The performance of an organisation in work health and safety (WHS) is to a great degree determined by the successful development and implementation of properly informed systems. To achieve this requires the engagement of all in the input of information and compliant behaviour. Strong leadership can encourage this.

But this begs the question – who are the leaders and how can you motivate your people to contribute to and cooperate with WHS systems and improvement?

Everyone is relevant to WHS and must be on the journey with you

A significant barrier to getting people involved in WHS is the perception of the individual that they are not relevant and do not influence WHS. This can mean that people are at best disengaged from the key processes. At worst they may prefer convenience or other drivers of behaviour to compliance where the risks or their seriousness are not apparent to them. Deliberately behaving unsafely is uncommon, while acting unsafely because a person is not aware of the seriousness of the consequences is all too common.

The reality is that the behaviour of every person at work contributes positively or negatively to WHS outcomes, through the direct consequences of their actions or decisions and through the messages they send to others about the importance of WHS.

Every person at work has information that others may not have and getting them to volunteer and share that information may be a key to risk management and safety system improvement.

What motivates behaviour in an organisation?

How do you get people to engage in WHS? You must understand and respond to the motivators and blockers that apply to them - their needs and fears.

A strong motivator is the desire to gain reward or avoid punishment or exclusion, by acting consistently with what is considered to be valued by the organisation and ‘running with the pack’ (responding to peer group pressure). This is in turn driven by the messages they receive from those who are in positions of authority and other who they believe and follow.

You need to ensure that these messages and associated peer pressure promote rather than block engagement.

Engage the group by engaging the leaders – but who are they?

A key element of leadership is the influence that a person has on the behaviour of others. This is not necessarily associated with or exclusive to formal leadership roles. A person without a formal title or authority can be a leader.

A person can influence others, and in this sense be a leader, where others look to them for ‘leads’ and follow their directions or behaviour. We have often seen that a person can have a negative influence on behaviour within a group when they flout rules or reject authority. Similarly a person can have a positive influence by being clearly supportive of an initiative and engaged in a process – particularly where their involvement is discretionary. In many cases, it is the informal leaders that will be the strongest influencers of behaviour within a group as their influence is more direct and constant.

Just as a WHS culture will not be strong without leadership from the top of the organisation, so it will not be strong if it is undermined by negative influencers or apathy at the bottom. Leadership must exist at all levels – a culture is only as strong as its weakest link. The messages need to be consistent or they will be diluted and ineffective.

Identifying the ‘informal’ leaders throughout the organisation and garnering their support can accordingly be a key to engagement in WHS.

Lessons for organisations

The engagement of all throughout the organisation will depend on or at least be strongly influenced by obtaining positive contributions from the informal leaders at all levels. WHS must be driven from the top down and the bottom up.

To do this you should:

  • Identify the true leaders at each level – who the people watch and follow.
  • Work out how leaders can encourage engagement of others and support your initiatives.
  • Make sure leaders are fully informed – knowledge of the significance of the issue (risk or initiative) and their influence on the outcomes can often overcome resistance.
  • Find out what motivates leaders and respond to any significant needs or fears held by them.
  • Work with them to find ways that they can contribute and lead that are ‘true to them’ and therefore credible.
  • Don’t undermine what leaders do or how they do it unless it is having a negative effect.
  • Accept that the best you may achieve is a lack of resistance rather than support, allowing strong leadership from above to work.