Do you sometimes wonder how much the H&S industry trades on fear as a major motivator for getting people to change their behaviour? And, perhaps more importantly, do you think it works?

I don’t.

Beyond the initial shock factor, I believe that the fear sold to boardrooms around the world creates apathy, ignorance, and ultimately complacency.

Because when the worst doesn’t happen, people start to believe it can’t.

This gloomy outlook; of avoiding things going wrong, of leaders facing jail time and companies being ruined, is akin to the UK’s reliance on sugar as a sustainable ‘pick me up’. Maybe Theresa May (now the UK’s new Prime Minister) should consider a tax on the use of HASAWA 1974 as a fear-driven motivator. Perhaps it might help the looming economic slump.

Get your leadership right and you get your culture right

As I go about my daily work, helping people understand why culture determines performance, I spend lots of time contemplating the role of legislation. Specifically, in how it creates the context in which people work. And how people try and use legislation to motivate change, especially using tactics of fear.

You’re probably already aware that ISO 45001 is just around the corner. And whilst it’s not a set of legal standards, many organisations will see it as important to comply. Especially if they’ve bought into OHSAS 18001 and want to protect their reputation.

The differences between OHSAS 18001 and ISO 45001 are already sufficiently explored in many other articles, so I won’t do that here.

Yet what I will note with interest, is the inclusion of leadership in the new standard for the first time.

15 years ago, at the beginning of my career, I joined a discussion about what people thought was the most critical element to get right if you want to drive effective safety culture. Almost unanimously, 100 delegates at our conference agreed it was to ‘get the leadership right and you get the culture right’.

Thousands of conversations later, I still believe that without the right leaders in place, you won’t be able to create the kind of safety culture that most of us strive for. You might be able to begin the journey towards it, but you certainly won’t be able to sustain it.

So, seeing leadership in a new standard like ISO 45001 makes me wonder how people will go about tackling such a crucial factor.

What happens next is up to us

Will it simply be a case of writing down some leadership standards? Appending management objectives? Then driving a message of fear to senior leaders that they must say or do the right things, otherwise the standard won’t be met and something terrible will happen?

Or, when organisations go through the accreditation process, will they use the opportunity to fundamentally examine what safety leadership is about? And will they recognise that it isn’t about managers saying and doing things, just because their processes and systems tell them that that’s what is required to comply with a standard?

If you consider yours a forward-thinking, progressive and ambitious organisation then it should be obvious which path I recommend you choose.

Hopefully, such organisations will recognise that only a positive message about the benefits of stepping up and saying ‘I own safety’ will motivate people. Because when you do that, those around you also own safety, and enact change because it’s the right thing to do.

Not because they’re being told to do it.

I’m optimistic. I really do hope that ISO 45001 triggers a change, even if it’s only at the most basic level. By forcing people to examine safety leadership properly, in a sustainable way.

Perhaps then the motivation for better H&S will take the form of hope, not fear.