Featured image depicting Why our evolutionary instincts sometimes run counter to safety best practices

Why our evolutionary instincts sometimes run counter to safety best practices

The imperatives that are hardwired into human DNA can put us at odds with the requirements of an organizational safety culture.

By Michael Huvane  |  May 5, 2022

Here’s something you may not know, Homo sapiens, the name we selected for ourselves, means ‘wise human.’ In a relatively short time, we’ve evolved complex cultures, developed incredible technologies, and learned to survive and thrive in some pretty inhospitable environments. But, in my years as a culture and safety transformation consultant, I’ve often had reason to question our wisdom.

Back when we were hunter gatherers, survival depended on the ability to keep ourselves, and our ‘tribes’ safe, to conserve energy ready to fight or flee, and to fit in with the group. As we’ve evolved, these primary imperatives have remained, but the complicated nature of our social and working lives sometimes puts them at odds with each other. We take risks on a daily basis; when we get into our cars, cross a busy road, or take a short-cut because it’s easier. Most of us safely complete these tasks without incident every day. As a result, we can become less and less aware of the risks involved.

Danger becomes less clear and present

We carry this behavior across to our work lives … familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, but it can breed complacency. In my career as a safety consultant, I’ve seen it many times; on day one, leadership goes to great lengths to share the ‘five fatal flaws’ that could lead to a serious incident. However, as people get on with the job, these risks are not kept front of mind. The result? The danger becomes less present and, as the survival instinct recedes, the desires to conserve energy and fit in with the group become more dominant leading to a culture where people are more inclined to go along with the crowd than to speak up.

Leadership shapes culture, and culture shapes safety

So, how do we overcome thousands of years of evolution, manage competing commitments, and create a high-performing organizational culture?  The answer is leadership. Leaders shape culture, and culture shapes safety. It’s human nature to follow others, so it’s our job to create a culture where fitting in means keeping safety front of mind and saying what you see. 

Become a cultural influencer

Cultural transformation is no quick fix, especially for leaders who haven’t had much management training themselves. Organizational culture develops through a combination of what’s worked in the past and legacy practices. It’s our role to help people understand that culture, and to model it in our own behaviors by listening, having empathy, understanding competing priorities and putting safety ahead of everything, every time.

The qualities that differentiate a good leader from a great leader

A company can’t perform at a higher level than the development, or consciousness of its leadership. Competency is only half the game, the other half is made up of qualities like character, conviction, honesty, and trust; things that can’t be taught. There are certain qualities and characteristics that are common to the most inspirational and effective leaders:

  1. Visionary (91% correlation to leadership effectiveness and business results)
  2. Team builder (89 % correlation to leadership effectiveness and business results)
  3. Strong people skills
  4. Personable/approachable
  5. Leads by example
  6. Passion and drive
  7. Good listener
  8. Develops people
  9. Empowers people
  10. Positive attitude

Become a self-aware leader

Self awareness is the foundation of successful leadership, so as you begin, or continue, your journey to becoming a transformative leader, there are six areas I urge you to be mindful of:

  1. Notice what you’re paying attention to, measuring, and controlling on a regular basis. This will tell other what’s important to you
  2. Notice how you react to bad news – it has emotional content that again signals what is important to you
  3. Notice how you allocate resources (time, money, and people)
  4. Role model behaviors you want others to emulate
  5. Allocate rewards and status consistent with what you want and what you value
  6. Notice the criteria regarding how you recruit, promote, and fire people

To continue our organizational development, we sometimes have to work against our inner circuitry. Leaders need to become expert at challenging our human nature and creating a culture where risk is understood, where action – not inaction is the norm, and where fitting in means speaking out.

If you would like to discuss any of the points raised in this article, please contact Micheal Huvane.

About JMJ

For over three decades, JMJ has been delivering impactful cultural change to help executives, leaders and front-line workers transform safety, sustainability, and business performance. We combine the deep experience of our people with our proprietary Transformation Cloud platform to deliver breakthrough results, making the impossible possible. www.jmj.com

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