Safety ‘Solutions’ Won’t Move a Hippo!

by Gabrielle Carlton · 32 comments

in Gabrielle Carlton,Safety Books

Safety ‘Solutions’ Won’t Move a Hippo!

Safety ‘Solutions’ Won’t Move a Hippo!So how do you move a Hippo? Well according to a kids book I read my 5 year old the other night it’s quite simple if you’re willing to learn the message.

So the story goes that there is a Hippo lying on the bridge asleep and in the way. The other animals wanted to get past and to do so they had to move the Hippo.

“You can’t move a Hippo if it doesn’t want to go!” said the blue and green (and very wise) parrot. So the lion decides to order him off to no avail.The monkey wanted to push him off but the Hippo kept sleeping on.

The wart hog thought that bouncing him off would work. Not so. So then comes along a cute little white mouse and he is able to get the Hippo to move. How does he do it? Lets come back to that later.

To me this simple kids story is quite analogous to the risk and safety industry. We try to motivate people in risk and safety by telling and policing expecting results. Then wonder why those results don’t ensue. That’s when I understood that the parrot in this story really gets motivation. The parrot knows that someone will not do something if they do not want to do it.

I’ve been quite challenged over the many years of working in and consulting in the risk and safety industry. How do we get people engaged? How do we get people motivated? How do we get people to ‘own’ safety? These questions I’ve asked in the past myself and still to this day get asked by many managers and safety professionals. How do we get people to do what the procedure tells us to do?

We need to understand that risk and safety is a wicked problem. In other words it’s complex and one that cannot be ‘fixed’ by simple, silver bullet solutions. Risk and safety is complex because we are dealing with humans. Humans, by design, are very complex and are averse to being told what to do. We are not motivated by this. We are not motivated by bullies who just want us to comply, like the lion. We are not motivated by pushing or shoving or bouncing for that matter. If we want to understand how people are motivated firstly we need to understand the psychology of goals, we need to understand human beings.



Risk and safety is quite fixated on systems and processes that we tend to forget that there are even humans involved.

How did the mouse get the Hippo to move? Simple, he asked! Risk and safety may well be a complex, wicked problem but tackling risk (not fixing) can be quite simple. The mouse spoke to the Hippo, he engaged and had a conversation. Quite often we overlook such simple ways to encourage people to engage in the workplace or with the processes developed to assist the workplace. Have a conversation.

I was recently engaged to assist managers with their knowledge and understanding of risk and safety. The way of ensuring this organisation was meeting their obligations was to engage these managers with an audit tool. My method was quite the opposite. I threw away the audit tool and just sat and asked questions and listened. Every single Manager sat there and told me their concerns, issues and wins. I soon learnt the gaps, the problems with the system and where they could use some support. I gained more from those conversations with the managers than any audit tool or checklist could have done. I put the people first, which enabled me to understand the inconsistencies in the system.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the system and the compliance and the auditing that we forget why it’s all there for in the first place. So maybe when we are wondering why our workers aren’t motivated or engaged or owning safety it’s time to take that step back and ask, ‘am I expecting too much from our systems and placing them first above our people?’

Remember you can move a hippo if you know how to motivate. The only way to know what motivates someone is to have the right conversation.

Thank you to Michael Catchpool for his insightful book, “You Can’t Move a Hippo”. I’m sure he didn’t realise how educational it could be even in the risk and safety industry.



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Safety ‘Solutions’ Won’t Move a Hippo!
Safety ‘Solutions’ Won’t Move a Hippo!
Safety ‘Solutions’ Won’t Move a Hippo!

Gabrielle Carlton

Senior Consultant and Director at The Safety Firm
Safety ‘Solutions’ Won’t Move a Hippo!
Safety ‘Solutions’ Won’t Move a Hippo!
Gabrielle Carlton is a specialist in human factors in risk and safety. Gabrielle provides training, advice, coaching and mentoring for leaders and managers. Gabrielle has well over 10 years experience as an advisor and consultant to industry as well as a strong personal background across a range of industries including: electrical generation & distribution, aged and disability in large residential facilities, construction, property management, rail, manufacturing, government bodies and corporations. Gabrielle is able to use her expertise in analysis, training, organisation psychology, research, systems auditing and human behaviour to serve a wide range of needs. She has conducted a Probability Risk Analysis (PRA) using The Safety FIRM’s methodology Culture and Organisation Modelling in Risk (COMIR). This work was conducted with National power generation companies. Gabrielle has developed and delivered a range of risk and safety leadership consultancies to Tier 1 organisations in Australia.
  • Mr Goat

