Neurosafety: The New Science of Safety Leadership

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“We’re behind on production and now this – how could he do such a stupid thing? He knew the safety procedures and that he was not supposed to touch the conveyer belt while it was still running. There’ll be hell to pay when he returns from the hospital!”

Brian Maxwell is fuming with anger – he is the production manager at a large manufacturing plant and one of his team members just sustained a serious injury to his left hand when it was caught in the conveyer belt when he tried to remove debris without locking out (switching off the system). “We’ve spent thousands on developing operational procedures for this job and they’ve all been through the training. What else can we do to get idiots like this to work safely?”

Times Have Changed but Safety Management Hasn’t 

What Brian doesn’t realize is that there is a serious flaw in how his company – and many others – think about safety. They religiously rely on procedures, structures and processes – some of which date back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution – and then they’re surprised when people fail to comply in a 21st Century workplace which has changed quite a bit (understatement) from the days when George IV was ruling Britain, slavery was still rampant and the United States comprised of 24 states.

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They’re forever trying to engineer better systems and they spend millions trying to educate and train people to understand and use these systems. When that fails as it often does they try to enforce compliance with strict disciplinary and punitive actions.

What they really fail to understand is that safety starts with people and that people at all levels – and leaders in particular – are struggling to cope with the challenges of the world we live and work in today.

On the one hand there’s the challenge of the external environment, which is now characterized by constant and exponential change; information overload; uncertainty; ambiguity and increased complexity. On the other hand, we also suffer from a challenge in terms of our internal capacity. Genetically the human brain has not change much in 50 000 years, so our “cavemen”-brains are fraught to keep up with the demands of the complex, fast-paced, ever-changing 21st Century workplace.

To create sustainable safety cultures in this new environment we need to change people’s behaviour – NOT by merely focusing on the behaviour itself but by also understanding and managing the neural processes in the brain that precedes and leads to that behaviour.

Recent research in neuroscience provides new possibilities for how this could be achieved. Two findings are of particular importance to leaders and organizations that want to create safety cultures where people are able to work safely and productively not because they fear retribution but because the organizational culture is conducive to optimal performance.

1st Key Finding from Neuroscience: Threats and Rewards

The first of these findings (based on a large number of studies) shows that the key driving principle of the human brain is “threats and rewards”. This means that just as in the old caveman-days, more than anything else, our brains want to keep us alive. It is therefore constantly scanning the environment (using all our senses) for anything it might perceive as a threat or a reward.

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When a reward is detected (food, shelter, money, etc.), it triggers an automated neural process that drives us towards that reward. Among other things, being in the “reward state” also enables us to function at our best (e.g. improved creativity; better judgment; enhanced neural memory; effective decision-making; better communication; etc.).

When a threat is detected (predator, attacker, loss of something valuable, etc.) the opposite happens as the brain immediately allocates fewer resources to the prefrontal cortex - its “executive center” where conscious thinking takes place. In a fraction of a second, the brain’s limbic system (the amygdala in particular) activates the sympathetic  nervous system which causes a release of hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline which ‘supercharge’ us to either fight or flee for survival. As part of this process the heart rate and blood pressure increases, breathing accelerates, pupils dilate and small blood vessels in many parts of the body is constricted to force more blood into the larger muscles for better physical performance. In this way the body is primed for action and we are now able to run faster, jump higher and endure more pain.

This is all good and well when your survival is at stake and you have to run away from a Sabre-tooth tiger or defend yourself against an aggressor from a rival clan. However, going into fight-or-flight mode becomes a potentially serious hazard when it happens in the workplace, as it comes at a considerable price.

2nd Key Finding from Neuroscience: The Brain is a Social Organ

Exactly how costly this could be become clearer if we understand the second key finding from social neuroscience. A large body of research shows that the same automated neural responses which are activated when we face a physical threat such as the Sabre-tooth tiger or attacker, are also activated in social situations.

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Your brain is not only constantly scanning the physical environment for possible threats, it is also closely monitoring the social environment – wherever you are interacting with other people. So whether you’re enjoying supper with the family, strolling through the mall, working out at the gym or trying to hold your own during a meeting at work – the behaviour of those around you is closely scrutinized and any perceived threat can trigger the fight or flight response in your brain.

When a social threat (aggression, humiliation, rejection, embarrassment, etc.) is detected, your ability to perform even simple routine actions – not to mention perform at your best when something goes wrong – is disrupted. While your body is now primed to fight or flee, your stressed and undernourished prefrontal cortex goes into neural “limp mode”. This means that your ability to focus, solve problems, make decisions, think creatively, memorize information, remember, understand consequences, communicate effectively, collaborate with others, cope with adversity and challenges, correctly interpret people’s behaviour, inhibit impulses and discern between right and wrong, can become severely impaired.

