Belief Trumps Behaviors in Safety Culture Leadership

beliefs trump behaviors in safety leadership

What is the focus of your safety message?  If a safety-culture initiative can be compared to a “body,” then the answer to this question is comparable to the heart.  Answer it incorrectly, and you’ll cut off the circulation to the veins of your initiative.  Answer it correctly, and the result will be a living organism with living cells that reproduce themselves. [content_protector password=”beliefs” identifier=”beliefs”]

A safety culture may very well use systems, programs and processes—but it is neither created by nor animated by those things.  A safety culture may have as one of its objectives compliance to regulations—but it is not created by focusing on greater compliance. An established safety culture often results in behavioral changes—but it is not created by focusing on changing those behaviors.  A change in behaviors is an outcome, not a cause of a safety culture.

That last statement may seem a bit controversial for some.  But it’s nonetheless true that a sustainable safety culture (one that produces real performance outcomes and reproduces itself) is created only by advancing a different way of thinking about safety as a core value and belief instead of a safety system, a safety program, a safety process, a safety regulation we must follow, or even a behavioral model we must adopt.

Now don’t get me wrong; all of these are “good” things in themselves.  It’s just that they’re ineffective in creating a culture.  What we think about safety, and what we believe about it, drives our behaviors whether good or bad.  I can tell someone the right way of doing a job safely.  I can train him to do it properly, and I can even observe his behaviors.  But if that person simply doesn’t believe he will get hurt, or if he holds safety as something less than a core belief, then there’s nothing in that telling, that training or that behavioral observation that will prevent him from putting himself at risk when no one’s around to watch him.  “Culture” happens only through a paradigm shift in the way we think about and what we believe about safety.  That in turn must be tied to other core values and beliefs we already hold, and it must be communicated in a way that builds relationships of trust.  There is no substitute.

Belief trumps behavior.  So resolve upfront that your primary focus will be on the message of safety as a core value and belief—not as a system, not as a program, not as a process, and not even as a behavioral model.  All of these are useful tools for culture change, but they will ultimately fail you if the new way of thinking has not yet been established.

That’s all the time we have for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS. Until next time, be sure all your safety initiatives are built-in, not bolted on.



About the Author

Eric Svendsen
Eric Svendsen, Ph.D., is Principal and lead change agent for safetyBUILT-IN, a safety-leadership learning and development organization. He has over 20 years experience in creating and executing outcomes-based leadership development and culture change initiatives aligned to organizational goals, and he personally led the safety-culture initiatives of a number of client organizations that resulted in “best ever safety performance” years for those companies.