Are You Creating an ‘Obeyience Culture’?

by Rob Sams on August 29, 2014

in Lead and Lag Indicators,Rob Sams,Safety Culture,Safety Legislation

Are You Creating an ‘Obeyience Culture’?

Depositphotos_9783176_xsWhen I started consulting in risk and safety, people would regularly contact me and ask “are we meeting our legal requirements?” or “are we doing all we need to do, ‘under the law’”. Consulting in risk and safety seems to attract these questions, and people expect that this is an area I am interested in. After all, if you’re into safety, you must be focused on legislation, right?

When an organisation focuses only on legislation and rules, people are often treated as objects within a system. This is because the focus often becomes about the system and perfection and there is little understanding of how people make decision and judgments. This may actually increase risk in an organisation because people work out of fear rather than understanding, follow process rather than thinking creatively, and are more concerned with perfectionism than learning.

This is why I’m not that into safety anymore

Some organisations are so fixated on meeting their legal requirements (and the system) that they become blinded to the impact that this has on culture. Companies that focus their attention solely on a system create a culture that demands obedience, in what I refer to as an ‘Obeyience Culture’ – obedience in the name of compliance. This type of culture fosters fear, silence and blame, all of which lead to organisations where surprises are the norm, and unusual events appear from nowhere because people in those organisations do not reports mistakes, near misses or ‘oh dear’ moments. This is because it’s not how things are done in an ‘Obeyience Culture’. So why do these organisations require obedience?

The reason is that leaders in such organisations believe that obeying instructions, following directions and adhering to rules is all that the law requires. You will hear such leaders say things like ‘we just need clear guidelines, standards and processes, and people who will follow them’. Such leaders believe that people are like robots and should do everything that is asked of them, without question. Rules are there to be followed.

In one recent organisation that I heard of, they developed ‘sensible standards’ that had to be followed, and they expected ‘uncompromising compliance’ (which meant a first and final warning if you didn’t follow the standards) from everyone. They told their frontline supervisors that to make it easy for them, that the supervisors had no discretion when it came to breaking the standards. They were expected to punish people, no questions asked. The site leader added, ‘we are doing this to save lives, that’s what we are about’. I’ve become attuned to words like this, and I now listen for the discourse of these words. Words like this are a sure sign that this was an ‘Obeyience culture’.

The irony is that organisations with an ‘Obeyience Culture’, do not deal with risk as we well as organisations with ‘learning cultures’. ‘Obeyience’ creates an environment that is structured, fixed and difficult to change. ‘Learning cultures’ instead provide an environment that is nimble, creative and resilient. So organisations that strive to meet legal requirements and deal with risk through obedience may well just be doing the opposite because in those organisations, people cannot learn when they make mistakes, they must be punished. So why are organisations and leaders seduced into thinking that an ‘obeyience culture’ will help them meet their legal requirements?

The seduction comes from the belief that employees obeying rules means that they, as leaders, are doing what the law requires them to do. This is often what is portrayed in various legal briefings and advice that is distributed to organisations and managers. We are constantly being advised that we must have and review policies, procedures and clear standards and we must create a culture where people follow them – ‘obeyience’. I understand why it is tempting for some leaders to focus on ‘Obeyience culture’, however I wonder though whether they stop to consider the by-products and trade-offs that are created by fostering such a culture?

The by-products and trade-offs include silence and under-reporting. However, there is a greater concern that leaders should be aware of which is the power that they have over people and their behaviour when their focus is on obedience.

Milgram demonstrated this in his social psychological studies in 1962 in which 40 people, all males, participated in an experiment that demonstrated what ‘ordinary’ people will do when they are operating under the authority of another (see Youtube clip below). In the experiments, Milgram had actors, dressed in white coats to demonstrate authority, issue instructions to the participants to administer electric shocks to other participants when they answered incorrectly to questions they were asked. The more questions that the people answered incorrectly, the higher the amount of the electric shock that was administered. The people who were receiving the supposed shocks, were not really strapped up to the electricity, but those who were administering the shocks did not know this. They were told ‘they will learn more, because they get punished when they make a mistake’. Of course, this was not the case at all, there was no learning for the participants who were receiving the supposed electric shock, the real learning was how far people will go, and what they will do, when a person who is perceived to be in a position of authority, administers a command.


Milgrams experiment provides a fascinating insight into the power of authority, and demonstrates just how obedient people will be, even when they feel uncomfortable, and don’t want to do what is asked of them. So what can we learn in risk and safety from Milgram’s experiments, and what do they mean for organisations with an ‘Obeyience culture’?

