al, 2010).

The first reason such programs fail is that human behaviour is not controlled by consequences but by the individual’s expectations, which is a belief that something will (or will not) occur. In other words, behaviour is not externally controlled by consequences but is internally controlled by a person’s beliefs about the antecedent. If the person believes that something will happen when he encounters a given antecedent, then he will act in accordance with that belief, regardless of the consequence. This is why people regularly do things that, to an observer, are clearly self-defeating (Read et al, 2010). Programs based on external control create compliance but not commitment and as soon as the external control is relaxed, so too is the level of compliance. These programs are not sustainable.

A second reason has to do with the way people respond to external rules. The average person is, after a while, very likely to break safety rules because this is the way their minds work – people seek to improve something or make it easier. This is why systems built on the premise of informed compliance to a set of rules generally fail in the long run (Read et al, 2010).

A third reason behavioural based programs don’t work as expected is that they are based on an inherent assumption of the operant approach that safety improvement is a management problem. From the management perspective, safety can be engineered into the design and operations of any system. This turns out not to be the case, because as Read et al (2010) have pointed out, behaviour cannot be externally controlled.

Wise managers understand that having an inherently safe design and procedures to enable the safe operation of the equipment is just the start. Managers need to engage people so that they consistently operate the equipment within its design envelope and as per established procedures.

The message here is that people are not robots and one size does not fit all. The problem invariably is that managers implementing a typical behaviour based program think that if a particular antecedent is present you will get a particular behaviour. An antecedent will lead to behaviour, but the behaviour may be different from one individual to the next. Every individual in a sense chooses how they react to an antecedent. Their choice may be to act in a particular way or to do nothing; not reacting or not taking any action is still behaviour. The individual controls this, not the manager (Read et al, 2010).

Finally, BBS programs can often be perceived in a negative way. They can be seen as focusing on failures, or catching people doing something wrong, or seen as a “dobbing on your mate”. They can focus on blaming the worker involved as being the root cause of the problem.

The way forward – Values-Based safety leadership

While there may be no one single model of HSE leadership best practice, there are key themes supported by the literature to guide the aspiring safety leader. One finding is crystal clear – The “command-Control” approach of yesteryear is the antithesis of what is known to create effective safety cultures. Such overly directive approaches simply cannot create the levels of trust necessary for people to freely report safety concerns. O’Dea and Flin (2001) found that directive leaders overestimate their abilities to motivate and influence the workforce. This, combined with the above limitations of the BBS approach, has been the driver for more innovative safety leaders to explore more democratic values-based models such as Authentic Leadership.

Authentic Leadership is developing as a model to go beyond transformational leadership and has trust as a core component (Mearns, 2008). Moreover, the goals and overall approach of Authentic Leadership promote many of the key characteristics of High Reliability Organisations (HROs) including commitment to a shared purpose and respectful interactions.

Along with key HRO traits such as resilience andmindfulness, the concept of Authentic Leadership comes from the Positive Psychology movement. Positive psychology focuses attention on the positive attributes people have that enhance life rather than what is wrong with people. The basic assumptions of the approach are that people are motivated and seek commitment, responsibility and enjoyment from their work.

This move towards positive psychology is exemplified in Luthans and Avolio’s (2003) description of Positive Organisational Behaviour (POB): “the study and application of positively oriented human resource strengths and psychological capacities that can be measured, developed, and effectively managed for performance improvement in today’s workplace.” (p. 59).

The core states of POBs are Confidence, Hope, Optimism and Resilience. Luthans and Avolio (2003) relate POB to the full-range/multi-factor leadership model and recent developments in moral/ethical leadership to develop the concept of Authentic Leadership. Authentic Leadership is defined as: “a process that draws from both positive psychological capacities and a highly developed organizational context, which results in both greater self-awareness and self-regulated positive behaviours on the part of leaders and associates, fostering positive self-development.”p.243.

Authentic leaders are characterised as: confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, transparent, moral/ethical, future oriented and give priority to developing associates to become leaders.

In their model of the authentic leadership process, Avolio et al. (2004) identify hope, trust, positive emotions and optimism as key intervening variables in leaders’ influence on followers’ attitudes and behaviours. This recognition of the role of trust in leadership revisits notions stated earlier regarding the full-range model of leadership and safety. Given the key role that trust has in safety, Authentic Leadership appears particularly suited to an examination of the influence of leadership in relation to safety (Mearns, 2008).

Current research (Nielsen et al, 2013) has indeed confirmed a link between Authentic Leadership and safety performance with the authors concluding, “SCOs should consider recruiting and developing authentic leaders to foster positive safety climates and risk management.”

Einstein once alluded to insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result”. It is hoped that the more mature safety leader will realize that mindlessly offering safety platitudes simply cannot build an effective safety culture, no matter how laudable the goal. Rather, leaders need to put in the conscious effort to build trust through authentic safety leadership.


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Clive Lloyd is an Australian psychologist specializing in Safety Culture and Leadership. He is the director of GYST Consulting Pty Ltd.

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