New Rules of Safety: Catching the safety virus: the power and potency of social contagion


-1378272724L7cIt’s that time of year isn’t it?  The guy on the train sneezes, and a couple of days later you’ve caught his cold.  Your kid comes back from school with a runny nose, and soon you have the same.  The teacher helpfully adds that “most of the children have the same right now”.  There’s something ‘going around’.

When a friend suffers a loss, it’s hard for us not to become bound by the same feelings as we empathise and grieve with them.  As you gather round to watch a relative blow out the candles on her birthday cake, you can’t help but feel her excitement and smile too.  What’s happening here?  At the University of San Diego James Fowler & Nick Christakis found that emotions are contagious – just like the common cold.  For example, if you have a happy friend, the chance of you becoming happier when around them jumps by nearly 25%.

Behaviours are contagious too

The same San Diego study revealed that if you have an overweight amigo, your chances of reaching for a Big Mac rise.    But if a buddy signs up for a local fun run, it’s more likely you’ll also sign up.  And towards the end of an evening out we’ve all felt the pulling power of the phrase “one for the road?”

Scientists call this phenomena ‘social contagion’ and it’s likely that it stems from our intrinsic desire to want to ‘fit in’ and ‘go with the flow’ – particularly with those we hold in esteem, such as family and friends.

But does this social contagion operate in the workplace?  In the Harvard Business Review Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman present results of a new study that reveal 30 different behaviours can be actively transferred from leaders to managers to employees.  They found that positive behaviours – including integrity, honesty, decisiveness and cooperation –  can be directly passed from person to person.  Unsurprisingly, negative behaviours like poor communication skills, selfishness, narrow-mindedness and dishonesty can also trickle down individually from level to level of an organisation’s hierarchical structure.

The report found that senior leaders doing a sub-optimal job erode not only the engagement levels of direct reports, but also the engagement of those working for them.  Fortunately, the opposite also holds true:  if you’re a great leader, your positive behaviour engages your team and your team’s team.  It’s a win-win-win.   This study reinforces a message we often share with our clients: “Leadership is everything you do, and everything you don’t do”.

In safety we may often wonder whether we are truly making an impact.  Remember that behaviour change is often subtle and occurs over time. Time to think about your own behaviour for a moment: maybe there’s one or two aspects or bad habits you’re not especially proud of or feel embarrassed about.   When we consider the power of social contagion, perhaps this offers some additional motivation for change, given that the things you do as a safety leader have a fair chance of being picked up and copied by those around you.

In my book From Accidents to Zero I call this social contagion when applied to workplace H&S ‘viral safety’.  Your challenge then, as a great safety leader, is to choose the positive behaviours you wish to infect your peers and stakeholders with in order to build your safety culture and drive great performance.


Andrew’s best-selling book From Accidents to Zero: A Practical Guide to Improving Your Workplace Safety Culture is available to SHP readers with an exclusive 25% discount.  Use the code SHP25 at to order your copy now.

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Categories: Behavioural Safety, Culture And Behaviours, New Safety and Health, Trending

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Jill Adams
Jill Adams

A really interesting article and so right on a social level and workplace level.Looking forward to reading the book.

Andrew Sharman
Andrew Sharman

Hello Jill, thanks for the positive feedback, I’m pleased you enjoyed this article. The challenge now is: how can you start to spread the ‘safety virus’ in YOUR workplace?

Author Bio ▼

Andrew Sharman

Andrew is the CEO of RMS Switzerland, a global consultancy specialising in safety behaviour, culture and leadership. With offices in the UK, and Switzerland.  RMS has an enviable track record of improving culture and enabling excellence for NGOs and blue chip organisations around the world through industry sectors including aviation, automotive, mining, construction, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, and FMCGs. Find out more at

Andrew is also Professor of Leadership & Safety Culture at the European Centre for Executive Development in Fontainebleau, France, and Professor of Risk Management at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.  He is a Chartered Fellow and Vice President of the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH); a Fellow of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management; and a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership & Management.

Far from being risk-averse, he loves adventure sports including climbing, free flying, sea kayaking and swimming with sharks. He uses these pursuits to re-energise the language, perceptions and functions of safety and risk management and align the disciplines with broader organisational issues driving positive impact and enhancing the performance of individuals, teams and businesses.

Read Andrew’s New Rules of Safety series on SHP here.

Andrew’s book From Accidents to Zero is one of the fastest-selling books on safety culture of the 21st  century, find out more at and enter code SHP 25 to receive an exclusive 25% discount for SHPonline readers.

May 11, 2016

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