It ain’t what you do

It ain’t what you do

Over the last couple of decades, solid management systems and behaviour-based safety programmes have been regarded as the silver bullets for improving safety performance, but do they warrant the accolades? ANDREW SHARMAN isn’t sure…

Traditionally, when it comes to workplace safety, we focus on the “what” – the processes, systems and activities; the audits, investigations and inspections; and 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.

Chief executives articulate their company-wide expectations for safety. Managers start meetings with a moment on safety. Objectives are handed out down the line. Employees are tasked with identifying a quota of near misses each week…

Is this the best way to achieve our goals and aspirations in workplace safety?

Starting with the “why”

Just a couple of years ago, Simon Sinek shot to fame with his TED talk focused on the importance of working out the reasons 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 they do what they do.  

At around the same time, there was an organisational resurgence of social conscience as safety policies, programmes and campaigns repositioned people at the heart of safety with slogans like “safety first” and “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” does sound like a sensible suggestion; Sinek may be on to something, but, once we’ve confirmed why we’re doing safety – to keep our people safe and working efficiently – if 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?

Insanity and the pressure of looking good

I’ve lost count of the number of leadership team meetings I’ve sat in where the safety manager confidently strides in to present the latest data. Usually received by a team with heads hung low in indifference, he or she regales them with a colourful PowerPoint showing the latest Looking Good Index (or LTI Chart as some like to call them) and the general response is along the lines of “very good, keep going. Okay, now let’s discuss finance”.

Back out of the door inside of five minutes and that’s it – he or she goes on to more of the same.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. Now, despite living just a stone’s throw from where he lived, I’m no Einstein, but I totally get where he was coming from.

Searching for silver bullets in safety

It ain’t what you doIn 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 unnoticed by the masses. Then, in 1982, Fun Boy Three and Banarama covered the song and it hit the top of the charts in the United Kingdom.  

Despite the popularity of the tune, I can’t help but wonder whether society-at-large has missed something. Today, a full 52 years after hitting the airwaves, 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 organisational safety cultures.

When I tell the leaders the same thing, the response is usually a dismayed grimace. There ain’t no silver bullet. It really is about how you do what you do that makes the difference.

In 2016 – recognising the challenges of modern business life – the HOW Report set out its manifesto for rethinking the source of resiliency, innovation and growth. The report begins with an apparently simple proposition – 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 as a result of 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, and 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 undertook a study with around
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 Sinek says, they totally know why they are doing what they’re doing.

In our own work, which involves improving culture and enabling excellence in safety for organisations 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.

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 that 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. From the tech-heads at Google, Apple, and Facebook, to the pioneering brilliance at Tesla and Space X, to the new age wholesome-nutritious food movement and barista coffee bars, and, of course, the enduring stability of Rolls-Royce, Ford, Kelloggs and others from the old school.

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.

The HOW Report revealed four principal findings:

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

While many organisations have at least some degree of self-governance, it’s rarely their main modus operandi. 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. Activities such as generating pre-requisite numbers of near miss reports, or attaining certain injury frequency rates, are rewarded.

2. 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.

3. There is marked disconnect between senior leadership and employees.

Time and time again executives paint a brighter picture of the organisation than that of the employees. 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?

4. Trust, shared values and a deep sense of (and commitment to) purpose produce a 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.

5. How we do anything means everything.

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 ability of the leaders 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 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).

What about 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”.


Sharman on Safety is based on ideas and concepts from Andrew Sharman’s new book: From Accidents to Zero: a practical guide to improving your workplace safety culture. Andrew is an international member of the South African Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (SAIOSH) and the Chief Executive of RMS – consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. More at

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