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Managing towards safe behavior

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Managing towards safe behavior

The previous two posts of this blog discussed seven principles of leadership that encourage employees to behave safely. Now the attention shifts from the first line supervisor to the top of the organization. For each of the seven principles management can create conditions so that the leaders can easily take up their intended role. This creates seven management principles that can lead to safe behavior of employees. In this post I will start with a brief summary of the previous posts and then introduce the first management principle: the creation of social safety.

Brief summary of the previous: the seven leadership principles

Safe behavior can only occur if an employee feels safe in his team. Social safety (principle 1) therefore is a primary and fundamental condition. Next there are two principles linked to process management: set clear rules and explain why there are (principle 2) and enforce compliance to these rules but also investigate common deviations (principle 3). From the social management point of view we add four principles to this. The strongest models in the immediate environment influence behavior of others. Each respected leader influences others by displaying safe behavior himself. Modeling (principle 4) is done by showing the right intentions, both in policy and in deeds. Employees usually know more ways to complete a certain task and they can be tempted to display unsafe behavior in favor of the wellbeing of the organization. Prioritization (principle 5) of behavioral choices is therefore important. Employees can only safely handle risks if they are aware of the risks and possess the competences to handle them in case they should occur. Instruction (principle 6) in both is important. Finally, the employee may be tempted to safe behavior if the supervisor is able to regularly provide brief safety impulses. Evoking safe behavior (principle 7) is done via priming and nudging.

Management Principle 1: Promote social safety in the organization

The concept of safety has different meanings and one of them refers to social safety. This can be defined as a feeling of social acceptance due to which one dares to act freely. For the employee, this freedom to act is crucial when he believes that the safety of himself and his environment is at stake. Sharing an uneasy feeling about the perceived safety of a task or challenging a colleague to behave more safely, will only be done if one feels accepted within the team. The perception of this social safety is partly determined by patterns that employees recognize in the behavior of management. One examines at an unconscious level the true intentions that are expressed via that behavior and checks whether these intentions remain in place if the pressure to deliver arises.

Dealing with incidents

Employees are given an opportunity to examine these intentions at the moment that something goes wrong. The way an organization handles an incident tells a lot about how social safety is guaranteed. If management discusses incidents in terms of contravening rules and is preoccupied with blaming and convicting the ones who “caused” the incident, it creates a very unsafe context for discussing the safety performance of the organization.   Management creates respect if one is willing to take a look at oneself and examine what has contributed to the emergence of the erroneous behavior. The way of investigation and handling the incident tells a lot about the true intentions of management and determines the way that people treat each other in the organization.

Incident investigation is a mirror of the organization

A socially safe organization investigates an incident in the belief that this is an opportunity to learn. The investigation is seen as a reflection on the performance of the entire organization. We call this a systemic perspective. It examines the behavioral component of those directly involved, the actors, in relation to their social environment. From this perspective many questions can arise like: exactly what did the actors do and which circumstances have contributed to the appearance of this behavior? What was the primary motive of the instigator? Was it self-interest, disobedience and laziness or was the behavior motivated by a commitment to the process and to the organization? Did the instigator have a strong desire to reach a target and was therefore willing to take a risk that could even cause him injury? How did the colleagues and superiors react or refrain from action before and during the incident?

Isolate an incident

Unfortunately, we often see the opposite: the organization tends to isolate an incident. It looks for the person who has broken the last safety barrier in order to tackle him firmly. They “forget” to take a broader perspective and to investigate to what extent the specific behavior is often informally authorized by first line supervisors. The main advantage of reducing the responsibility for an incident to the smallest unit – the employee – is that colleagues and superiors are dismissed from any form of accountability. One can punish the trespasser of the barrier (e.g. via a warning, transfer or even dismissal) and then leave everything as it was.


Social safety arises if management openly wonders “what have we done or not done, making this behavior occur?” By asking this question management can engage in a critical self-reflection and examine what behavior contributed to the current situation. In this context Sydney Dekker has introduced the concept of “just culture”. He refers to a way of relating in which everyone’s contribution is being evaluated with respect, in which responsibility is shared widely and in which one realizes that many actors have an influence on the behavior of a single employee. Social safety starts with an open-minded and self-reflective management.

Conspiracy of silence

Social safety is the foundation on which further safety management can be build. Without this foundation an organization is not receptive enough for learning. For example, employees can participate in training (e.g. recognize and share observations of unsafe behavior), but the lesson will not be incorporated if the company attacks trespassers heavily after an incident. The desire to protect each other from management will lead to an agreement not to report any behavioral offenses. This is sometimes called the conspiracy of silence.


The supervisors and managers have a profound influence on employee’s behavior. They hold the key to laying and creating a foundation of social safety within the organization. Research shows again and again that training at the level of supervisors and management has by far the highest efficiency of all safety investments.


Juni Daalmans, March 2017

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