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The Eight Beliefs of Relationship Centered Safety Leadership

Technician inspecting a young trainee at factory

Relationship Centered Safety Leadership is the basis of strong safety performance. Based on my experience I have identified eight beliefs that are common to leaders who successfully communicate that safety is important while meeting business results. Most of them go against the beliefs I have experienced in my work.

Everything I’ve published up to this point has been for the purpose of promoting a quiet revolution in the way that accident prevention programs are designed. My own experience addressing complex problems in organizations has led me to believe that the quality of relationships plays an important role in resolving them and restoring good safety performance. Since I began my career very much aligned with a rational and logical perspective, I honestly think I’ve arrived at a new position through the proverbial banging of the head against a concrete wall. Having tried all of the linear, cause and effect approaches with limited success, I was confronted with the famous dilemma of trying the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.

As I present these beliefs, I want to make it clear that when I talk about building a relationship centered organization or safety program I am not saying that the only thing we need to be successful is good relationships. It is the foundation. It is what we have been calling the culture that provides the nourishment that your vision, initiatives, processes, and goals need to become a reality. While engineering, rules and regulations are important they will not engage commitment. It is only when people feel that valuing safety is necessary to being accepted, respected and included that safety will be brought into the decision-making processes that establish priorities in our organizations.

Belief #1:  Inclusion precedes accountability

Inclusiveness drives out fear, exclusion creates silence and withdrawal.

There is no accountability in a fear-driven organization where people feel they don’t matter—that they are peripheral to the important work that needs to get done. Why would anyone be motivated to take on responsibility, go beyond minimum requirements, or contribute their creativity if he or she didn’t feel they were an important part of the solution? And, how do people know they are important at work? They know when they are included in decision-making; when their opinions are sought out and their work respected. They know it when they feel they are part of the trusted circle. This is the proof of inclusion.

This question becomes very important when we face challenges like eliminating fatalities and serious injuries because the preventative activities—focus, attention to procedure, sharing information, planning, risk mitigation—all depend on the willingness of the individual to perform them even when no one is watching or directing them to do it. Managers often say these challenges would be met if employees spoke up to stop unsafe actions; then accidents would be reduced and possibly eliminated. There is an unspoken judgment that people would speak up if only they felt a sense of personal accountability.

There is very little understanding of why employees don’t speak up. They will not do so when it isn’t psychologically safe (Edmonson. 1999). Brain research has clearly shown that the threat of exclusion triggers a threat response in the brain that is equal to fear of physical violence or death (Rock, 2009). The fear of ridicule or ostracism is reduced in correlation with how well you know others and how well they know you. People do not speak up when they do not feel known or accepted (Argyris, 1982, Gino 2016). I have seen this at work in my team building sessions. We do lifeline exercises where people reveal their happiest and most difficult life experiences. We do in depth resumes of experience where people can reveal the background for their perspectives and mental models. These exercises get the highest evaluation ratings because people feel connected and even admiring of what each team member brings to the table. After such exercises team members increasingly meet their commitments and actively engage in contributing ideas. Upon occasional lapses they regroup to remind each other of their purpose and why each person’s contribution is important.

Another reason people don’t speak up is that that managers don’t listen. How do employees decide managers don’t listen? They arrive at that conclusion when managers don’t follow up or respond to their feedback; when managers dismiss their concerns without adequate consideration or explanation; or when managers are ignorant of how their reactions demean people and send intentional or unintended messages that they don’t care (Carrillo, 2016).

Accountability is an outcome of inclusivity because there is no way to gain the information we need to answer people’s doubts outside of relationship. Resistance to change often shows up as lack of ownership and accountability. The effective listener engenders accountability because they are led to ask the questions that reveal the uncertainty, lack of clarity, and misunderstandings that block acceptance to change. When we ask people to make a commitment and hold themselves accountable they want to know why. When the answer to that question addresses how their actions will contribute to the success of the operation and assures that they will have what they need to succeed, the will to be accountable emerges.

Belief #2. Inclusion, resilience, innovation, and accountability are interdependent.

You can’t have one without the other.

