Caring vs. Compliance: The Secret Sauce to Improve Safety Culture


By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

Organizational leaders make two common errors when trying to improve safety performance and culture. First, they overemphasize safety statistics to the point that employees believe the safety “numbers” trump genuine caring about their well-being. Second, they stress compliance with rules to the point that employees may feel like their job is to avoid breaking any rules so they don’t get fired. Clearly, rules compliance and safety statistics are important. However, leaders should spend more time showing genuine caring for employees. This is an investment in your people as well as your culture. Increasing active caring increases the probability of safe work practices and a corresponding reduction in serious injuries and fatalities.

Empirical research supports this:
• Supportive leadership positively impacts safety compliance and safety participation (e.g., Barling et al., 2002; Hofmann & Morgeson, 1999; Kelloway et al., 2006)
• People-oriented leadership (leaders showing caring for employees) is negatively associated with risk-taking behaviors (Størseth, 2004, 2006).
• Fewer safety-related incidents and injuries occur when employees perceive high quality relationships with their leaders (Hofmann & Morgeson, 1999).

In one example, leaders at a Pennsylvania plant were concerned about compliance problems with lock-out/tag-out (LOTO) procedures which could easily lead to SIFs. Rather than threatening employees to comply, managers went around and spoke with hourly employees running the equipment. They found out the LOTO procedures were overly complicated and the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for LOTO were written for engineers, not hourly employees. To solve this problem, they brought in engineers, safety professionals, supervisors, and hourly employees to collectively streamline the LOTO process and revise the SOPs with user-friendly language. Overnight, the LOTO issue became a non-issue. This is an example of a communication problem disguised as a compliance issue. Leaders demonstrated active caring in this case by soliciting employee feedback, genuinely listening to concerns and recommendations, and following through on action item improvements.

In one very powerful safety presentation, a manager showed a slide of a young man with his wife and two kids. The manager gave details about the man including job position, education, hobbies etc. He then told the audience that the young man was killed the previous week in a fall of about 80 feet off an oil derrick (not tied off). This was a very sad, but effective means to reinforce the importance of safety. No graphs or statistics were needed. While this approach may not work for all, it’s important to remember that overloading employees with safety statistics is no substitute for demonstrating authentic caring about their safety. Managers are well served to remember that safety statistics should supplement genuine discussions (and testimonials) about employees’ safety.

Finally, a new plant manager at a still mill in Ohio inherited an unhealthy culture with significant distrust between managers and employees. One of his first acts as plant manager was to set up 30-minute meetings with every employee in the facility to discuss whatever issues were on their mind (safety or otherwise). He called the meetings “30 minutes with Bob” and promoted these meetings in person, during meetings, via email and through other communication channels. When we arrived on site to conduct safety training, a number of employees told us how much they liked the meetings and appreciated his effort. As importantly, numerous employees who’d not had the meeting referenced the meetings as an indication the new leader cares about his employees. This simple move sparked a change in the hearts and minds of employees and demonstrated legitimate active caring.

Bottom Line: Injury numbers drop and safety culture improves when leaders demonstrate genuine caring for employees.

At Propulo, we work with leaders to develop micro-habits associated with active caring behaviors. We can help you institutionalize active caring as part of how you do business.