If you only have a hammer

If you only have a hammer

It is not uncommon to hear leaders complain about their workforce’s poor performance, unwillingness to take responsibility and, in particular, their unsafe actions. Managers often wish workers would just listen, follow orders and comply to set procedures. The burning question is: how do they, as leaders, influence their team’s behaviour?

On the surface it seems like a valid question. However, it too easily overlooks the reality that people’s behaviour is often a reflection or response to their working culture. For example, if a supervisor is habitually overbearing, unreasonable and, at times, demeaning toward their team members, this can produce resentment, which can have a significant impact on the team members’ commitment and feelings towards the company.

To create a healthy working environment, we might want to consider a different strategy. Could we be more effective if we moved away from the notion of trying to change our workforce’s behaviour, toward creating working conditions where people naturally want to give their all?

Results are always the outcome of behaviour. This is why we naturally gravitate to implementing systems. These are an attempt to coordinate or control the behaviour of our people.

Logically, if you can get the appropriate, or necessary, behaviour, the results will naturally follow, but a critical component is missing; behaviour is always a reflection of one’s attitude.

Attitude is the way someone thinks and feels about something. Attitude drives behaviour. The working conditions and how leaders interact with their staff have a direct bearing on the attitudes of their team members.

Wouldn’t it be a joy if we no longer had to monitor employees on a regular basis? This can only happen in an environment where they give their best and choose to work safely, because of a positive intrinsic attitude. It can never happen in a culture of forced compliance.

There is an old saying that “you manage systems and lead people”. Management is critical when it comes to systems and processes; however, when it comes to our team, it requires leadership.

Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate how we choose to lead our teams and the culture we have created. Instead of trying to change people’s behaviour, it might be more advisable to ask ourselves: “How effective is my leadership? How much of my team’s performance is actually a reflection of how I treat and engage them?” Maybe the change required lies with us as leaders first.

As leaders, could we change the questions we are asking, and get a better result? Consider these questions to reflect on your teams’ safety culture:

• What type of working environment do I need to create that will stimulate responsibility, initiative taking, innovation and safe practices?

• What benefits would come from focusing on building internal motivation instead of relying on external reward schemes or disciplinary processes?

• What could I do to empower my people to take responsibility for their safety?

• What systems or policies are counter-productive to the culture we desire?

• What changes do I need to make?

• How can I engage my team in a way we get more buy-in?

As leaders, we can become comfortable with our style and overly reliant on the same tool to deal with many varied situations. If what you are doing currently isn’t influencing change in the team, is there a different approach that could? As the saying goes – if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.


Dr Brett Solomon is a principal consultant at Sentis, and has been involved in numerous safety culture change initiatives with progressive thinking organisations such as Anglo American, Glencore Alloys, PPC and Aveng Moolmans. Currently he is working closely with BHP in South Africa and Impala Platinum.

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