Workplace Safety Takes a Dive as the Threat Increases

In dangerous and volatile workplaces such as the plant where Brian works, this could have serious consequences. Instead of doing what they might normally do right every day, people will often take short cuts to avoid pain (social or physical), loss and, in many working environments - punishment and retribution. Brian’s aggressive leadership style, his constant threats about what would happen if production targets are missed and the resulting fear-culture at the plant probably had a direct negative impact on his team’s ability to work safely and effectively. With so much going on in his team member’s already undernourished prefrontal cortex, his brain simply ‘choked’, causing him to behave in an unsafe way and ignoring the safety procedures in order to comply with his manager’s demands.

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What makes this worse is that threat responses have a greater impact and are far more powerful and easier to trigger than reward responses (see You Might Not Like it, But Bad is Stronger than Good). In other words, we experience negative interactions with other people much more intensely than positive interactions of similar magnitude. So when you’re in a meeting and you tell someone that they’re not performing as expected, the negative impact of that criticism is much greater than the positive impact when, for instance, you thank someone for a job well done (see Neuroleadership: Lead People in a Way That Would Engage Their Minds).

Creating a “Brain-Friendly” Workplace

From a neurological perspective, many of today’s workplaces had become extremely threatening environments as a result of (among other things) autocratic leadership such as Brian’s, increased demands, constantly changing goals and expectations, information overload, ineffective communication and the fear of punishment if a mistake is made. Under these circumstances people are often in constant neurological fear-states resulting in constant under-performance (both in terms of safety and productivity).

Neurosafety is a new approach to safety leadership which integrates principles and insight from social neuroscience, safety engineering and organizational development to help organizations create brain-friendly working environments that optimizes performance, productivity and ultimately, safe behaviour. While it addresses issues such as decision-making, organizational culture, diversity management, conflict resolution, employee engagement, and change management, it really comes down to leaders following a brain-minded approach to create effective and sustainable safety cultures.

Start by Leading with CARES

Because leaders play such a crucial role in the formation of culture, one of the core focuses in neurosafety is applying the principles of neuroleadership—leading people in ways that enable them to function at their best by considering the neural processes that precedes behaviour. In essence neuroleadership makes use of new insight from neuroscientific research in order to trigger more “reward-engage” neural responses and avoiding “threat-disengage” responses.

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Understanding that the human brain is primarily a social organ that perceives the workplace as a social environment can help leaders lead in ways that will to the benefit of the individual and team, enhancing performance and ultimately, lead to safer work.

In practice leaders can start by applying the CARESTM-model of brain-friendly leadership.  This model is based on neuroscientific research which identified five social needs of the human brain - Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Equity and Standing. Using CARES as a guideline to managing these needs during their interactions with people can help leaders create sustainable safety cultures for the 21st Century workplace:

  • Certainty refers to the human brain’s yearning to know what will happen next. Our brains are constantly assessing patterns in the environment and it prefers familiar patterns which indicate safe and predictable outcomes. Threats to certainty can include telling half-truths (hiding information), inconsistency, change, job-insecurity and new experiences or places. Reward-responses can be triggered by transparency, familiar places, consistency, feelings of security and stability.
  • Autonomy refers to the brain’s craving to feel that we have some decision-making power and that we have at least some level of control over our circumstances. In the workplace our need for autonomy can be threatened by micro management, working under very strict guidelines and policies, authoritarian ‘command and control’ leadership and inflexible policies. A reward-response can be triggered by participating in decision-making, organizing your own workflow, choosing what to focus on and self-directed learning.
  • Relatedness refers to our need to feel safe with other people and to feel that we are part of the group. In the workplace threats can be triggered by being ignored, perceiving you’re excluded from the group, rejection, working with a new team, being alone among strangers, or working in a culture other than your own. Neural rewards can be triggered by feeling included, feeling trusted, friendship, pursuing common goals, being coached.
  • Equity refers to our need for fairness or fair interactions. Threats can be triggered by broken promises (explicit or implicit promises), expectations not being met, different rules or standards for different people, and inconsistency. Rewards for equity can be triggered by keeping commitments and promises, maintaining transparency, open communication, and admitting mistakes.
  • Standing refers to our social need for comparative importance, significance, respect, esteem, and a place in the social “pecking order”. In the workplace typical threats to standing could be someone with a superior attitude, receiving negative feedback, being made to feel inferior, receiving patronizing advice, being ignored, being humiliated and receiving disapproving performance reviews. The standing reward response can be triggered by a promotion, being publicly acknowledged, winning, receiving positive feedback, learning a new skill or even just being shown respect.

For more information on neurosafety and neuroleadership, please contact us about NeuroSafeTM – an extensive and ground-breaking safety culture transformation programme specifically designed for organizations working in high-risk or dangerous environments. It integrates principles and insight from social neuroscience, safety engineering and organizational development to help organizations create brain-friendly working environments that optimizes performance, productivity and ultimately, safe behaviour.

* Manie Bosman is a leadership and organizational development consultant specializing in the neuroscience of leadership and neurosafety. He can be reached at +27 (82) 925 4125 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

SAACOSH (Pty) Ltd is the leading provider of customised safety, health, environmental and quality training services. SAACOSH (Pty) Ltd was first registered as a Closed Corporation (cc) on 19 January 2005, with the aim to establish an organisation that would have as its aim to uplift the professionalism of Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Practitioners.