New Rules of Safety: Searching for silver bullets in safety: focus on the ‘how’

By Andrew Sharman

standing-bullet-1138905_640Traditionally, when it comes to workplace safety, we focus on the what – the processes, systems and activities, the audits, investigations and inspections, the reviews, checks and balances.  Safety departments load up on action lists as they devise strategic plans that move them forward in their relentless pursuit of zero accidents.

Starting with why

In 2014 Simon Sinek gave a TED talk focused on the importance of working out the reason why we do what we do.  His book, ‘Start with Why’, became mandatory reading on the lists of many business schools as leaders were compelled to find their ‘golden circle’ and hit on the real reason why they do what they do.

At around the same time there was an organisational resurgence of social conscience as safety policies, programs and campaigns re-positioned people at the heart of safety with slogans like ‘Safety first’, ‘Good Safety is Good Business’.   Mirrors in washrooms declared that ‘YOU are responsible for safety’ and photographs of workers’ children adorned canteen walls reminding mummy and daddy to come home safely, as health and safety practitioners explained how safety could benefit the so-called corporate ‘triple bottom line’ of People, Plant and Profit.

Starting with why sounds good; Sinek may be on to something. But if, once we’ve confirmed why we’re doing safety – to keep our people safe and working efficiently – we revert back to doing what we’ve always been doing with those systems, audits and inspections, will it really get us to where we want to be?

Searching for silver bullets in safety

In 1964 Ella Fitzgerald gently crooned “It ain’t what you do” (“…it’s the way that you do it”).  Never regarded as Ella’s best work, the downtempo melody was enjoyed by some but largely fell away un-noticed by the masses.  In 1982, Fun Boy Three and Banarama covered the song and it hit the top of the UK charts.   Despite the popularity of the tune, I can’t help but wonder whether we missed something.  Today, the original lyrics are still buzzing around my head and frequently feature in my discussions with leaders around the globe as they seek the ‘silver bullet’ to creating a step-change in their organizational safety cultures. Usually received with a dismayed grimace, I tell the leaders the same thing.  There ain’t no silver bullet.  It really is about how you do what you do that makes the difference.

Ella Fitzgerald: "It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it."

Ella Fitzgerald: “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.”

Earlier this year, the HOW Report set out its manifesto for rethinking the source of resiliency, innovation and growth – it’s a brilliant piece of work.

The report begins with an apparently simple proposition – that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to align employees to deliver against the progressively complex and challenging objectives they are given. It argues that these objectives are presented to workers due to the growing challenge faced by business leaders – not simply to manage organisations and employees, but also to worry about the state of the economy and the society which envelopes their organisation as they lurch towards an ever-uncertain future.

As we contend with the dynamics of operating in a rapidly-changing globally interdependent world business leaders are constantly having to rethink the way the very nature of how they lead, how their organisations operate, and how their people work.  Shouldn’t health and safety practitioners be doing the same?

 How do you do?

The HOW Report studied 40,000 employees across 17 countries and revealed some fascinating insights.  Top of the list was that self-governing organisations, those that go beyond classic models of compliance, are the ones that perform best in the marketplace, both locally and globally.

Every one of these organisations seem to have three things in common:

  1. they have solid values that guide the way they operate;
  2. they build and consistently encourage a strong sense of trust; and
  3. they deliberately define and focus hard on their purpose – or as Simon says, they totally know why they are doing what they’re doing.

In our own work improving culture and enabling excellence in safety for organizations around the globe we find that these three things are there in every company we consider to be ‘best-in-class’ in terms of safety.

But how isn’t just a question, it’s the answer too.  We’ve evolved through the stone age, the industrial age, the age of technology, and we’re now in the age of uncertainty.  To be precise, we’re in the Era of Behaviour.

Trust, values and a sense of purpose form the currency of the working world– well, at least in those organisations who are thinking ahead of the curve – as they act as the glue to bind together leadership, governance and management systems and define corporate culture.  In recent years we’ve learned that culture is the differentiator.

