Are you a Safety Crusader or a Safety Leader?

by Rob Sams on May 13, 2014

in Rob Sams,Safety Leadership

Are you a Safety Crusader or a Safety Leader?

caped crusaderThe way that we engage with other people about safety and risk will determine the effectiveness of the engagement. If our aim is for others to lead safety, we must be prepared to suspend our own agenda and let go of control when engaging with people. This allows us to can hear, understand and respect their views, and for them to take control. If we don’t suspend our own agenda, then we project it onto others, which mean that they will not lead safety, at best, they may just follow instructions (some of the time!). Image source

I was recently involved in reviewing an incident after a customer was struck by a vehicle in a car park. The customer was ok, but the organisation wanted to make sure they responded and took appropriate action.

When I approach an incident like this, I usually go armed with a checklist of things in my mind as to what I look for, along with suggestions for actions based on what I’ve seen work well before. For traffic incidents, this usually involves high visibility signage, line markings, bollards, pedestrian crossings, speed humps and the like.

This is not an unusual approach for people in the safety and risk industry where we are considered ‘subject matter experts’ in these situations. However, when we take our agenda into conversations with others, we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t appear interested in safety. This is particularly evident when our agenda is about control, compliance and binary (black and white) thinking. This is the rule, the law, the code, and this is what we need to do.

On this occasion, I approached things differently.

While I was busily working through the checklist in my mind, along came George, the site Manager. As George started talking I was conscious of the need to suspend my own agenda, to put that checklist away, hand over control, ‘hear’ what George had to say and engage with him. Suspending my own agenda meant going into the conversation not only prepared to hear the views of George, but more importantly resisting the temptation to impart my own ideas and suggestions (control).

This can be difficult for some people in safety and risk. It is different to the way that I see some people operate, in an approach that I call the “Safety Crusader Model”. This is where people feel the need to be the subject matter expert, the only one with the answers and worst of all, feel that if they were not there, things could not be safe (control). This is a very dangerous model and one that leads to ‘ownership’ of safety being with the safety and risk professional (control) and not with others.

The Safety Crusader doesn’t encourage learning. They tend to jump to conclusions, they shut down conversations with fixes and answers, for theirs is the only view that counts (control). The Safety Crusader isn’t really interested in others, they are armed with the Act, the Codes, the Standards. Their focus is on compliance with these things (control). We need to be cautious of the Safety Crusader, these guys will tell you they are safety nuts, that they have a passion for making sure others are safe, and that it is their job to ensure safety.

But what does this mean for others and how they manage safety?

For people like George, who has a real interest and enthusiasm for safety at his site, if he were faced with a Safety Crusader (controller) on this day, he would simply have shut down, and done as he was told. Safety Crusaders tend to have strong opinions and leave little room for others to participate in conversations (control). George wouldn’t have learnt anything other than what the Safety Crusader imposed on him. He would not have ‘owned’ the actions, he would have just followed directions.

We have to ask what value the Safety Crusader adds to an organisation and consider whether this model really improves safety in the workplace. The Safety Crusader can’t be there all the time, and if their approach is focused on compliance with laws and Codes (control), rather than facilitating learning, engaging with people and providing support, how will others learn about safety?

I did suspend my agenda when talking with George.

It would have been quicker and easier for both of us if I had just told George what to do. That is, how to comply. But safety is not just about compliance, it can’t be, this is not what motivates people. Safety is about how we deal with everyday and changing situations, it’s about leadership, culture and importantly learning. But where does the learning take place when the Safety Crusader is focused on what’s right or wrong, or on what they feel needs to be done (control)? How could George have learnt if his agenda was trumped by my superior knowledge of legislation and codes?

Instead, I supported George to think through various options, prompting him with questions about his ideas and encouraged him to explore as many options as he and his team could think about. Importantly, I didn’t judge these ideas against my own agenda, I handed control to George. He and his team came up with actions, they weren’t what I had in mind, but they were their ideas and they were keen to implement them. I participated in the discussion, I asked questions and prompted their thinking that helped them explore different ideas. That was my job, it was not to control George.

When a Safety Crusader goes into a conversation with the agenda of “I must get them to take safety seriously”, they cannot be open to the agenda of others, and really understand what they are thinking, because the Safety Crusader thinks that their views are the only ones that count (control).

