Brain Based Safety

Leading to safe behavior

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Leading to safe behavior

Power and authority are essential for the safe functioning of human beings in a group or organization. The one who holds the power – the leader – possesses by position the ability to add crucial elements to the safety of his team. These capabilities are expressed here as the 7 principles of leadership to safe behavior. A long read based on Brain Based Safety.


1. Monitor the social safety of the team.

People can only move openly and freely when they feel themselves socially safe. Social acceptance by and backing from teammates is a crucial element in this process. A good leader ensures that everybody experiences himself as a respected member of the group. To this end he monitors the team behavior and takes care that nobody is left out. Under these circumstances it is most likely that the team members monitor their own and others’ safety. They dare to give each other feedback and discuss unsafe behavior. Bullying is the main signal that social safety is not in order.

The creation of social safety is regarded as a prerequisite in order to make the other six principles possible.


2. Set rules and explain why.

Rules and regulations provide support because they translate knowledge from previous experiences into possible actions. Humans however, have a natural aversion to rules for two quite different reasons. The first one is culturally determined. In this Western society we do not really appreciate it when others dictate to us what we should do. The second reason has to do with the operation of the brain that is based on competition between different functions. The safety function rings the alarm bell as soon as a danger has been detected; the efficiency function constantly monitors our energy consumption. These functions are not always aligned. As long as we are not familiar with the benefit of a rule, the efficiency function keeps on protesting. At an unconscious level we are encouraged to ignore rules as long as trespassing leads to higher efficiency. Understanding the impact of following the rule thus increases the willingness to act according to it. The acceptance will be especially enhanced when we understand which problems can be prevented and what knowledge or experience is incorporated herein.


3. Monitor compliance.

A rule is only a rule when it finds compliance. If we tell our children that they have to go to bed at seven o’clock and they are allowed to play happily until half past seven, we teach our children to disrespect our rules. We are not acting in accordance with them ourselves. The same logic can be applied to the work environment. Thus, promulgating a rule inevitably leads to an additional role of policeman. Just like children, employees tend to challenge the authority of leaders by trespassing rules. The reaction of the leader shows them where they stand. Checking and correcting establishes authority, while tolerance for violation leads to lack of credibility. For managers the best advice is to set only rules with which others can comply.


4. Set an example with behavior.

People constantly learn from each other. They serve as models for each other’s behavior and their underlying intentions. In line with George Orwell, “all people are models for each other, but some are more model than others”. Due to their position leaders belong to the stronger models within the organization. They occupy a role that can offer us a lot of benefits and others even might aspire to such a role themselves. Therefore, employees are particularly sensitive to the behavior and intentions of their leaders and have an unconscious willingness to adopt their behavior.


A major problem is that our self-image is usually more positive than the reality. We nearly all suffer from some form of overconfidence, especially when it comes to acting safely. Regular feedback about our own behavior is desirable. Depending on the company culture, employees will give some feedback on acting safely when the social safety in the team is high. However, if a company is used to regularly organizing an employee survey, it is advisable to incorporate safety related questions into this survey.


5. Prioritize safety in policy and coaching.

People sometimes do incomprehensible things when it comes to safety. They are willing to take big risks whilst gaining only small profits. This behavior is partly a result of conflicts between our innate instincts. Biology teaches us that we belong to group animals. We survived during the evolution because our ancestors have both guarded their own safety and the salvation of the human race. That’s is why we want to take care of ourselves but also of our organization. We are even willing to take a personal risk in order to achieve an organizational goal. In other words, we sometime prioritize our own safety on a lower level than our company’s success.


The leader can influence this process of prioritization by consistently giving priority to personal safety above the short-term organizational success. This sounds obvious, but unfortunately the reality is often different. What helps is to plan work in a way that it can be carried out safely and responds to inevitable variations in a manner that leaves the priority of personal safety intact.


6. Give instruction in risk detection and appropriate behavior.

Brain Based Safety assumes that we need rules but that there are also circumstances under which these rules don’t work as expected. It should be possible to deviate if this intention is based on risk awareness and communicated with our direct environment in order to check the impact of the intended behavior on the whole system. For this we must first become aware of all the risks involved.


As risk awareness is always a result of a combination of knowledge and emotion, it can be best achieved via a personal transfer. Unfortunately, the average manager has often too few contact moments to teach the new employee the risks of the job. Risk awareness can also be achieved with the help of experienced colleagues. A structured induction by a close colleague (sometimes called a buddy) can be very helpful. It is a task of the leader to organize this process and to monitor the results.


Risk awareness, however, only leads to safe behavior when the employee knows which behavior is adequate in preventing or neutralizing the experienced risks. It requires additional training to get entrenched in this behavior. The leader plays a crucial role in organizing and testing of this training.


7. Sprinkle with safety stimuli.

Usually we have several options to carry out a certain task and some of these options are safer than others. The final choice is based on personal experience but also on the actual conditions like team behavior and work pressure. It appears that we are also influenced by small messages, called primers. A primer is a stereotype safety related message which seduces us at an unconscious level to chose for a safe version of a particular behavior. A safety topic in work discussions, toolboxes and meetings, can act as a primer for safe behavior. Leaders are in the position to sprinkle primers throughout the day.


To conclude

In daily practice most of the leaders already use a number of the described principles, perhaps without realizing it. The seven principles in this article are intended as a frame of reference in order to establish leadership coaching and training. The book “Safe work behavior via Brain Based Safety” and the open training can help in transferring this knowledge into practice.


Juni Daalmans

June 2016

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