There are two key lessons for leaders to consider. Firstly, leaders should be aware and reflect on how their own authority and style may impact on the people they are leading. This can often be a difficult thing to detect. After all, if their style is to issue instructions and people always seem to follow these instructions, they may think everything is going fine.

Of course, if this is done in the social context of an ‘Obeyience culture’, they will not hear from their team when things go wrong, because this is not the way things are done in an ‘Obeyience culture’. If you are a leader and you rarely hear of problems, mistakes or errors from your team, you should be concerned that you may have created an ‘Obeyience culture’.

Secondly, leaders need to be aware of and reflect on the overall culture of the organisation they are leading in. Leaders in an ‘Obeyience culture’ may themselves be fearful of the ramifications of not meeting their legal, head office, regulator or other imposed requirements. The irony that is that the leaders themselves may be the subject of obedience. If you are in an organisation that focuses mainly on LTI’s, risk assessment scores and ‘zero harm’ and little on understanding people and motivation, it is likely that you have, or are on the path to an ‘Obeyience culture’. So what do leaders need to be aware of in order to avoid an ‘Obeyience culture’?

Leaders who are keen to understand whether their culture may be ‘Obeyience’, can consider these four questions as a starting point:

· What words are used by leaders across the organisation and what is their discourse (or trajectory)? Words like ‘uncompromising’, ‘must do’, ‘no discretion’, ‘absolute expectation’, ‘we are serious’ and ‘no room to move’ can all be signs that the organisation is focused on obedience.

· What language is used in organisational policies and procedures? Is it focused on words like ‘compliance’, and ‘adherence’, or instead on learning and an open culture of communication?

· How are people rewarded and recognised? Is the focus on injury numbers (lag indicators), or effective conversations (lead indicators, or preferably, not measured at all)?

· How are incidents dealt with? Is an incident, near miss or hazard report seen as a failure, or an opportunity to learn?

Of course, understanding organisational culture is a far more complex task than simply considering these few questions, but they are a good starting point in understanding whether your organisation has, or is on the journey to an ‘Obeyience culture’.

Are you creating an ‘obeyience culture’ in your organisation?

Author: Robert Sams

Phone: 0424 037 112


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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.
  • I couldn’t help but think of this article as I drove to work this morning… one traffic light, a truck drove through the free left turn, then abruptly turned back to the free left turn to make the equivalent of going straight ahead through the intersection, all to avoid having to wait one or two minutes at a red light (at 5:25am, so not much traffic around). Likewise, further up the road at another intersection, I watched (and have seen on numerous other occasions) as a car went straight through on the green light and made a U-turn on the other side of the intersection to use a free left turn and proceed ahead rather than waiting 1-2 minutes for the green arrow to turn right.

    It often works the same way with compliance matters – people will follow the ‘letter of the law’ but do unsafe acts to get around perceived constraints.

    • Never a cop around when you need one! Guess that perfectly demonstrates the fragility of an obeyience (sp?) culture?

  • Thanks Rob enjoyed the read. Something that seems to come up a lot is a dynamic between the organisation and the Board, where the fear of board members of failing on their directors duties compels the design of systems that outwardly look like they’re doing something (like elaborate IT platforms). In reality, systems if poorly designed & implemented (and I have only seen a few that work well – and they aren’t IT platforms) can perpetuate a culture of blame shifting, hiding incidents and fear – working against the organisation trying to build a more productive culture that values learning and reflection rather than punishment.

  • Rob Sams

    One of the key points I try to make in the article that I hope does not get lost, is not just about compliance, it is the focus on obedience and the power and influence leaders can have in organisations.

    Compliance, if it means following processes that make sense to people (not common sense!) and support them to do their job are good. We all need systems and process (for example this website is a great ‘system’ to share ideas and thoughts), my main thesis in the article though is “When an organisation focuses ONLY on legislation and rules, people are often treated as objects within a system. This is because the focus often becomes about the system and perfection and there is little understanding of how people make decision and judgments.” Key word being ONLY.

    Great discussion as always though. Cheers, Rob

  • Craig Marriott

    Recently saw an advert (for a local authority in NZ) for a Health and Safety Compliance Officer. Talk about setting someone up to fail. How does your first day go trying to get some people on board with the safety message when you introduce yourself as the compliance guy?

    • Jeremy Hauw

      Following numerous severe accidents, many Australian trucking companies are under fire at the moment for failing to meet minimum compliance requirements. Compliance will be a ‘hot’ focus for some time yet -and deservedly so.

      • Craig Marriott

        I’ve no problem with compliance – especially where companies fail to meet even the most basic of standards, but it should be an external test, not an internal driver. Think of the feeling of guilt you get when a policeman pulls you over in the car, even if you have done nothing wrong (unless that’s just me). In a workplace environment it is not conducive to the cooperative approach needed to genuinely improve. You will end up with grudging compliance that will
        fall over every time the inspector’s back is turned.