I hear regularly from people in the safety and risk industry who say things like “Managers don’t take safety seriously”, “They always opt for production over safety” and “They never walk the talk”. It seems to me that we often take the approach that it’s ‘us’ (the safety and risk professional) against ‘them’ (anyone who’s first words in the morning aren’t, “let’s be safe!”). This ‘us’ and ‘them’ stereotypical thinking is a real problem and it is dangerous. Through creating ‘us’ and ‘them’, we limit our thinking and learning because ‘we’ feel ‘we’ have the answers (control) and ‘they’ don’t see them as a priority.

You see George didn’t feel the need to “make sure others are safe”, instead, his focus was to make sure others knew about the risks and keep them mindful of this, rather than try to control their behaviour. I could have considered George one of ‘them’, especially if his response was not filled with the same enthusiasm for safety as mine. This was not the case though, George did care, he just didn’t express it as openly and enthusiastically as I hear from some safety and risk professionals.

George is a smart operator, he knows that people can’t be controlled through rules, policies and procedures. He knows that people are motivated by feeling autonomous and in control of their own actions. His role is to develop relationships through effective leadership and engagement with people who will manage their own safety. George is not a crusader, he doesn’t feel the need to control a person’s every move. He allows mistakes, learning and he provides support, he is a leader.

Are you a Safety Crusader or a Safety Leader?


Rob Sams
Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.
  • Greg Smith

    Speaking from a somewhat biased perspective (lawyer – and I know!!) I think the pejorative comments around compliance are misplaced – indeed binary. Why is compliance “bad” and “engagement” good? Don’t we need to engage around compliance? If organisations strived for compliance as the Courts actually interpreted it (reasonably practicable, due diligence etc.) and understood these concepts for what they really are (intellectual exercises and defendable “judgement calls”) not box ticking exercises, wouldn’t that support improved safety outcomes, better legal compliance and a more humanistic approach to managing safety? The fact that compliance has became the rallying cry around which so much “anti-legal” safety rhetoric is based represents, in my view, a fundamental misunderstanding of what the legal requirements around health and safety actually are.

    • Greg – I think you nailed it with “engage around compliance”. Compliance is a necessary thing or we have anarchy but can be achieved in many ways – some more successful than others, and some more longer lasting than others. The best is when it is of perceived benefit to the individual rather than used by someone to assert their power or thru fear. Everybody is in favour of strict laws and rules when it benefits them and disadvantages another – never the other way around. How often do we say “there is never a cop around when you need one” yet bemoan their existence and vigilance when they pull us over? The focus should be on staying out of court rather then being able to defend yourself when you are in one.

      • I also want to highlight Greg’s point of “reasonably practicable”. I have seen many times that this is ignored and absolutes used, while the term “compliance” includes it. (I see ALARP is now an acronym, systemised and used as a model for risk management. That in itself is not really a problem, except that it became a symbol or sign, instead of being interpreted in the sense the lawmakers intended). I also believe that laws often contain an element of support in that it creates some of the structure needed to adhere to the norms intended by the law. If an act is read more like an instruction manual and less than a threat, it becomes a very useful document. This relates, for example, to pressure regulations that stipulates what it means by the word “pressure”, and many of the regulations actually originated from engineering practices. In this sense, the regulation becomes a summary of historical knowledge. I think of one views it similar to the story behind a sign (previously on this blog), we should sometimes (often?) rather look for the story behind the regulation.

    • Rob Sams

      Thanks for the feedback and thoughts Greg, I too like the term “engage around compliance”.

      Unfortunately, 12 months after first writing this piece, I still see ‘crusading’ as the norm in risk and safety (e.g. see the language used in ‘Safety’ forums on LinkedIn). When I listen to the language used, it appears focused on ‘control’. This was my main concern in writing this piece, the ‘crusading around control of others’.

      I don’t see regulation as ‘bad’, it as a necessary way to create social norms and set expectations. However, just like anything else, when it is the only focus (e.g. the temptation in safety is to say something to the effect of “the act requires us to… [insert control statement here]” and when it is ‘used’ in excess, I wonder if it is like anything else that is used in excess and it may for example, lead to addiction – i.e. crusading around regulation becomes the only ‘tool of choice’?

