Workplace Culture and Leadership: Notes for the Aspiring Safety Leader

Action OHS Consulting has many years of experience working alongside and supporting the aspiring ‘safety leader’ within a broad range of industries. Despite consistent safety regulatory activity aimed at improving organisational safety performance, we still encounter significant challenges facing medium and large sized organisations in terms of how they manage safety within their organisation. Of those challenges that prevent effective safety management, one key roadblock we see fairly often is this: the attitude – often beneath the exterior – of leadership teams.

Whilst many leaders might externally say the right things, they do not always feel comfortable driving the development, implementation, and enforcement of their health and safety management systems – which when contextualised to the organisation, should drive effective decision making. This article explores how workplace safety culture is influenced and driven by effective leadership in safety. Specifically, this article covers:

  • the inputs required by leaders to drive continuous improvement in safety performance;
  • the positive impact that safety professionals can have on developing a workplace culture and supporting the safety leader; and
  • the traps to avoid to ensure that safety leaders and safety professionals maintain their voice when it comes to managing health and safety within complex organisations.


The Concept of Safety Culture within the Workplace

Safe Work Australia defines a positive safety culture in the workplace as:


“… everyone accepting personal responsibility for ensuring their safety and that of others. Supervisors and managers see safety as important and the things they do demonstrate their commitment to safety.”


Safe Work Australia’s Virtual Seminar Series featured Professor Andrew Hopkins speaking about the use and abuse of the term ‘safety culture’. In this webinar, he questioned what the term ‘safety culture’ means, arguing it is often misunderstood. He challenged the audience to consider advocating for a culture of ‘operational excellence’ rather than a ‘safety culture’, and advocated for a better understanding of culture as an opportunity to make workplaces safer. Professor Hopkins defined culture as ‘a characteristic of a group, not an individual.’ Furthermore, the organisation’s focus should shift to a more holistic approach which considers workplace culture in its entirety, rather than just safety culture. He supplied a more useful definition of the culture of a collective (group) as:


‘… consider culture as a set of collective practices – the way we do things around here’.


Further reading: Professor Patrick Hudson has undertaken research on safety culture and high reliability organisations. He developed an evolutionary model of Safety Culture based on a systematic basis for safety management. It was underpinned by an introspective process-driven organisational culture that supports processes beyond prescription and allowed organisations to identify and address gaps in their coverage.

“Safety Management and Safety Culture: The Long, Hard and Winding Road”. By Professor Patrick Hudson.


Safety as an Integral Part of Organisational Culture

One can easily get lost in the definition of, and aspiration for, a mature safety culture. A better approach may be to focus on the critical elements of leadership. It is the attitudes and actions of organisational leaders that ultimately drive organisational practices and builds a workplace culture that produces excellent safety outcomes (i.e. to ensure that there is a conscious effort made to plan for and manage known hazards), instead of defining aspirational levels of a safety culture.

In Professor Hopkins’ Virtual Seminar, he quotes an organisational anthropologist who concluded that ‘changing collective values of adult people in an intended direction is extremely difficult, if not impossible’. Professor Hopkins suggested that values can be changed by influencing organisational characteristics such as structures and systems. Therefore, if the focus is on changing behaviours (rather than values) driven by effective leadership, the safety performance will be more successful. This can be achieved through the implementation of a set of collective organisational practices which are driven by a strategic plan, that implements a process of control, measurement, rewards and consequences. This will drive and promote the organisational practices to generate an organisational culture, that is influenced by the collective culture.

An organisation’s culture is much more powerful than any individual. This is because the culture dictates what is important, who is important, and importantly what it takes to be successful. As a result, workplace culture has enormous impact on the organisation’s future direction.


Take-away: It is near impossible to substantially change the direction of an organisation, without changing the culture. If organisational leadership does not support the required change, then it will be incredibly difficult to implement changes to improve safety performance.


Quantitative & Qualitative Measures of Workplace Culture

Workplace culture can be measured through the use of assessment tools and measures. Elements can be measured directly, which enables an organisation to quantify workplace culture, and the level of operational excellence in a meaningful way. Any metrics should form part of senior leadership meetings to inform and measure improvement in the organisation’s compliance and progress with strategic metrics. A systems approach involves focusing on all three elements:

  1. individual or personal factors,
  2. organisational factors (i.e. management systems), and
  3. behavioural factors that reflect both the personal and organisational constituents.

Due to there being three elements, this approach may be referred to within some organisations as the tripartite approach.


Take-away: The implementation and utilisation of measurement data will ensure an evidence-based approach to improving operational excellence, workplace culture and safety within any workplace.


Leadership Vision for Establishing Safety and Operational Excellence

Leadership is almost the single most-powerful component of culture.1 Leaders affect change, which in turn, drives and sustains an organisation’s culture. In our experience across a broad range of industries, a poor workplace culture, with poor safety performance, usually implicates poor leadership. This is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, over twenty years ago Cooper stated,


“Leadership is generally viewed as a key determinant of organisational success in all its various endeavours”2.


Leadership is situation-specific; the characteristics needed are dependent on the situation3. Shein states: “The search for a universally correct leadership style is doomed to failure because of cultural variation by country, by industry, by occupation and by particular history of a given organisation”. Generally speaking, management within an organisation deals mostly with maintaining the status quo, whilst driving positive cultural change is the domain of leadership.


Take-away: What leadership looks like will vary between organisations – each leader must reflect and identify what good looks like for their organisations, and their skill-set. Why? For workplace culture to improve, it almost always needs to be led by the behaviours and actions of these leaders.


[1] Simon, S.I. and R.A. Carrillo. Improving Safety Performance Through Cultural Interventions. In Safety health & Asset Protection: Management Essentials, R.W. Lack, 2nd Edition. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2002.