Every organization must take some risk to get to innovation, and if we take risks then we need resilience because sometimes we fail. In safety the risk we most often ask people to take is speaking up. We ask them to stop others from working unsafely. We tell them to ask questions that could reveal that they have less knowledge or expertise than their peers. There are enormous psychological risks in speak up. So belief #2 begins with inclusion because inclusion engenders resilience. When we do not fear exclusion, we are more likely to bounce back from mistakes. We are more likely to ask questions rather than cover up our ignorance. When we feel psychologically safe, we are more resilient, so we are willing to keep trying new ways to meet goals. All of this breeds accountability because we are motivated to commit to the goals we’ve bought into and wish to remain a member of the group.

Exclusion violates the most basic human need to belong. A leader in a high uncertainty, competitive, physically hazardous environment cannot afford to violate this precept. Regardless of race or gender the people working with you want to be seen and heard. They want to know if what they see and hear is important to you. If they feel the answer is no, they stop trusting you. You sever your connection, which means they stop sharing information with you. When that happens you risk loosing that piece of data that could have prevented a significant failure or led to an innovative break through.

When we are frustrated by people questioning the clarity of direction, by lack of implementation and follow up, or not following procedures, we are most likely not listening.  If we were to try listening a little more intensely with an open mind, new facts and conditions would reveal themselves that would help us understand why things are the way they are and improve them.

In spite of multitudes of examples showing how leaders who listen are more successful, why is it still so difficult? One reason is that we don’t listen to people we don’t trust. Leaders might not trust employees who they see as resistant to supporting change in the organization or willfully disregarding rules. They may have trusted advisors they find easier to understand. This is a dilemma that can be resolved beginning with the leader’s acceptance of the responsibility to listen to people s/he may not have included before and extending trust until a change occurs. This means not quitting after initial failures.

Belief #3. People are able and willing to contribute to the success of the enterprise

Your beliefs about people can inspire or suppress safety excellence. Your reactions and resilience to mistakes and letdowns also inspire persistence or resignation.

If you aspire to next level performance the first area to look at is your own and other leader’s beliefs about what people are willing and capable of contributing. When I was in training to be a teacher I learned about experiments where teachers were told that a random group of children had a genius IQ. Those children invariably did much better in their test scores than the children who had not been labeled with a high IQ. All the children were exposed to the same lessons and materials. The only difference was the teacher’s belief about their ability to learn. I learned that we unconsciously treat people differently based on what we believe to be true about their capabilities.

Other research (Graen & Ulh-Bien 1995; Anand et al. 2011) shows that managers decide whom to trust and listen to on their team within a very short time, and those judgments seldom change. Once we get on a “pay me no mind list” there is very little chance of getting off that list. The detrimental effect of this bias prevents us from listening to or seeking input from people that could help us avoid failures.

One of the most successful experiments based on beliefs about human nature took place in the early 1960’s at a Proctor and Gamble plant in Lima, Ohio. A couple of years into their experiment the production, quality and safety numbers were so much better than any other P&G plant that they were accused of falsifying their numbers. In truth operation costs were half of those at other plants.

One of the beliefs underlying their operating systems on came from Douglas McGregor (1960), who wrote Theory X and Theory Y. He believed that a manager’s beliefs about what motivated people influenced performance. He wrote that Theory X managers believe that people dislike work and must therefore be coerced, controlled and directed. Theory Y managers believe that people have the ability and desire to work and contribute, and will do so if they are respected, empowered, and rewarded. Of course, leadership vision, planning, structures and processes must be in alignment to enable people to take responsibility. What are the beliefs underlying the design of your safety programs?

Belief # 4. People will speak up to stop an unsafe situation if it is in their best interest to do so.

Are you thinking we could design a protocol to allow employees to raise safety concerns without fear of retaliation?

Speaking up is risky. When I’ve asked people what they would consider in their interest the first answers I get are that risk is for taking care of friends, family, and keeping your job. A manager that has stood up for you is also a candidate. The caveat is that if one isn’t sure that one is right, it is harder to speak up. So, we need to feel the person we are speaking with can be trusted not to hold it against us if we are wrong.

It is not in one’s best interest to speak up when leaders have demonstrated that they will not listen or respond, and that they will sometimes retaliate. A healthcare study (Maxfield et al. 2011) found that 58% of 4200 nurses felt it was unsafe to speak up or were unable to get others to listen. They were in these situations a few times a month. Consequently fewer than 1/3 of the nurses had shared their concerns about medical errors with doctors. The study was done first in 2005 and the 2011 survey found that the situation had not changed even after tremendous efforts to create better procedures and to ensure that nurses felt empowered to speak up. Why was it so difficult for nurses to speak up? More than half cited being disrespected as their biggest concern. The nurses who were able to speak up took the responsibility to build relationships and learned to communicate in a way that they would be heard. It is interesting that the nurses took on that role, rather than the doctors or management.

