The performance of an organisation in work health and safety
(WHS) is to a great degree determined by the successful development
and implementation of properly informed systems. To achieve this
requires the engagement of all in the input of information and
compliant behaviour. Strong leadership can encourage this.
But this begs the question – who are the leaders and how
can you motivate your people to contribute to and cooperate with
WHS systems and improvement?
Everyone is relevant to WHS and must be on the journey
A significant barrier to getting people involved in WHS is the
perception of the individual that they are not relevant and do not
influence WHS. This can mean that people are at best disengaged
from the key processes. At worst they may prefer convenience or
other drivers of behaviour to compliance where the risks or their
seriousness are not apparent to them. Deliberately behaving
unsafely is uncommon, while acting unsafely because a person is not
aware of the seriousness of the consequences is all too common.
The reality is that the behaviour of every person at work
contributes positively or negatively to WHS outcomes, through the
direct consequences of their actions or decisions and through the
messages they send to others about the importance of WHS.
Every person at work has information that others may not have
and getting them to volunteer and share that information may be a
key to risk management and safety system improvement.
What motivates behaviour in an
How do you get people to engage in WHS? You must understand and
respond to the motivators and blockers that apply to them - their
needs and fears.
A strong motivator is the desire to gain reward or avoid
punishment or exclusion, by acting consistently with what is
considered to be valued by the organisation and 'running with
the pack' (responding to peer group pressure). This is in turn
driven by the messages they receive from those who are in positions
of authority and other who they believe and follow.
You need to ensure that these messages and associated peer
pressure promote rather than block engagement.
Engage the group by engaging the leaders – but who
A key element of leadership is the influence that a person has
on the behaviour of others. This is not necessarily associated with
or exclusive to formal leadership roles. A person without a formal
title or authority can be a leader.
A person can influence others, and in this sense be a leader,
where others look to them for 'leads' and follow their
directions or behaviour. We have often seen that a person can have
a negative influence on behaviour within a group when they flout
rules or reject authority. Similarly a person can have a positive
influence by being clearly supportive of an initiative and engaged
in a process – particularly where their involvement is
discretionary. In many cases, it is the informal leaders that will
be the strongest influencers of behaviour within a group as their
influence is more direct and constant.
Just as a WHS culture will not be strong without leadership from
the top of the organisation, so it will not be strong if it is
undermined by negative influencers or apathy at the bottom.
Leadership must exist at all levels – a culture is only as
strong as its weakest link. The messages need to be consistent or
they will be diluted and ineffective.
Identifying the 'informal' leaders throughout the
organisation and garnering their support can accordingly be a key
to engagement in WHS.
Lessons for organisations
The engagement of all throughout the organisation will depend on
or at least be strongly influenced by obtaining positive
contributions from the informal leaders at all levels. WHS must be
driven from the top down and the bottom up.
To do this you should:
Identify the true leaders at each level – who the people
watch and follow.
Work out how leaders can encourage engagement of others and
support your initiatives.
Make sure leaders are fully informed – knowledge of the
significance of the issue (risk or initiative) and their influence
on the outcomes can often overcome resistance.
Find out what motivates leaders and respond to any significant
needs or fears held by them.
Work with them to find ways that they can contribute and lead
that are 'true to them' and therefore credible.
Don't undermine what leaders do or how they do it unless it
is having a negative effect.
Accept that the best you may achieve is a lack of resistance
rather than support, allowing strong leadership from above to
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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