      I also recognise that policing regulation is also the easy option, and I get why we are seduced into this approach, it’s far easier than understanding the complexities of people and how we make decisions and judgments.

      I don’t argue that we should ignore regulation. What I am learning more and more about is that people are more motivated when they have control to make their own decisions rather than feeling controlled by others. That is my main concern with the ‘crusading approach’, what does in mean in terms of motivating others around understanding and discerning risk?

      Finally, I’m reminded of the words of Jacques Ellul from The Technological Society (1967):

      “I am keenly aware that I am myself involved in a technological civilization, and its history is my own history”

      I too am easily seduced into ‘crusading’. Oh the paradox of risk, safety and living.

      • Yeah Rob – I have been into some very mature and positive workplaces. They are clear examples of what happens when things are done well and for the right reasons – not only are they “compliant” (not that that was the goal) but actually clearly exceed whatever the minimum standard is for compliance – and everybody is happy and proud of that in that it wasn’t done to impress anybody else or out of fear but because they saw the benefits to themselves!

      • Steve Smallman

        Respectfully, a crusader says “Do this, otherwise….” a leader says “Follow me, I now the way….”.

        Personally, I would rather be a facilitator. I run my staff meetings so that I get told what we should do. The happiest sound I hear at a staff meeting is “No, no, what we need to do is ……. ain’t that right boys?”, I then facilitate the discussions and summarise at the end.

        I once worked with Angus Houston, former head of the Australian Defence Force, and he is the first person I came across who ever wanted his org chart with him at the bottom. He firmly believed, presumably still does, that his job was to support his people. He measured his success by the obstacles he removed from their path, by how easily they did their jobs.

        I measure my success, not by the checklists and procedures I impose (or the number of Corrective Actions recorded), but by those that I remove or incorporate into other processes. My goal is not to have safety as a stand alone process beside the work but an integral part of the way my people do their business.

        No, we are not quite there yet, but we are getting there. Yes, it takes leadership and commitment to drive and to permit such procedural, physical, technological, cultural and emotional change to occur but to ensure we inculcate these changes into our core business requires that the process be driven bottom up; my people need to drive the changes and lead me to implement the changes we need to make.

        That said it doesn’t always work, there are times when an irrational decision is made for whatever reason. There are times when someone is tired or just plain lazy, and sometimes the stick needs to come out, but I would much rather someone dangle a carrot in front of me to make change happen….

        • Steve, it sounds like you are a leader, not a crusader, and I believe you may find a lot of tools on this site that will assist you in this approach. A crusader would do many things opposite to what you describe. Crusading often takes listening, consulting, accepting off the table. Crusading makes facilitation almost impossible. If you can accept that “an irrational decision is made for whatever reason”, you already understand the concept of human fallibility. Also look at some of the discussions around “arational” decision making.

    • It doesn’t help that many of the people who actively work with assessing compliance with standards are required to operate from a binary outlook. Policy is set from within their hierarchy in an attempt to keep things consistent, and usually these people become of necessity bureaucrats who are but cogs in the machinery. Binary interpretations remove the ‘risk’ of inconsistent interpretation and application and remove the perceived risk of making a ‘wrong’ decision that doesn’t align with values and other criteria established further up the chain. In essence, policy removes the need to be present in the discussion in real time, with real circumstances – it is all based on assumptions and decisions made at a distance. So its easy to see why this is so often a poor fit with real life – someone further up the chain is managing according to a different set of risk criteria…..and the poor guy at the coal face is thus protected from negative fallout with the usual line “It’s just policy.” Which reminds me of the Nazis after WWII who when put on trial for war crimes pleaded that they were ‘just following orders’.

  • Great points Braid and so true that by taking a more humanistic approach and allowing others agendas to lead, it can be so liberating in all aspects of our lives. Even if others ideas are not better (than what we think – this in itself is so subjective, i.e. what is the best idea), it’s still so important, if we want others to lead safety & risk, to allow others agendas to run. This is how they will learn about how to deal with risk.

