No Fear Safety Leadership
The strategy of pumping up fear for better safety rarely works as planned.
- By Robert Pater
- Jun 01, 2010
If you're aiming for sterling results in safety performance and
culture, it's high time to promote No Fear Safety. Sure, on a basic
level, Safety is about reducing fears — such as anticipating
losing something you currently have or being blocked from
getting what you'd want in the future.
Yet many weak leaders ironically try to employ fear to drive fear
reduction. "Work safe or you'll: a) get disciplined or written up, b) get
called out and embarrassed, c) lose your job, d) not be able to see your
children, e) live in lasting pain, or f) die."
This strategy of pumping up fear for better Safety
rarely works as planned. Sometimes people stop paying
mind. For example, you may have heard of attempts to
motivate workers to wear eye protection so they won't
lose their sight, but every time someone performs a
task without eye protection and nothing adverse occurs,
in effect it reinforces the warning was unfounded.
When these kinds of messages become neutered, guess
whose credibility diminishes?
And I've seen some people go out of their way to
take clearly unsafe actions just to prove to themselves
and others they weren't afraid of either physical or
organizational consequences (as if caught up in the
child's taunt of "I dare you.").
Attentional reactions to fear include narrowing focus/
tunnel vision/target fixation, blindered awareness/
not seeing what's in front of you, short-term thinking,
tensing up (and thereby diminishing physical balance),
becoming easily startled and less able to react
quickly and effectively to change. Just the opposite of
the awareness and "mindfulness" many strong leaders wish to engender.
Other immediate responses run the range from anger, attack, and
sabotage to withdrawal/disengagement/low morale and loss of trust.
I suggest it's up to strong leadership to help people overcome fear
rather than becoming cowed, unmindedly compliant, or complacent.
To boost workers' sense of personal control and ability to respond effectively
to surprising changes. To help them work calmly and with
perception during times of crisis rather than panicking; become
resourceful during periods of shortage. To restore, reorganize, and
reconnect people to become less withdrawn when stress and uncertainty
loom. To recognize reactions to fear and head them offat an
Leadership luminaries are of similar mind. W. Edwards Deming,
the father of the Quality initiative, listed 14 points for elevating organizational
effectiveness. His eighth precept is, "Drive out fear, so that
everyone may work effectively for the company."
In the same vein, Andrew Grove, former chair of the Board of
Intel, wrote in his excellent book "High Output Management," "Fear
never creates peak performance, only minimal performance."
So how might strong leaders promote a No Fear Safety culture?
Employ these seven powers of "No":
1. No primarily motivating through fear. Instead, draw people toward
positive actions and skills use through offering desirable and
readily achievable personal benefits.
2. No hit and run communications that only promulgate "you
shalls" or criticize without listening. No giving advice when people
are too preoccupied to actually receive it effectively. Remember
that feedback is helpful only when delivered in a timely fashion
and helps the receiver improve; it's not an excuse for blasting or
3. No either-or thinking (as in "You either do everything we say or
you're against Safety."). Rather, encourage thoughtful disagreement
to help sharpen policies and procedures and to elevate buy-in.
4. No auditing to catch workers doing something
wrong ("Now I've got you!"). I know of no leader
who would want to receive clipboard criticisms.
("It took four rings before you answered that phone
when you should have picked it up by the second."
"You didn't smile with your eyes when you gave that
award", etc.) Make sure external auditing is application-
oriented and as positive as possible. Look to
catch and reinforce people for taking right actions.
5. No Safety investigation witch hunts. The ultimate
purpose of Safety investigations is to make sure
this kind of accident and similar ones do not occur to
that person or to others in the future. Railing against
what the worker should have done doesn't change
what happened and oft en creates a fear-based clamup
culture where information needed for prevention
6. No blame reporting. Alaska Tanker Company
CEO Anil Mathur insists upon no-blame incident
and near-miss reporting. His company has seen a
dramatic rise in near-miss reports while working
more than 14 million hours without a lost-time incident (in a highrisk
7. No expecting others to act any differently than leaders. If they
see leaders taking decision shortcuts, don't be surprised when
workers take similar "quick and dirty" safety decision bypasses.
CEOs who cheat, lie, and blatantly deny set the tone for everyone
else to do the same, in ways within their power.
No question that rule by fear works to a degree, but only for a
short time. Do you see workers as opponents you have to back offand
protect yourself from? Do you have a thin workforce that is effectively
operating with minimal supervision and under threat of ferocious
competition? Leaders who transmit watch-yourself-or-else messages
create pushback, disengagement, and CYAssets behavior. Conversely,
best leaders strategically see all organizational members as important
to the business mission, not enemies to control with fear.
If you want to develop a norm of commitment, alertness, creation,
and high-level performance, work to develop a No Fear Safety culture.
This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.