The Dangers of a Compliance-Only Approach to Safety

Dec 12, 2017

Safety seems to be looking good. As you walk around site you notice people wearing PPE, procedures being followed, hazards being reported and teams mentioning safety during pre-starts.

You stop to check the incident rate. It hasn’t changed. Team members are still getting hurt. You can’t remember the last time someone provided a suggestion to improve safety.

It begs the question… is the safety culture really as effective as it appears to be?

Recognising the warning signs

These characteristics are typical of a ‘compliant culture’, where safety procedures are considered a tick box exercise and something separate to production (i.e. something extra we have to do). In fact, what tends to be more prevalent is that policies and procedures are followed, but only when someone (usually a leader) is watching. In this sort of culture, team members do the bare minimum required.

A client facing this challenge recently provided insight into their safety culture. There were few safety improvement recommendations, minimal hazard reports and even less learnings shared during meetings. However, what was interesting was what was happening at the site’s processing plant.

In this area, a team member would adopt the role of ‘watch tower’. When a leader approached, this individual would put a call out over the two-way radio: “ducks on the lake”. It was code for “leader coming” (i.e. make sure your PPE gear is on, obvious hazards are covered up, you’re following policy and not taking any shortcuts). When the leader walked in, the safety culture looked fantastic.

At Sentis, we refer to this level of cultural maturity as Public Compliance. This type of safety culture is more prevalent than we’d like to think. Across a range of industries, our research has shown that approximately 43% of organisations sit at this level of cultural maturity.*

Safety Culture Maturity Model

A compliant culture is not enough

Firstly, whilst perhaps meeting the necessary requirements, this sort of culture only takes an organisation’s safety to a certain point. An incident can happen at any time, regardless of whether a leader is present or not.

Secondly, today’s workplace requires continual safety improvement. The list of possible risks is ever-changing. It requires a devoted, ongoing effort from all workers to manage these effectively. Public compliance is not enough to drive the ongoing improvement necessary to achieve a positive safety culture, let alone a culture of safety citizenship.

What drives a public compliance culture? How do we change it?

Driving people to engage in new or particular behaviours can be a difficult process. For people to behave a certain way, they need a compelling reason. As a result, getting people to engage in safety often requires some level of motivation for them to do so.

When we look at what encourages behaviour, there are two key categories of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Extrinsic motivators are those external to the individual which influence behaviour. This is commonly known as the ‘carrot and stick’ approach. It may include using punishment (disciplinary action), or manipulative reinforcement (“if you get this housekeeping sorted, I’ll approve your leave”). At times, it may include just rewarding those that show you their safe behaviour.

At the other end of the spectrum is intrinsic motivation. When a team member is intrinsically motivated, they are motivated to do what is required because they themselves want to. They find it personally rewarding.

What drives motivation in the workplace?

The answer is simple; leadership. And leaders know this. They motivate their team to do specific things all the time, and safety is no exception. In fact, an organisation’s leadership is one of the most influential factors driving employee safety motivation and participation (Jiang & Probst, 2016). So, how are we as leaders motivating our team to engage in safe behaviours that go beyond basic compliance?

Some leaders use threats to drive or enforce safe behaviours. They focus on ‘catching people out’ and responding with punishment if they see non-compliance. The risk of getting in trouble is used as the motivator. This leads the team to learn to work safely when the boss is looking.

Conversely, transformational leaders inspire their teams to behave safely for the benefits they will get. They focus on pulling people up for unsafe behaviour, not because they’ve broken the rules, but because they risk not going home to what is important to them. They acknowledge safe behaviour because it helps ensure their team goes home in the same way they arrived, not because they deserve a voucher. The way they communicate with their team instils the real reason for why we want to operate safely. These leaders focus on intrinsic motivation as the catalyst for getting their people to engage in safety.

It’s the difference between “You know the rules, don’t let me catch you without PPE again” and “Check you’ve got all your PPE, I don’t want you getting hurt”.

Frequently, we see leaders adopting the first approach. Why? Because it’s easy and often results in behaviour change straight away. So, why would we bother changing? Because this approach won’t facilitate a positive safety culture. It has been well-established that extrinsic motivators work only for that specific behaviour, and only in the short term.

The real problem with extrinsic motivation

When someone is extrinsically motivated, they tend to perform the expected behaviour only when being monitored for performance. In practical terms, I’ll work safely when I’m being watched to either avoid getting in trouble, or because I’ll be seen and gain some sort of reward.

Using extrinsic motivation as a strategy to get people to engage in safe behaviours is one of the key drivers, from a leadership perspective, that facilitates a public compliance culture. The evidence supports this. Across the research, this style of leadership has been highly linked to a compliant safety culture (Griffin & Hu, 2013). If I’m worried about getting in trouble, I’ll focus on working safely when there is a greater risk of getting caught or I’ll do the least amount necessary to avoid getting in trouble.

However, the problem gets worse the longer this goes on. Across multiple studies and throughout the research literature, one of the more established yet frequently ignored findings is that the more leaders focus on extrinsically motivating an individual to do something, the more that individual’s intrinsic motivation to do so can become weakened (Pink, 2011).

It’s fair to say that no one goes to work wanting to get hurt. We want to go home to the things and people we care about. Herein lies the true reason for operating safely. However, if my leader continually leads with a focus on ‘follow the rules or there will be consequences’, the inherent desire to go home safely is pushed aside. This policing effort for safety means that my decision to operate safely moves from ‘I want to go home safely’ to ‘I don’t want to get caught operating unsafely’. The subsequent result; I start to be more on the lookout for when I could get caught as opposed to on the lookout for when I could get hurt.

Next steps for leaders

Moving beyond a compliant culture requires some changes in leadership approach. For many leaders, this requires a significant shift in the way they communicate safety messages, the way they motivate team members, and the way they stop people from working unsafely.

In altering their approach, leaders must focus on building and embedding intrinsic motivation. Leaders who inspire their team to work safely for the result it personally brings them see greater safety participation. Put simply, their teams more actively engage in safety because they want to (Griffin & Hu, 2013).

Effective leadership drives safe behaviour by getting team members to focus on the reason why they want to work safely; not because they feel they have to. When this is the driving motivation, individuals themselves choose to operate safely. For the same reasons, this motivation drives teams to improve safety not only for themselves, but also their colleagues and organisation more broadly.

What excites me when looking to move beyond compliance is that intrinsic motivation is self-perpetuating. It doesn’t require monitoring; it isn’t limited to specific behaviours. Slowly, and then suddenly, individuals become less focused on “ducks on the lake” and more on the personal motivations they have.


  1. Griffin, M. A., & Hu, X. (2013). How leaders differentially motivate safety compliance and safety participation: The role of monitoring, inspiring, and learning. Safety Science, 60, 196-202.
  2. Jiang, L., & Probst, T. M. (2016). Transformational and passive leadership as cross-level moderators of the relationships between safety knowledge, safety motivation, and safety participation. Journal of Safety Research, 57, 27-32.
  3. Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Penguin Putnam Inc.

*Based on a Sentis study of 30 sites representing mining, oil and gas, utilities, construction, manufacturing and agriculture.


Ben Carnell

Ben is a Registered Psychologist, specialising in the application of performance psychology to business. His experience has focused on culture development, organisational reviews, leadership development and coaching, psychometric testing and facilitating team mental conditioning initiatives. Ben has worked across mining, oil and gas, government, elite sport, healthcare, business, utilities and manufacturing and so brings a diverse understanding of the challenges different organisations face. Ben is passionate about seeing great people achieve great things, and is motivated by the opportunity to help teams create a level of culture and performance where individuals can do this.

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