Thought Leadership

The human factor. Thoughts and observations.

The life-blood of any organisation is its people; the success of every system, in every organisation is determined by human factors. We are seeking a deep understanding of these human factors; these are some of our thoughts and observations.

People, Power, Progress: Establishing a Sustainable Safety Culture in Organisations

People, Power, Progress: Establishing a Sustainable Safety Culture in Organisations

Because safety and security is so intrinsic within the human psyche and is high on most organisations’ priority list, when people begin to trust the message and feel like a valued part of the whole, other boats rise.

The Psychological Basis

Through inherent psychological processes and life experiences, we are all fundamentally conditioned to behave according to our underlying attitudes, values and beliefs. Like an ice-berg, our visible behaviours are clear for all to see (although not often clear enough to ourselves), but beneath the water, our motivations are continuously in operation driving our visible behaviour. So the starting point in any sustainable behaviour change is to focus on human motivation.

The vast majority of people are motivated by trust and value as core needs in any group, and most desire to behave according to expectations and norms. The Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a psychological macro-theory of human motivation, emotion, and personality in social contexts and speculates a natural tendency toward psychological growth, physical health and social wellness, that is supported by satisfaction of the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness (Williams et al., 2011). The need for autonomy is to feel self-determining in ones actions rather than feeling controlled or obliged to act (Ingledew et al., 2004). Despite this scientific fact, leaders and managers tend to motivate people through fear rather than trust or value. Most organisations are under pressure to produce and perform and tend to rely on policing safety in an autocratic manner. It doesn’t help that the safety message has become consumed by legislation, documentation, box-ticking compliance and impractical controls.

From an organizational leadership perspective, once the forceful fear inducing influence and/or the stick and carrot incentivisation influence stops or wears thin, employees and followers in general are likely to rebel in an opposite direction to the organisation in order to assert their independence. To protect against this from happening, while maintaining the traditional forms of organizational influence, according to classic leadership and economic theory, the organisation must then expend considerable resources not only in order to secure compliance, but, over time, to then maintain that compliance (Haslam, Reicher and Platow, 2011). There is an easier route that makes much more sense, and that is to attempt to inspire someone to want to move in a specific course so that they will continue to perform or behave accordingly even without the leader present.


A Shift in Thinking & Communicating the Safety Message

To overcome this blockage, organisations need to think outside of the box.

The shift needs to move from seeing safety as external to the individual, to viewing it as an internal mechanism. With this shift in thinking, one clearly sees that driving home the safety message through traditional, compliance driven, box-ticking communication methods cannot possibly be effective in the long-term. It is not to say that compliance is not required, because it certainly is, but it is not enough and is definitely does nothing to create a sustainable safety culture.

Communication must actively involve people around processes, must give operators real local ownership, must define real expectations and must be a two-way street where authentic feedback is both given and taken. Local risks (operational & behavioural) need to be prioritised and a people-based system is required to win hearts and minds over the long-term.


Attending to the Common Pinch-Point: Front-Line Management

Such innovative thinking, along with the systems and tools to support it, is immediately adopted by operators on the ground, who finally feel valued, can trust the authentic feedback and know what to expect. In theory and practice, senior leadership tend to recognise this as best practice and will endorse such an approach, however the critical pinch-point occurs at the front-line management level.

This is where FLMs say ‘they don’t have the time’ or ‘they can’t offer the proximity and engagement required’. So organisations need to spend time working on this pinch-point, through focussed training, not just on the ‘what’ or ‘how’, but on the ‘why’, this approach is critically important to the organisation. Once there is a proactive, leading edge communication flow between senior management, front-line management and operators, the gap is reduced and a safety culture will begin to grow.


Sustaining World-Class Results

Because safety and security is so intrinsic within the human psyche and is high on most organisations’ priority list, when people begin to trust the message and feel like a valued part of the whole, organisations report increased staff morale, decreased absenteeism and increased productivity and quality. The most important resource any organisation has are its people, and world-class systems can tap into this resource and motivate based on autonomy rather than obligation. This is when results become sustainable and a safety culture is allowed to grow.



Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S., & Platow, M. J. (2011). The new psychology of leadership: Identity, influence, and power. Hove: Psychology Press.

Ingledew, D.K., Markland, D., Sheppard, K.E. (2004), Personality and self-determination of exercise behaviour, Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 36:8, pp. 1921-1932.

Williams, G.C., Patrick, H., Niemiec, C.P., Ryan, R.M., Deci, E.L., McGregor Lavigne, H. (2011), The Smoker’s Health Project: A self-determination theory intervention to facilitate maintenance of tobacco abstinence, Contemporary Clinical Trials, vol. 32, pp. 535-543.

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