        In some very poor performing companies at an early stage in their safety development, it may work to solve the immediate problem. But even then why not start in a more positive way to better support the safety maturity further down the line?

        • I reckon its possible go way above and beyond basic compliance by focusing on the positive stuff – without even knowing it.

          • Jeremy Hauw

            Only where it’s feasible to do so Dave.

            As much as safety professionals assert the cynical-machinations of business owners and directors, such safety professionals oft fail to also appreciate how much it costs to actually run a business of considerable scale

            It is not correct for safety professional to assert that better safety and improved culture/morale is, by default, tantamount to successful business. Smart business people know that safety folk are another level of bureaucracy, oft with limited understanding of how the company’s ‘products’ actually make money.

            All this socio-cultural safety stuff is great, it is an evolving step from when we just focused on the physical safety stuff. Next step, is to involve the economics that underpin the challenges.

            Anyone want to guesstimate for example, how much a NSW coal mine needs to sell a tonne of coal to keep the mine open? Anyone want to guesstimate how much an Oz funds management company needs to outperform the market-by in order to secure more investors for a business?

      • Rob Sams

        Hi Jeremy, do you think the issue at the heart of the problem with these trucking companies is compliance? If there were to introduce a culture which focused on compliance would that improve things? Cheers, Rob

        • Jeremy Hauw

          Heya Rob:

          The issue “at the heart” of it all is the crude metrics of running business – classic Net Present Value.

          If greater regulatory compliance was in place, such companies would either find affordable ways to comply, or go broke and be taken off the road.

    • Rob Long

      Its probably better than a ‘zero harm advisor’

    • Rob Sams

      Not a job I would like.

      Probably not any different to a ‘zero harm advisor’ Rob, just the title – all roads leads to obedience when these words are used I reckon

  • I have come very close to leaving the safety profession many times exactly because of this kind of thinking! Most people seem to want to do just enough to get by…..they feel if they do more than the minimum they have somehow wasted effort.

    In NZ’s school system, people used to aim for 50% to pass (the old School Certificate regime) and thought 51% indicated wasted effort (a number of NZers have told me as much). So I always ask them if they would be happy if a pilot only landed the plane 50% of the time…..!!

    • Rod

      Hi Sheri
      I concur with your thoughts, my business partner and I have just presented a paper at a conference along these lines titled “Is compliance killing performance”? . We are certainly of the view that the compliance approach is about information at the expense of knowledge and learning. The more is better approach has permeated our thinking to the extent that many organisations attempt to cover their deficiencies through complex systems that mean little to the front line workers

    • Rob Sams

      Hi Sheri, I know what you mean about leaving the safety profession. I don’t refer to myself as someone who works in safety any more, risk and culture far better describe the kind of work we focus on I reckon.

  • Rob Long

    Good piece Rob, we have much to learn from Milgram and associates. I look at the work of the Wayside Chapel compared to the compliance approach and I struggle to understand why people think that compliance culture works. and, you really need a spell checker, ha

    • Gabrielle Carlton

      What you mean Rob made a mistake ha!

  • Jeremy Hauw

    I’ve seen “Learning Cultures” that were shams as well. The perception is that if you give people knowledge and teach them how to do things safe, than such is tantamount to a positive ‘learning culture’. I am noticing that much of the ‘learning’ approach isn’t really learning either. Most of it does not help workers to gather info, assess risks, make decisions and influence the ‘buy-in’ of others through effective negotiation skills.

    One of many lessons. All these psychology and health experts recommended a different approach to kids and drugs – stop with the punishment/comply approach and push for a ‘learning’ approach. So, all these experts then started rolling-out million dollar drug education programs. “This is a crack pipe. Crack is bad”. The kids did all the training, yet the decrease in drug-use incidents was minimal. There was an error in the expert thinking, the kids didn’t need to be told how bad drugs were, they already had that knowledge. What they needed, was skills in how to negotiate/handle difficult peer pressure situations to mitigate the trying of drugs.

    Alas, the WHS industry is becoming crowded with all kinds of flimsy-argumentative-approaches. Hope you all keep the critical-thinking hat on.

    • yeah mate – so much more to learning than just dumping data on people – I’m not a learning expert but would that only take to toward the second stage – “conscious incompetence” or knowing what you don’t know?

      • Jeremy Hauw

        Though popular, my thoughts have been that the “second stage – ‘conscious incompetence'” is un-reliably hit-or-miss. People won’t ‘leap’ to accepting their “conscious incompetence” until they are confident that they will soon reclaim some sense of competence.