    I like this discussion but everyone remains hopeful of achieving a win. If the contracted hippo is required to move and doesn’t want to because his boss has never told him to move and his boss is a giraffe and only talks to people at his same level and only talks to your boss who is a Lion and doesn’t care if he moves because that is my job to get him to move not his, you are very limited. I can try and get my boss to move but he is a lion and doesn’t jump every time someone cries wolf (in his opinion).
    There is one very true statement in this discussion and that is you cant be an “asshole whisperer”(I paraphrase). Some people will call the sky pink no matter how you hug, coerce, discuss, direct, inform them otherwise.
    I encounter these contractors on a regular basis and as they already have a perception about me, intertwined with their thoughts, experiences and belief in their boss being “God Almighty”, it really limits your response from lets work together to just do it. I have to assess the result with the effort input to achieve the goal. As all good management know there is a small 10-15% of workers that are there just to make up numbers and as a manager you can only provide enough time for them as appropriate. Better spending more time with the 60-70% that are responsive to your discussion and try to elevate them to better behaviour. This then directly isolates the 10-15% of nonchalant workers that can respond in a myriad of ways (hopefully by begrudgingly following suit). You deal with that when it occurs.
    The other 10-15% are the Golden Children that lead by example and are a pleasure to work with and give great feedback

  • Martha Widra

    Over the years I have faced many hippos that needed moving, mostly about wearing the required PPE. At my last job, it was safety glasses when working with hazardous chemicals. My worse offenders were the managers, who were not ready to listen to anyone else telling them what to do. Currently, it’s about hearing protection. My worst offenders are, you guessed it, the managers. For managers, who want their workers to comply, my approach is to remind them that their workers will not comply if management does not. That’s the carrot that works for them.

    With the workers, I engage them in conversation. I tell them about my struggles with a hearing loss from childhood, and tell them that I care about them and do not want them to have to go through that struggle. This is in a mostly Hispanic workforce, and I am not (yet) bilingual. But the message of caring gets through. I actually had a young worker come out of his crane and hug me in thanks. Since I’m an older person, I think he realized that my concerns are like that of a mother. I do care about every one of the people that I try to protect.

    Most, if not all, safety officers pursue that path because they care. It’s definitely not to win a popularity contest. I think that if we allow ourselves to show that concern for the welfare of the workers, they will understand that we are not on a power trip, but want to help them go home to their families every night in the same shape that they came to work. We will gain more respect and hopefully more compliance with that approach. It may not work with everyone, but it will add more weight to what we say if it is done in the spirit of caring.

    • Gabrielle Carlton

      Yes Martha we usually are always motivated by helping people in the hope they are not getting hurt at work. It’s best if we support their critical thinking and allow them to learn and understand. This will motivate them to ‘own’ safety and discern risk. A conversation is great isn’t it?

      • Martha Widra

        Gabrielle, I like that idea of supporting their critical thinking. I have some workers whose critical thinking skills are at a lower level than others, but that only makes their training more challenging. I had to develop the training tools that the entire work force can understand and utilize which will allow them to understand why the rules are what they are.

        I have found that telling stories is an excellent way to bring safety rules and issues down to a personal level for workers. When teaching about hand washing (we make food grade products so for the food safety programs this is important) I tell the story of Typhoid Mary, who fatally infected people because she continued to work as a cook and refused to wash her hands. She was a rare carrier of the disease, and never got it herself and she thought that the rules did not apply to her. So the story helps people understand why they have to wash their hands even if they think they are clean and safe.

        As the members of this group related to the story of the hippo, our workers can relate to stories to internalize our message.

    • Rob Sams

      Hi Martha, being in ‘safety’ can be tough at times. I wonder if you took a slightly different approach and thought of the ‘offenders’ as people who may not know, or may not understand, or who have just developed bad habits (gee we all have some of them don’t we :-) whether that might make that more caring approach that you seem to have shine through even more? Sometimes it’s hard for us to realise we can’t ‘fix’ people, but we can still help. Great discussion

      • Martha Widra

        I definitely agree. My first thought is not that people are willfully disregarding a safety rule, but that their training was not retained or not thorough enough. My approach is always to tell people the why of safety as well as the what. It’s the people who do know what to do, and even why to do, and still do not, that need the more firm approach. I do carry ear plugs around with me and hand them to all who are not wearing them in the high noise areas, but I hand them with a smile and a thank you.