Just as the nurses feel trepidation at pointing out a doctor’s error, employees feel it could be dangerous to point out management’s shortcomings. There are laws to protect people from workplace retaliation, however the law covers very few circumstances that have to meet a high standard of proof. Exclusion is much more subtle yet can be just as damaging. Examples of exclusion include not being invited to a meeting or getting important information, getting fewer personal development opportunities or interesting assignments, not being included in social events. While these actions may seem trivial compared to getting fired or demoted, neuroscience shows they are felt as equally threatening.

Everyone wants employees who are willing to stop an unsafe action and take responsibility for safety but it cannot happen without strong relationships. If leaders do not take the time to have the right conversations, people will not build the trusting relationships they need to stop unsafe actions or report information needed to prevent the next failure.

Belief #5. Relationships influence emotions, feelings and beliefs. These, in turn, influence the decisions that impact safety activity.

Neuroscience has shown that emotions have the strongest influence in decision-making. Since relationships influence one’s emotions, our actions and behaviors are influenced by our relationships with others.

If managers and supervisors aren’t modeling the behaviors that show safety is an important value, and if employees don’t seem to take personal responsibility for safety, neither threats nor discipline nor tools and checklists will get them to start. These are emotional and relational issues. So, just as we must do for any change management issue, we have to start with the vision and the why to lessen anxiety and uncertainty. Then people want to know the plan and how you will help them get there.

No matter how well the why is articulated people will not support it unless the person giving the explanation is trusted. When it comes to gaining buy-in, a logical argument for change is no substitute for emotional connection. In the end, it boils down to building a relationship with the people you want to influence. When we meet people’s emotional needs we open the way to communication. When we threaten them we close the way.

Emotions and relationships also influence how the work is done from day to day because we care about what the people who are important to us think and expect. The decisions that drive our daily actions are mostly unconscious because we rely on past experience and knowledge. Thus, the way that people manage safety risks is automatic for the most part. Safety meetings, tailgates, or behavior observations serve only as temporary reminders. Feeling that these practices are bothersome or frustrating can influence us to ignore them. The types of activities that keep our awareness up are conversations throughout the day, and most potent is the feeling that following these practices makes us a part of a group that we value.

   I will never forget the DuPont employee who said to me, “Please hold the rail as we go down the stairs because that is very important to us here.”

Positive relationships help people make better decisions. They reduce the fear of exclusion and open the mind so that it can process data more effectively. When the brain detects threats the ensuing anxiety limits our capacity to solve problems. Other findings that support the influence of emotions and feelings on performance come from Google’s team development research. They found that the #1 characteristic of their high performance teams was that they were absent of ridicule, thus allowing team members to freely express any idea. Yes, that would include a safety concern.

Building relationships isn’t about being “nice” or coddling people. It is about preventing fatalities or public catastrophes. Trust and open communication allows room for information that might otherwise stay hidden because people are unsure of how it will be received. You can’t have it without taking the time to build relationships.

Belief # 6. True communication takes place in the presence of relationship and trust.

If you want people in your organization to speak up to stop an unsafe action or address an unsafe condition, first build the safety net that will reduce the threat of exclusion or rejection. Our leaders need to learn and teach the skills to build inclusive relationships because it is a leadership responsibility to facilitate and role model them.

For most people there is a risk in bring up a problem that no one else seems to see or isn’t willing to talk about. The retaliation that people fear isn’t always as obvious as getting fired or physically attacked. It can be as subtle as a subconscious fear that bringing up potential problems will lose you credibility or membership in a group that you value. The truth is that unless the leader makes it specifically okay for people to bring up potential problems, even late in the planning process, resentment from co-workers can arise.

Also, people will not take feedback or corrective information from people outside of relationship. This means that there is a pre-established relationship of credibility, trust, and respect. Even formal authority is not sufficient to create a connection. I have seen the GM tell an employee not to use his cell phone only to have the employee pull out the cell phone as soon as the GM turned his back.