        Thereby, have found that theoretical and abstract-fun-game-learning approaches have limited success in developing skills transferable to the real world – course teachings are utilized, but are readily ditched with people returning to old-habits when they come-up against some solid resistance.

        Environment relevant skills are a better alternative. For example, I use to teach the IRATA Rope Access Course. Lets take the fear of heights as an example. Many teach, that when at heights, if you’re scared, don’t look down. And they rattle of stats about how few people have fallen to their demise and explaining in newtowns, how strong all the safety gear is. I found that approach to have limited value in helping new tower climbers learn to assess risk and manage fear. Given all the habit which goes into thinking, if a fear-of-heights meant that guys would not look-down when climbing, then they would not be properly assessing the risks. It was important that guys learnt how their habitual-perception of heights could be overcome. I encouraged guys to do the following in order to become deservingly-confident tower climbers.
        1. Look above you, pick where you will stop to rest and next assess the risks.
        2. Look down, assess the fall consequences. If you fall, what will you hit? Are you in physically good shape? Do you know how to move efficiently? Have you got your lanyard at-the-ready for latching to the structure and taking a rest?
        3.Look up, pick-out the path of least resistance. Where do your feet and hands need to go? Are you breathing? Is your posture confident?
        4. Make a deliberate decision, commit to either continuing up the tower or descending.

        Additionally, I had the guys learn to read weather charts and the skyline, take many practice falls and self-rescue to develop their deserved confidence in how climbing a sturdy tower using a harness and lanyard system is actually a low-risk activity for skilled workers.

        This approach worked for most. But not for everyone, so I tweaked things for individuals which sometimes improved skills. It was satisfying when workers spoke of how they learnt to assess the risks and acknowledge that fear-of-heights is a reasonable emotion that can be consciously managed in the tower environment.

        Linking back to Rob Sams article. On the matter of rewarding workers. If rewards are extrinsically derived, rather than intrinsic, I’ve found that efforts to develop a great work culture end-up being an exhaustively expensive and un-fulfilling experience for the nonetheless well-intending management.

        Their is a great Zen proverb which reminds me of the realities of teaching and learning – “Talk does not cook rice”

    • you make a great point about how we cant educate people on the specifics of everything or every risk imaginable but of we give them the ability to learn and discern they can tackle most of the things thrown at them, even teh totally unforeseen – knowing how to handle peers would solve many more issues than just drugs

    • Rob Long

      Jeremy, I think you are right, many espouse to be a learning culture and they aren’t, they just use the spin because it seems attractive. Learning culture is not about knowledge anyway, a focus on content knowledge is not learning, a parrot can repeat anything. I see many espouse a ‘learning approach’ and yet have really no idea what it is, many use the word ‘culture’ and have no definition of it either just ‘what we do around here’. Learning culture is much more about attitude and values associated with process and disposition to learn rather than a focus on content. Indoctrination and content learning have nothing to do with learning culture. Similarly, one doesn’t get off drugs by content knowledge. If that is what the program does, just give content knowledge and information, that’s not learning. I think you are right about ‘flimsy’ approaches to in WHS, many espousing things that are just populist but they really know very little about what they espouse, nor the trajectories that their philosophy will take them.

  • Rob Sams

    Thanks for the feedback Dave and Gab. So much of this out there when you really listen to what people say. Obedience might seem attractive but it brings with it so many by-products and trade-offs.

    I wonder if safety has changed Dave, or is it that you now look at things so differently? Good on you for not taking in that gig and sticking with what you value, I found this hard when I started consulting, but so much easier now. It’s just not what I do anymore. Cheers, Rob

  • Gabrielle Carlton

    An ‘Obeyience Culture’ Rob I love it! The other unfortunate thing is that there are many businesses focussing on this type of culture in the hope that this will in fact keep them out of court! It doesn’t and in fact it can make matters far worse! Great article thanks.

  • Brilliant mate! How much snake oil is sold on the promise of “making you compliant” or “compliance made easy”! I think sometimes that Zero Harm is not about looking after people it is about staying out of court – the people on the floor are smart enough to realize that. You are right but, the people spruiking it also have someone above them pulling their strings! I recently got asked to assess the ability (ie his knowledge of safety procedures) of a supervisor to return to work after being stood down for a breach of safety procedures – anyway there was an obvious culture of obeyience and punishment in the brief I was given, they shut me down when I asked if the procedures may be the problem – there is no way I could take on a gig like that – I used to work for this company as a manager years ago – OMG has safety changed it for the worse!!!

