To build a worldclass safety culture, leaders must go first.

To Build a World Class Safety Culture, Leaders Must Go First!

By Eduardo Lan

As a safety leadership and culture consultant with Propulo Consulting, I am often asked by our clients to focus our efforts on the workforce to support them in shifting their safety mindset and behaviors. The logic behind this approach is based on the belief that changing how workers work will solve the problem. This approach is useful, but doesn’t always work long term, particularly if workers’ actions and behaviors are being driven by external forces, such as organizational culture, systems, and leadership. 

Building a worldclass safety culture has everything to do with how leaders show up and choose to lead. It is leaders who set the tone and establish the rules, both written and unwritten, that people follow. As the old saying goes, “that which my boss finds important, I find fascinating.” In that regard, it is essential that leaders be mindful of their words and actions, as people will listen and watch closely to determine what is acceptable and desirable within their place of work and attempt to follow perceived guidelines rather than risk being criticized, rejected, or ousted.

All of us have this innate need to fit in, to be accepted and included in our chosen group. This is human nature and reflects our drive to survive. For many of us, this survival need is most prevalent in our place of work, the source of our livelihood, and it is particularly evident in the employer-employee relationship. In other words, what our boss says and does has a huge impact on our mindset and actions.  

Edgar H. Schein, former professor of MIT´s Sloan School of Management and organizational culture guru, asserts that organizational culture is embedded by means of:

1. What leaders pay attention to, measure and control on a regular basis

2. How leaders react to bad news and organizational crises

3. Perceived criteria by which leaders allocate resources

4. Observed leader role modeling, teaching, and coaching

5. Observed criteria by which leaders allocate rewards and status

6. Perceived criteria by which leaders recruit, select, promote, and ‘excommunicate’ organizational members.

In this regard, it is imperative that leaders “walk the talk” of the safety behaviors they expect and lead the creation of the work environment they desire. In other words, leaders must go first and:

1. Be intentional. 

Whether leaders know it or not, they are leading by example. If they are to create a work environment by design rather than by default, they must be intentional and choose upfront what they wish to see.

2. Show up.

To impact and influence others and the work environment, leaders need to show up by providing visible, present, and felt leadership.

3. Set clear expectations.

Creating a work environment by design involves setting clear expectations and ensuring that people know them. Otherwise, they will do what they think is best, which may well be different from what we think is best.

4. Role model the right behaviors.

Leaders MUST role model the right behaviors they wish to see in others. Telling people to do something and doing the opposite and expecting them to do it anyway because you are the boss is not only unfair but completely ineffective. 

5. Involve others.

The best way to get others to buy in and participate in creating the ideal work environment is to involve them directly, rather than tell them or even show them what to do. 

6. Manage the conversation.

An essential leadership responsibility is managing the conversation. We as leaders set the tone of what is acceptable and desirable not just by what we do and say, but by what we allow others to do and say. As the saying goes, “you get what you tolerate.”

7. Acknowledge, redirect, and stop ideal and undesired behavior.

As leaders, we must not only walk the talk, but ensure others do so as well. Acknowledging, redirecting, and stopping ideal and undesired behavior is key. 

Ultimately, what leaders do and how they show up will mean infinitely more than anything they say. As Waldo Emerson once said, “Who you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying.”

At Propulo, we work with leaders to implement mentoring and onboarding programs to keep your new employees safe.


Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 4th ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 236.


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