Why is this belief so important? Safety performance improves with the level of trust and open communication (Carrillo, 1995). It also shows that employee engagement increases with the strength of relationship with their direct supervisor. Supervisors are important to success, but they cannot do it alone. Middle and upper managers must play their role in building relationships through social interaction. The challenge is that many managers, even supervisors say they don’t have time to talk to people 1-1. Since many leaders with the same responsibilities do find time, the real challenge is to convince supervisors and managers that the time spent building relationships helps them do their job better.

I am not certain that most managers or supervisors believe they need full access to the information that their direct reports can provide. I have also observed the perfunctory, “Does anyone have any questions or something to add?” at the end of the meeting. It is generally met with silence, and the meeting ends a few seconds later. The assumption is that if people don’t speak up they don’t have anything to say. That is a very risky assumption and a terrible practice that could only be corrected through consistent training and coaching on the art of asking questions and listening.

Belief #7. Our judgments can prevent us from seeing the truth

The information to prevent the next negative event is all around us, but our judgments prevent us from seeing, hearing or understanding the information when it contradicts what we believe to be true.

The practice of non-judgment is essential to our success as we proceed in building positive relationships to create an environment that is safe for the expression of dissenting opinions, and where people feel valued and respected.

An important aspect of non-judgment is humility. Humble Inquiry (2013) by Edgar Schein is a wonderful illustration of the positive effect a leader has simply by asking questions to learn from others. Assuming a stance that one does not have all the answers opens the door for others to contribute. The opportunity for success grows exponentially because we have access to a lot more information.

It can be difficult to accept differing opinions or perspectives. We might not trust the speaker’s experience. We might have had a negative experience with the speaker or with the approach being proposed. We may be facing a deadline, and decide that we have sufficient experience and knowledge to disregard the dissenting opinion. We can never reach 100% certainty in a complex situation, so all we can do is be conscious of our biases and make sure we are not rejecting data based on false assumptions.

Belief # 8. Drift from procedure is a positive human adaptive behavior

Drift (slow deviation from procedure) and weak signals (faint trending signs) are terms being used to understand disasters like the Chernobyl and both the Challenger and Columbia explosions. Scott Snook coined another useful term, practical drift, to identify the natural human tendency to drift from procedure when the connection to their value and purpose is lost. This idea takes us back to a corollary of belief #5: people pay attention to things based on their connection to relationships they value.

When we do an incident analysis we find that there were many opportunities to take action to prevent unwanted outcomes. The resolution of this dilemma lies not in setting up new procedures and systems to stop drift. It cannot be stopped, nor should it be because it is a natural adaptive behavior also called continuous improvement when it leads to a positive outcome. Punishing people does not stop drift. Two power companies that tried to institute disciplinary consequences for drift experienced a substantial lowering of trust and communication (Carrillo & Samuels 2014).  

Is it possible to discuss drift openly? I once suggested to a safety professional that safety huddles include a time to discuss of any deviations from procedures. She was shocked. She didn’t want people to get the idea that it was okay to change procedure. She wanted people to talk to her first. Certainly that is desirable, however the reality is that changes in the field are often spontaneous and unpredictable. Attempting to control them by demanding compliance is unachievable. Only internal motivation to comply can succeed.

Leaders create internal motivation to follow procedure by building teams, a common purpose, and identity.  This is done through ongoing activities to create and sustain shared beliefs about what is the right way to do things, and by creating opportunities to develop mutual respect and understanding of each other’s knowledge so that the team feels the psychological safety of knowing that one is accepted and belongs.

Drift is an indispensable adaptive behavior that has allowed humans to survive in brutal environments. Yet, it sometimes leads to failures. It’s true in the case of bank employees who adapt a law or procedure for personal gain at the expense of clients, and it’s true when changing a safety procedure without understanding consequences leads to fatalities or environmental destruction.

How to imbed Relationship Centered Safety Leadership beliefs to get buy-in for your company’s safety values

  1. Teach your managers and supervisors the facilitation, coaching and training skills they need to have conversations, build relationships, and coach their direct reports.
  2. Reward and promote leads, supervisors and employees with good people skills. You can always support their technical skills by assigning them technical support.
  3. Get out of your office and get to know people. Find out what’s important and how you can help them. Tell them how you value their contribution and what support you need from them. This will build followership.

Rosa Antonia Carrillo Consults Across many industries in the area of safety leadership. You may reach her at:

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