    • Jeremy Hauw

      I’d have taken the brief. We can be righteous and say “I don’t support crappy approaches”; or we can demonstrate a willingness to genuinely listen to people’s thoughts and seek to share alternatives at the opportune moment. People using the compliance approach are not bad people, they are unaware people, unfamiliar with other tools. Psychologists are not bad people if they understand very little about the economics of a business or the physics of a risk. Lawyers are not bad people for their focused concern on how a matter may need to be defended in court. What ought to be clear is that there are professions approaching specific aspects of WHS challenges, using the tools they are most familiar/comfortable with. Good safety people know this – they learn the art of integrating and negotiating.

      Not saying that your example highlights such – but it is a bummer when people cast socio-cultural approaches as superior to legal, engineering, economic and other approaches. Integrate the lot, do some good work in the process and make a fulfilling living from it.

      • Yeah I have a family to feed but there was a lot more to the story and my decision than I can explain in a couple of lines. Being righteous wasnt really a consideration. But I did get the feeling that I was to be the one being paid to pull the trigger using safety as an excuse, so that was more about discerning the risks to my own business and reputation. As an engineer and working lots in the insurance industry I pride myself on always trying to find the correct balance between the law, the people, the economics, the systems and the machines – it ain’t always easy with all the different people and professions involved with their own agendas and fingers in the pie.

        • Kevin Cotterell

          What gets me is that so-called compliance is not compliance at all. I read the legislation and most of it is pretty simple (most of the time) or am I misinterpreting it?
          Most legislation has something in it about procedures being in a manner easily understood by the by the end user. To write a procedure that is not so is non-compliance surely?

          • Totally agree – its become more and more “self regulatory” as opposed to prescriptive – perhaps that’s the problem? People tell me that the inspectors and regulators themselves now refuse to provide any assistance with “compliance” but say stuff like – “its up you how you do it but if you get it wrong we will hang you”

      • Rod

        Very good points you make here Jeremy. Each party (Regulator, Management, OHS Departments etc.) is in their own way and in their view doing what they think is “Keeping the Worker Safe” The Regulator in helping design and administer the regs, Management in providing the Resources for the implementation of the OHS systems, OHS departments in providing training, instruction advice on the use of tools etc. The key issues I see is, that while this seems a logical approach, in the majority of cases we fail to see the world through the eyes of the worker. They don’t think, communicate, relate or have interests like Regulators, Managers or OHS professionals and yet our systems and tools are designed top appease the regulators in the name of compliance. A great example is the SWMS requirements, it has to be on a certain form and written a certain way and generally in a language foreign to the average worker. We really have to ask the question- who and what is the system for?- because it certainly isn’t for the front line workers

        • Jeremy Hauw

          With regard to SWMS – In Oz, no regulator has stipulated the format in which the document must be presented. The belief that the regulators have stipulated the reems of pages out-there is a misnomer.

          • Rod

            That’s good to hear Jeremy. Someone needs to make that clear to the big mining corporations, because getting them to change from the complex and verbose tools that they use ( that after all are for the front line workers) is nigh on impossible. Their argument is almost always that any deviation from their format may not be compliant. Never mind that it is in a language that the average worker doesn’t relate to or can understand

          • Jeremy Hauw

            Heya Rod:

            Worked on Woodside’s process to shrink it’s 5,000 pages of Authority to Work Permits.

            It is now just 1,000 pages! But we could probably cover it all in about 2 pages if folk didn’t get in the way. I recall that Crick & Watson described DNA, the building block of life, in just a page and a half 🙂

          • Rod

            So true Jeremy. We often find that the people who get in the way the most are so called safety professionals. Having developed some tools ( risk based ) that the front line workers love because they are interesting, not laborious to read and very visual , we get frustrated when all the safety guys are concerned with is ” are they compliant” . Even when we demonstrate they are more compliant than what they currently use, they come up with a reason not to use them. The main excuse being because it doesn’t suit their own views, never mind that they are not built for them but for the front line workers.
            One of safety’s greatest failings I am finding is safety personnel not being prepared to bracket their own views and look at life through they eyes of the people they purport to protect.

          • Kevin Cotterell

            Reading the Qld WHS Act, there are very limited situations where a SWMS is required at all (High Risk Construction Work).

          • Jeremy Hauw

            A’h yes Kevin, you are right.

            Though, SWMS is also used as the means to documenting workforce consultation. Though I agree totally with ridicule of the verbosity.

            Barry Sherriff is THE MAN when it comes legal professional understanding of WHS. He doesn’t dig all the jumbo paper work, though insists that a company must provide him with some documented evidence so he can “defend you in court” be it a high-risk or bad luck event.

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