        • http://batman-news.com Wynand

          I think the ear protection approach (for example) is a great one. As I interpret it, you empower them – they make the choice to use it, but having it handy enables the person to make the choice. It also sends the message that it is important without being a “policeman”.
          One comment about training, and especially retraining – it only works if lack of knowledge is a factor. There may be other underlying reasons why someone is not doing the expected. I prefer “coaching an mentoring” to “training” in many of the instances, since this (in my opinion) is more personal, and relates more to the conversation. In the end, I also agree that if people understand the “why”, they are empowered to make the decision. Understanding the “why” is a conversation, while we are tempted to turn the “what” into a “thou shalt…” that can create resistance.

  • Marcel Wynn

    Very true Gabrielle. Reminds me about doing some “motivational” training many years ago when the trainer gave everyone three balls told us he was going to teach us all how to juggle. An argument ensued when I told him that he couldn’t teach me. He disagreed strongly and I made the point to him that he can only teach what I wanted to learn. This is the one point that challenges me in working to improve our “safety culture”, that is employee engagement. So to this end you are right, the discussion (two way) must precede the audit tool.

    • http://batman-news.com Wynand

      There is another point here – how do you train someone to juggle if he already can do it?
      Are we always prepared to make sure we do not insult the experts (and I mean the real ones, not the self-proclaimed fakes) by trying to teach them what they already know? In my experience, if someone is really good in his field and you ask him something outside his knowledge base, he is likely to go and teach himself (research the answer).
      The point you made also refers to a debate we had not so long ago – you cannot teach by “telling” – it does not guarantee the transfer of knowledge.
      This is slightly off the original topic, but still refers to the same principle – you cannot teach (move a hippo) without the person wanting to be taught.

      • Martha Widra

        That’s the truth, Wynand. We also need to lead by example. We should be the model for everyone else, and go one step beyond what we are asking others to do. We teach by showing the way.

      • Gabrielle Carlton

        Wynand I don’t think it’s off the topic at all. It’s all about motivation and so true what Marcel said as well. You cannot ‘tell’ anyone to do anything if they don’t want to. In risk and safety we get better results when we remember that when engaging with the workers. Many of us go out and have conversations which is great. The question to ask yourself is are you asking open questions to gain an insight into what the person is thinking or knows. And also we definitely can gain and insight into what they already know which allows a much more open conversation. Not trying to tell someone how to suck eggs or juggle balls!

        • http://batman-news.com Wynand

          Gabrielle, you touch onto something I believe is important (” I don’t think it’s off the topic at all”) – everything is linked. You cannot disconnect training from conversation, incident investigation from heuristics, risk assessment from culture, SWMS from decision making processes, simplification from understanding of wicked problems, and I can go on with virtually every combination. With every conversation we need to remember to integrate all the other knowledge into the conversation. This is one of the weaknesses of a discussion forum – the inability/ difficulty to integrate in the small amount of space and the limitations of using writing as main communication method. This does not take away from the fact that this is still an incredibly valuable learning tool (discussion) and also why it is important and valuable to have dissenting opinions sometimes. One can learn from both the agreements and disagreements. If I tell you what I think, it allows the opportunity to comment on my logic – and this is so important if my logic has flaws.

          Thanks for the comment.

  • Len Collie

    I’ve been a firm believer in the concept that people only respond positively when they believe there is something in it for them. The recent ads from the regulators seem to have been part of motivating people to look after themselves i.e. what’s in it for them. One obstacle is still the complex human factor where they believe “it won’t happen to me” and it is not until it actually does happen to them that they become motivated. How many of us have had an accident bad enough to make us want to save the world?

    I often use experiential learning such as getting them to wear riggers gloves, put their dominate arm in a sling, get them to wear blacked out safety glasses (there is more uses than just graffiti for a can of black spray paint) etc., etc. and then send them off for morning tea with others watching to see that the ‘injured’ don’t cheat.

    Discussions afterwards explore their feelings and frustrations and delve into how the family would cope if they had such a disability. I have also used on the very odd occasion a technique I read about in a Linkedin Group where the workers have to write to their loved ones explaining why they won’t be coming home ever due to their death. Very confronting but it gets the message across.

    Love the story and the author should be applauded for sharing the insight even if unintended.

    • http://batman-news.com Wynand

      I also believe there are many different ways that something can have something in it for me. We are tempted to oversimplify this concept in a reward intent. However, different people see different values in the same action.
      Let me give an example (not my own): why do we put sign language interpreters on TV? Did we determine if the deaf community wants it, or do we do it to feel good about ourselves, telling ourselves we are doing something for the “less privilieged” (and I believe a lot of deaf people do NOT feel underprivileged or disabled, with which I agree). So back to the point – who gets the reward – the deaf community or the person providing the “service”.