No matter where you look today, the defining factor is behaviour. It’s the single most important differentiator, and it alone allows organisations to outperform their competitors, and even their own performance plans.

Four key findings from the HOW report

Self-governance is rare across the globe with only 3% of respondents reporting a high level of self-governing behaviour within their organisations .

Whilst many organisations have at least some degree of self-governance, it’s rarely their main modus operandii.   Command-and-control relationships between leaders and followers continue to dominate the working world and when it comes to matters of workplace safety manifest as rules and policies, safety objectives, and performance-based recognition and reward activities such as generating pre-requisite numbers of near miss reports or attaining certain injury frequency rates.


Self-governing organisations outperform other types of organisations across every important performance outcome.

Self-governing organisations consistently outperform competitors because they are more innovative, adopt best practice ideas faster and retain high quality employees by generating higher levels of job satisfaction.  Further, they experience less misconduct, as a just culture encourages employees to report misbehaviour and feel free to speak up and share their ideas and experiences without fear of reprisal.


There is marked disconnect between senior leadership and employees

Time and time again executives paint a brighter picture of the organisations than employees do. Isn’t the same true in safety as managers conclude that accidents were the fault of an employee’s lack of intelligence, attention, competence, failure to follow rules, or just plain bad luck?


Trust, shared values and a deep sense of and commitment to purpose produce significant competitive advantage

Trust, values and purpose have twice the positive impact on performance as the HOW Report’s second tier of behaviours which included information-sharing, collaboration, speaking up, resiliency and operational efficiency.  Where organisations have a solid foundation of trust, values and purpose this has an amplifying effect on the second tier behaviour which produces a much stronger impact on positive outcomes and in developing a robust, sustainable corporate culture.


How we do anything means everything

So what does all this mean for safety?  Well, culture as a deliberate, conscious, living long-term strategy can certainly answer the WHAT question – and be the key to organisational difference, opening the door to sustainable success in the 21st century.

Behaviour is the single biggest differentiator in business today, so the HOW comes down to the leaders’ ability to step through the door and pioneer new approaches on the journey to zero accidents, good governance and effective leadership.  Some suggestions (tweaking those given in the HOW Report) for us as safety leaders might include:

  • Sharing stories that exemplify how our (safety) values come to life
  • Seeking feedback to strengthen (safety) leadership and increase impact
  • Regularly pausing to discuss (the organisation’s) purpose (or mission)
  • Making everyone feel part of the overarching purpose or mission
  • Regularly connecting with teams (about safety) in meaningful ways
  • Encouraging others to speak out (about safety) and voice their opinions
  • Providing autonomy to people and the resources to achieve
  • Holding selves and each other accountable to (safety-related) standards of conduct in line with (the organisation’s values).

And the WHY? Well, that’s entirely up to you. Just bear in mind Ella’s advice: “it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, and that’s what gets results”.

Andrew’s best-selling book From Accidents to Zero: A Practical Guide to Improving Your Workplace Safety Culture is available to SHPonline readers with an exclusive 25% discount. A new book Safety Savvy, co-authored with Dr Tim Marsh, is also available on this special offer.  Use the code SHP25 at to order your copies of both books now. 

Barbour Download: Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace

According to Barbour, almost a third of workers have been bullied and half of women, and a fifth of men, have been sexually harassed at work. Bullying and harassment is offensive or insulting behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated. It may involve the abuse of power by one person over another, or it can involve groups of people.

This free employee factsheet contains:

  • What is bullying and harassment?
  • The impact of bullying;
  • The role of an employer;
  • Advice for combatting bullying;
  • Actions to take;
  • Sources of help and information.

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

You May Also Be Interested In

Leave a Reply

Notify of

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.

November 9, 2016

Visit Safety & Health Expo, the UK’s largest health and safety event and conference