[2] Cooper, M.D. Improving Safety Culture: A Practical Guide. West Sussex, UK. John Wiley & Sons, 1998.

[3] Shein, E.H. Organizational Culture and Leadership. 2nd Edition, San Francisco. Jossey-Bass, 1992.


Leadership Behaviours to Strengthen Workplace Culture

Leaders should focus on values and behaviours to strengthen workplace collective practices. Discussion about cultural change, is in fact reference to behavioural change. An organisation is unable to change fundamental, individual core beliefs. However, organisational leadership can change culture by changing behaviours in the workplace.

We are not at this point advocating the utilisation of (in isolation), what most people refer to as a behavioural-based safety approach. In fact, the primary way to change behaviours in the workplace is via the development, implementation and enforcement of appropriate and considered (i.e. to the level of risk) organisational management systems, which incorporate safety, quality and environmental management; consistent with the organisation’s operations, which have had workforce input via consultative forums (internal, and potentially external).

The general behaviours that impact safety and operational excellence for leaders include, but are not limited to the following:

  1. Establishing expectations. Leaders must translate their vision into clear expectations and accountabilities for safety performance at all levels of the organisation. This ensures that accountabilities and responsibilities are clear. It also provides a platform to enforce rewards, recognition and consequences, which will ultimately drive behaviour and workplace culture. The success of any Health and Safety Management System depends on the management team and workforce being held accountable for their performance.
  2. Implementing. Implementing process or operational safety to effectively manage foreseeable hazards through the implementation of suitable risk controls and workforce planning strategies is the key. A risk management approach, with explicit consideration to the hierarchy of control, will drive effective conversations where decisions made in relation to the risk associated with known-hazards are explicit and considered, making risk a key pillar of your workplace culture. This includes effective competency-based training that provide workers with the understanding of established controls, and the confidence that where identified by them, they will be required to assess and control hazards they are exposed to across their workday. Implementation also requires employee consultative arrangements and issue resolution processes, and a process to effectively manage rewards, recognition and consequences.
  3. Leaders doing. Leaders set a personal example of behaviours required for the desired workplace culture and safety performance. Their actions are influential when they are seen to follow and promote established safety rules, organisational policies, procedures and standards, are involved in safety meetings, or regularly include safety in their conversations. As a result, the conversations, behaviours and visible support by leaders play a major role in establishing and changing organisational culture. If the leaders don’t believe enough in the control to follow, why should their workers?
  4. Employee education. Leaders provide education, training and resources to ensure that employees are fully developed and prepared to positively contribute to safety performance.
  5. Employee empowerment. By training and supporting the workforce, leaders provide employees the authority, flexibility and partnership they require to perform and operate safely and effectively.
  6. Employee encouragement. What is imperative to proactive workplace culture, is leaders encouraging their workforce to strive for excellence in both safety and operational outcomes in order to meet organisational targets.
  7. Evaluation of effectiveness. Leaders need to measure, monitor and review the effectiveness of their organisational strategies and make any necessary changes. This drives effective, continuous improvement in the workplace.


Take-away: What is important to your leaders, will be important to your workers. If your leaders don’t believe in the established safety controls to follow, nor do they discuss or praise them; why should your workers?


Leaders’ Motivation and Experience to Drive Workplace Culture and Safety Performance

Leaders must possess both:

(i) the desire to act, and

(ii) a clear understanding of the specific behaviours that lead to excellent safety performance.

Stewart states, “top management must be committed to excellence and drive the agenda by establishing a vision, values and goals, and by seeing that all line managers have safety improvement objectives that are measured via safety audit performance and by personal visible involvement.1


Take-away: Get you leaders on board, before your start the journey. You may need to assist them to curate their story: Why is safety important to them?


[1] Stewart, J.M. Managing for World Class Safety. New York. John Wiley & Sons, 2002.


The Safety Professionals’ Role: Influence the Correct People to take Appropriate Action

Safety professionals can influence workplace culture by influencing the leadership team through organisational safety metrics, including inspection and audit findings. This can be achieved by:

  • Developing sound business cases for organisational safety improvements which are evidence based, and consider all aspects of risk (financial-, reputational- or, legal-based) in addition to safety.
  • Facilitating meaningful consultation across all parts of the organisation, so that work performed can be understood by the leadership team when making operational decisions.
  • Reminding leaders of their legal and regulatory obligations to provide adequate resources to allow work to be undertaken safely.
  • Providing a facilitated, coaching and mentoring approach with managers and leaders, in order to drive a strong workplace culture, with a focus on clear, effective and sustainable safety practices, that are integrated within all organisational management systems and where appropriate business as usual activities.


Take-away: In line with the advice that you source from your lawyer or accountant, the safety professional will assist you to effectively manage your legal obligations associated with safety and workers compensation.


Closing remarks for the aspiring safety leader

Effective and clear leadership is critical in establishing a workplace culture within which safety is firmly embedded. Implementation of practices from the top down through an organisations leadership team is the best way of improving organisational culture. Leaders can also ensure that adequate resources are provided to ensure sustainable practices are implemented. The role of the safety professional is to support and influence leadership teams through evidence-based approaches to safety management. Through this, the Safety Professional can inform strategic decisions; facilitate conversations to ensure that operational practices are understood by the Leadership Team when managing risk; and, support leaders to have effective safety conversations across the organisation.

Adopting an evidence-based approach to improving workplace culture and safety performance, driven by supportive and confident leadership attitudes, actions and objectives; will provide greater insight to the challenges we all face when looking to measure and identify ways to improve workplace culture and safety performance.


Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels


If you have any questions regarding this article or require assistance, please do not hesitate to Contact Us. We are more than happy to support any aspiring safety leader looking to embed strong safety practices within their workplace culture.