      • Dave Collins

        Good point Wynand. Most employees are clever enough to see thru Zero Harm and other safety initiatives as being about saving the souls of company execs in the guise of saving the souls of the company’s “most valuable assets”

        • http://www.poal.co.nz Sheri Suckling

          I agree – employees can soon spot a superficial attempt to make it look as if they are interested in employee well-being when in fact they have their own personal agendas. I personally attended a client company’s meeting with the General Manager, who went on at length about how they were having too many lost time injuries. The message people took away was unfortunately that the GM was quite upset about losing his bonus because the site hadn’t met the KPI for lost time injuries…..not very effective for engaging and motivating people to make any changes!

    • Rob Sams

      Interesting approach Lee. What do you think people learn when they write those kind of letters to their love ones?

  • steve marker

    The traditional to safety was one of stick wielding, how you will get hurt and how you will be penalised.

    The way forward is to show people ‘what’s in it for me!’. An intelligent approach to risk mirrors the habit of success – and showing people how they will directly benefit rather than how they will ‘protect’ themselves is much more effective than what might happen if they don’t go down this path.

    • Rob Sams

      I agree Steve, the traditional approach includes a lot or sticks and penalties, sad really. I’m not sure that “what’s in it for me” is the approach to take. What do you think are the key things that people are motivated by?

  • Dave Collins

    Positive stuff from LinkedIn that you may not have seen Gab:

    Braid Palmer

    a fantastic analogy, I have been giving a deal of mental energy to this paradox of systemic reliance and the corresponding limitations and ineffectiveness. so systemic interventions and controls what can they control, physical aspects, administrative aspects and procedural aspects.
    Perhaps what is more important is what they can’t control = BEHAVIOUR now we know they dictate what behaviours are required but I inevitably see personal choice as a recurring contributor to incidents and injuries.
    So traditionally we tell people what they should and should not do (doesn’t work)
    We punish people who choose different (doesn’t work)
    How would the mouse do it I like the idea of discussion about the limitations of systemic management and how much importance revolves around personal choices and decisions.
    I also like to point out that people often feel like victims of safety systems and the reality that if they are injured they are the literal victims and these can be life changing events. Then they can make their own decisions having as much information as possible.

    • Gabrielle Carlton

      Thanks for the share Dave.

  • Rob long

    Great piece Gab, I reckon the regulator is bigger than a hippo and want be moving soon. How do you move a beached whale?

    • Gabrielle Carlton

      Hey Rob maybe we need to think of a strategy ha….does a beached whale want to be moved?

      • Dave Collins

        Have to ask that bloke from Dolphin Safety Solutions if they can handle bigger mammals! LOL

        • Rob Sams

          Ha, ha, Maybe I need to move away from Dolphin and ‘safety’ and ‘solutions’? What do you think of just Dolpyn? Could work…. watch this space.

          I’m not sure about bigger mammals, but reckon I could give it a crack!

          • Dave collins

            Did you choose that name on porpoise? Lol

    • http://batman-news.com Wynand

      Great point Rob – I reckon we need to understand one big difference – the hippo CAN move himself, while the beached whale CANNOT. This again points to the fact that there are different solutions to different problems. In a course by Hersey and Blanchard (Situational leadership), one of the most important lessons I learned was that “unwilling to move” can have a multitude of causes, and again each variation needs a different approach. So, one should not only determine if “the hippo can move”, but if it can and does not want to, why it does not want to move. (Is it afraid, injured, in pain, lying there for a reason …?)

      • Adam

        I could not agree more. I am a regulator and am trying to move the whale from the inside, millimeter by millimeter (if we’re talking about a humpback, I probably equate in size to a single blood cell!).

        I’m forever trying to push the organisation in the direction that the great thinkers and practitioners on the site are writing about. Unfortunately we are now mostly controlled in our oversight processes by a European body, so the chances of swapping the audit tool for a conversation (I love this principle) in my world are slim for the time being! Nevertheless, I’ll keep on trying to move the whale one millimeter at a time.

        • http://www.safetyrisk.net Dave Collins

          Hang in there mate – but remember what happened to Captn Ahab when he became obsessed with killing Moby Dick! But there is a classic quote in Moby Dick which says “I try all things, I achieve what I can.”

  • Rob Sams

    Good one Gab, sometimes it’s the simplest stories that help explain the most difficult things. It reminds me of the recent discussions we had on how the nursery rhymes we tell our kids can impact on their unconscious thinking. I wonder how the story you have shared would impact on the unconscious. I’m ooking forward to some good discussion on this.

    • Rob long

      Hey Rob, read Bertelheim, he’s a brain buster.

    • Gabrielle Carlton

      Thanks Rob well you know you can always get me engaged on unconscious thinking…especially if it’s about where to put the toilet ha

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