Safety Culture / Psychology

Create tension about safety

Use data to get leaders pushing for more safety

You know about dissonance — that uncomfortable feeling you get when you believe strongly about one thing, but think, say or do another. Maybe you have strong personal and professional convictions about an issue; however, you feel you have to act in another way that doesn’t align with your beliefs. The result is a bad kind of feeling in your head and in your heart. 

Dissonance with workers

Skilled managers and supervisors know how to initiate conversations to help employees, supervisors and managers realize when they’re not working in ways consistent with their beliefs or values. Productive safety communications create uneasiness and motivate an organization to work safer.

When worker-actions align with personal values, the discomfort leaves or dissipates. As a speaker I often work to bring about this kind of dissonance through storytelling and other tactics.  But there’s another kind of safety-related dissonance that’s not talked about nearly enough — one that needs to happen somewhere else within the organization.

Dissonance at the top

Many leaders experience their own forms of regret following a catastrophic event or fatality. Sometimes executives embrace safety as a result in ways that align much more strongly with their personal and organizational values. But executives may also rationalize their lack of ongoing safety support due to various pressures. These leaders take less formidable steps to improve their safety culture. 

In working with a broad mix of executives in the past 28 years, I’ve come to realize hardly anyone is immune from dissonance. And as professionals, practitioners and consultants, part of our job is to help produce organizational dissonance (rather than limit it) so that good things will be initiated and accomplished. But let’s face it: leaders typically push to get what they want — more productivity, more quality, or more safety. It’s often up to us to help them realize that they should want and need more safety!

Leveraging dissonance

Complimentary and competing beliefs will always force executives to prioritize and justify their support and actions. But let’s not pull back just because of a little competition! We also know leaders are typically driven by profits. But the business landscape has changed and the scorecard has expanded to include the environment, and employee health and safety. Leverage that scorecard and expand your own performance metrics in order to create more dissonance. 

If this talk creates frustration and dissonance within you, that’s a good thing. It just may cause you get off your assets and take some action!  Here’s a few ways to create dissonance near the top and leverage additional EHS support:

  • Safety culture surveys can surface challenges and barriers to EHS excellence. They can show how inherent cultural weaknesses impact morale, productivity and quality.  Safety culture surveys qualify what’s going on and quantify key dimensions — assigning data-oriented results to particular issues and concerns. This can serve as your baseline for ongoing improvement and alignment with corporate values.
  • Use safety sensing sessions.  When employee safety sensing sessions or focus groups are well constructed, you can gather an amazing amount of employee opinions that are weighted and prioritized for use. This kind of feedback can be an eye opener for your leaders and help move them to action. 
  • Get your leaders out and about.  Organizational leaders need to hear directly from individuals who have the most to lose when it comes to weaknesses found within your safety culture. Leaders must see and know workers as “real people — the face of the organization.”  The very same individuals who face risks every day that may threaten their livelihood.  If your leaders don’t know what to ask, prepare a short list of questions for them.
  • Benchmark with similar companies with safety performance as good as or better than your own organization.  This helps to create tension to move leaders to action. Good benchmarking also provides valuable insights and a form of peer pressure that may not have previously existed.


Sustainable safety excellence starts at the top but is most often revealed through the actions of your managers, foremen and supervisors.  Their actions reflect what they feel they have to do to please those above them. If your leaders have any sort of emotional tie at all to the safety of your people, it has to drive them and others to action. Let’s not shield them from the truth, but open valuable channels of communication. Let’s make the most of the dissonance we’re able to create at the top!

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