The power of subtle persuasion

The power of subtle persuasion

Great safety cultures are underpinned by the same forces that make us crave that shiny new car, that classy new watch, or those cool threads. There’s a simple, cost-free, three-step method for creating safe behaviour in your workplace right now

Did you notice how perfectly your colleague’s shoes go with her outfit, or how when your boss wears a white shirt it makes him look even more important?

Consider for a moment your aspirations for your own career or life. Choose any particular milestone that had importance: when you were just starting out; a job interview; a change of role or company; a turning point ten years ago, or even now. Where did you seek inspiration? To whom did you turn to for guidance?

Now think about the visual cues and symbols of that person, who you viewed as “successful”, that resonated with you. Did they have a nice, big house; a shiny new car; the coolest suits; membership of that golf club; or a sexy Swiss watch?

Sure they did! And it’s natural that we are drawn to seek such rewards in life, too. How do we attain them?

Myriad management development books have identified the essential attributes, habits, personality traits and keys to success… To be a successful leader you just need to do what successful leaders do.

Social imitation

Whether it is leadership or sports; general management or good behaviour; fashion or hairstyles; making new friends or impressing people at parties, our approach remains the same. We identify – consciously or subconsciously – those individuals who stand out as a “match” to our expectations or aspirations, and then strive to emulate their behaviour and use their words.

In simple terms, we copy those people we desire to be more like. We do so because our brain tells us that it is how we’ll look cool, become more popular, get better results, and gain those rewards.

Exactly the same process occurs when it comes to safety. The key in building and sustaining a truly great organisational safety culture is not in producing policies and procedures – which is just the foundation – it lies rather in social imitation. By way of explanation, allow me to share a couple of recent experiments we conducted in a client’s workplace.

Slips, trips and falls always pop up as a common cause of workplace injuries. They often occur where there is a change in floor surface or direction of travel – such as on a staircase. We understand that good practice is to hold the handrail, yet we rarely do this – after all we’ve walked up and down stairs hundreds of times in the past without accident or incident.

In this particular workplace several accidents had occurred on staircases over the years. The corporate response had been to affix rather intense-looking signage to the walls in stairwells advising workers to “always hold the handrail”. During our initial observations we noticed that less than ten percent of people complied with this instruction.

“Perhaps because the signs have been in place for more than a year, they are now simply being ignored,” offered the HR manager when we shared our findings. We wondered whether there was something more to it. Had people become “sign blind”?

The first phase in our experiment was to affix long, bright stickers to every fifth stair riser (the vertical part of each step) gentling asking workers to “please hold the handrail”. Over the next few days we observed a slight improvement in people holding the handrail – around 15 percent.

Phase two was the addition of little yellow and black stickers on the handrail itself, with the same gentle message as on the stair risers. There was no other promotion of this “safety campaign”.

Over the first week there was much discussion at the coffee machines about the stickers. We overheard comments like: “Do we really need to hold the handrails? No-one has fallen here for ages,” and “Do they think we are kids?” Our observations revealed that even with the additional stickers, handrail use rate remained static at around 15 percent.

Heads up, hands down

The following week, a Board meeting was held on the top floor of the building. Carefully timing the closure of the meeting with the workers’ lunchbreak, we asked the senior leaders to each walk carefully down the stairs, holding the handrail.

As the leaders filtered down the stairs one at a time and holding the rail, employees headed upstairs towards the lunchroom. Without any prompting, we observed almost 80 percent of workers instinctively take hold of the handrail as they neared the leaders. The executives had not mentioned the handrail as they passed their colleagues. They simply shared a warm greeting and carried on with their descent.

The next day, observations at the staircase revealed a very small number of employees using the handrails, with the majority having reverted to their usual hands-free approach. Only when one of the senior executives used the staircase – again briefed by us to hold the handrail – did the employees take the rail themselves. It didn’t matter who the leader was, the reaction was the same, and the employees instinctively reached out for the rail almost every time.

Pleased with the initial impact of this experiment, we decided to ratify our hypothesis. Could we really change the behaviours of people only by setting an example that subconsciously encouraged them to emulate their leaders?


Our second test was in the company car park. Of the 200 cars there, 95 percent of them had been driven forwards into the parking space, meaning that they would have to reverse out at the end of the day. Just ten cars had been parked in reverse, and these were scattered randomly across the entire car park.

While it may be trickier for some to do, the benefits of reverse parking are known to most people: easier departure, clearer vision on leaving the space – yet, despite the obvious safety advantages, most people choose not to park in reverse.

A simple message from the president’s office encouraging drivers to park in reverse was dispatched by email to all staff. A sign on the final exit door to the car park was also created to remind people as they left the building.

Over the next couple of days, several people heeded the message – they clearly understood the safety benefits, or respected the voice of authority, and were happy to comply. The majority of people, however, continued to park facing forwards.

On day three, each member of the leadership team parked their cars in reverse. The neat row of twelve shiny vehicles was easily visible across the carpark. By lunchtime of that same day we noticed that several other cars had parked in reverse – notably the following seven cars that appeared in the spaces after the executive cars, but also cars in other places around the parking area.

The next day, the executives all arrived early and again parked in reverse. By lunchtime 25 percent of cars in the carpark were parked in the same way. At the end of the week, over 50 percent of cars were reversed into their spaces.

By the end of week two (with leaders continuing to set the example) the number of cars reverse parked exceeded 60 percent, and by the end of week three it had reached 75 percent. As with the staircase experiment, we had not promoted the “new rule” in any other way than the simple request message at the beginning of the experiment.

There was no reward offered for compliance. People parked their cars in reverse because they observed their respected leaders doing this, and then they noticed their peers and workmates doing the same. Suddenly, it was the right thing to do.

Inspiration over instruction

Both in the carpark and on the stairs the approach and the results were exactly the same. So what caused this sudden adherence to the advertised “procedures” we had created?

First, we began with a gentle, respectful, polite message encouraging a specific simple behaviour. Our language choice was crucial here – it was important to inspire rather than instruct.

We also made sure that the signage we used was not unnecessarily overbearing, flashy, or appeared “mandatory” in any way. There were no safety logos or gimmicks used, and no rewards or prizes offered.

Next, we asked the senior leaders to set the tone from the top by demonstrating the behaviours each time they used the stairs or the car park. The key here was consistency in the executives demonstrating the desired behaviour every time.

Then it was down to the respect and faith in the leaders as the influence of social imitation shone through and created a desire for people to “fit in”, to “be like the bosses”. It mattered not whether this was a conscious or subconscious thought, only that it became “the way we do things around here” – a simple way of describing culture.

Social imitation forms a strong part of who we are and how we live. It’s often the force behind us as we strive for that shiny new car, the classy watch, those cool running shoes, the latest hairstyle. It is also an invaluable tool for driving great safety behaviours in the workplace.

In simple terms, we copy those we want to be more like, or who we respect. So, who is copying you today?

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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