    Thanks for the feedback

    • Great point Rob – I so over recently trying to impart my perls of wisdom onto my 17 yo to get him to change his ways, have respect etc etc I soon realized that all it was doing was causing me grief and his behaviour doesn’t change, nor does he really learn anything. All I do now is communicate my opinion and let him to make his own choices. I just let him know that I will be here for him to help pick up any pieces if he makes wrong choices (told him that I wont be paying his fines but!). From memory, making mistakes was the most effective way that I learned. I do however, regret not taking some of my parents advice!

  • Awesome paradigm shift in thinking, safety professionals, management teams and leaders can evaluate and control physical aspects relating to safety but apart from punitive response we tend to have a default viewpoint relevant to our internal values and thoughts or constructivist perspective. Changing this is difficult for a number of reasons
    1. it takes learning to have empathetic listening, being able to acknowledge your view but step outside it to allow objectivity with out judgement of anothers viewpoint.
    2. To accept anothers view over our own means we must be able to accept the fear their idea may be better than our own, this requires emotional maturity and a realisation we cannot know all and we are infallible.
    The great news is if individuals can learn these skills they translate into every facet of their lives, professional, social, community, family.

  • People like to be in control, to feel autonomous when making decisions and judgements. Higgins (2014) in his book, Beyond Pleasure and Pain, How Motivation works explores this really well. He proposes that three important aspects of motivation are Value, Truth and Control. When we take the ‘Crusader’ approach, we ‘devalue’ others by not considering their agenda, we aren’t interested in the ‘truth’, only compliance and we seek ‘control’. For this reason, ‘Crusaders’ are not leaders, they don’t motivate, they control.

    Tony – I believe you are right that these ideas and themes fit so nicely with the way we understand and deal with all types of risk.

    It’s hard work at time because of the way we construct our social arrangements, and the expectations that we have for people in ‘safety and risk’. When we set people up to police rather than lead and facilitate learning, is is any wonder that the result is an industry with some many ‘Crusaders’ who don’t even realise what they are doing?

  • Tony Wade

    This is a very interesting article. I am a compliance officer for a U.S. financial institution. I certainly see how your ideas translate into other areas of risk management. I agree with what you’ve written. You said it much better than I could have myself. Thanks!

  • People have the ability to control themselves? I like this “thinking” Robert! 🙂

  • Hi everyone – thanks for your feedback. It’s so important to think about how we approach things in safety and risk. So important to put our agenda aside, as hard as that may be, so that others can take the lead. Cheers, Rob

  • Ryan Cragg

    Really good read, I will be looking at things very differently from now on, Thank you.

  • Gabrielle

    Rob love it! It is critical to understand how easily we go into our conversations with our own agenda. It’s not to say that our motivation is not for the good….usually quite the contrary! Many ‘safety’ people I meet are often driven by caring about people’s safety. You have highlighted a very critical component of communication and how to communicate safety better…in other words remembering that it’s about people and to understand who you’re talking to!

  • I was asked to do a quick presentation on leadership and management for a small community group.
    Essentially separating the two as:

    Management – Optimal use of existing systems. Working within the box.
    Leadership – Investigating and developing opportunities. Working outside the box.

    Safety Leaders are fabulous but often work with their heads in the clouds. Many great ideas, but can be prone to spinning tyres. Are these our crusaders?
    Safety Managers are also brilliant, but tend to fall into stagnated patterns easily.

    Obviously we want a mix of the two. We want managers who can dream.

    What we didn’t cover is facilitators. Those people that empower others to perform to their full potential. I wonder if this is our missing puzzle piece.

    Give me a world with more Safety Facilitators.

  • Rob, a well written piece and clear presentation of how to create safety ownership on site.

  • Bingo!
    It’s much the same approach that a teacher should be using – there is no point dictating controls and specific outcomes – they become nothing more than rote facts that must be remembered or done.
    The value comes from educating people around a process – a way of thinking.

  • Justin

    This is a very well written article. If we as safety professionals could impart our knowledge and leadership onto others, the whole “them and us” attitude could be some what put aside.

    Cultural and behavioural change in the workplace is critical a safe completion of a job and more emphases needs to be put onto coaching supervisors and managers and not only the work force.
    The attitude towards safety filters down.

Previous post:

Next post: