Workplace Safety is the Leading Edge of a Culture of Accountability

June 1, 2010
New research makes a compelling argument for the value of safety, indicating that once accountability for safety is reached, companies can leverage that learning to improve quality, production, cost control and customer service.

“What do you want me to do, save money or save lives? You can't have it both ways.” This quote comes from a frustrated manager who feels whipsawed by these competing values. Of course he knows the company line, “Safety comes first,” but then he adds, “But we're not in business to be safe. We're in business to build product.”

Many organizations face this challenge; they value safety, but maintaining a safe workplace often provides little strategic advantage. It's easy to find ROI reasons to fund productivity, quality and efficiency, but safety is a costly line item and can be hard to justify on paper.

Of course, there are business reasons for maintaining a safe workplace. Injuries also are costly, and in some industries a poor safety record can disqualify a company for new bids and contracts. But in most organizations, workplace safety is considered more an issue of values than of business.

We have spent the last several years studying organizations that have “broken the code” on safety — firms that have extraordinary safety records — and we have an amazing discovery to report. But first, a bit of background:

We were working with Mike Wildfong, general manager at TI Automotive, a firm with an exceptional safety record. Mike and his team maintain an obsessive focus on keeping people safe. Here's how he explained this focus: “I use safety as the leading edge of accountability. We need accountability to achieve the quality, productivity and cost targets we set. But I start with safety. If I can't achieve accountability around safety, then I can't achieve accountability around anything.”

Wildfong and the other safety-focused executives we studied use safety as an accountability incubator. They build a culture of accountability, where everyone holds everyone accountable for safe practices. The brilliant leap they make is that once you've achieved this level of accountability around safety, you can employ it to improve quality, productivity, cost control, customer service … everything!

Wildfong and his peers deny there's a tradeoff between saving money and saving lives. They argue that the reverse is true: In their experience, it's not whether you hold people accountable for saving money or for saving lives that matters. It's whether you hold them accountable at all. They believe managers who hold employees accountable succeed at everything — safety, quality, productivity, etc. Likewise, managers who don't hold employees accountable fail at everything.

We put this idea to the test by examining 420 supervisors and managers, divided into two groups. The leaders in the first group were selected because they held their people accountable for every aspect of safety. The leaders in the second group were selected because they did not. We wanted to test whether there were tradeoffs between safety and other priorities or whether accountability in safety predicted success across all priorities.

The findings couldn't be more dramatic. When we compared the 20 percent of leaders who focused the most on safety to the other 80 percent, the safety-focused leaders were five times more likely to be in the top 20 percent on productivity, quality, efficiency and employee satisfaction.

Our data clearly shows that being the best in workplace safety makes you the best in each of these other areas. And these results hold true across industries as different as oil and gas exploration, chemical manufacturing, power generation and construction. Regardless of the industry, the leaders who are best at holding their people accountable for safety also achieve the best quality, productivity and efficiency.

This study shows the strategic importance of the norms, skills and behaviors involved in accountability. It's clearly an area every leader should master. But what does it mean to master accountability?


Some leaders believe accountability is all about blame and punishment. Find the guilty party and punish him or her. Is this what our high accountability leaders were doing? To find out, we measured each leader along two dimensions.

  1. The analytical side of accountability: Did the leader tend to analyze safety problems by singling out and blaming or by diagnosing and understanding?

  2. The interpersonal side of accountability: Did the leader tend to resolve safety problems by threatening and punishing or by explaining and involving?

Our high-accountability leaders were 3.4 times more likely than the rest to emphasize explaining, involving, diagnosing and understanding techniques when faced with safety concerns. They proactively uncovered problems, spoke up when they had concerns, diagnosed the causes of problems, reached decisions on solutions and followed up to ensure success. Many used quality tools like the “5 Whys” and communication training tools like Crucial Conversations to understand and address accountability issues that, if left unresolved, would have led to an increase of errors and accidents. Perhaps this is why these high accountability leaders also led the pack in employee satisfaction.

Randy Arnott, the director of environment, health and safety at Cree Industries, describes what he sees when one of these high accountability managers moves into a department: “The first thing you notice is that the area is cleaner. Equipment and tools are in their places, and the floor is clear of raw material, cables and hoses. Next, you see a flurry of maintenance. Machines that have been hobbling along, requiring extra attention, are either fixed or removed. Then you begin to see process improvements. Process flows are rationalized and streamlined. With each of these steps the new leader is driving improvements in safety, quality, productivity and costs.”

These high-accountability leaders apply quality and communication principles and tools, rather than blame and punishment. For example, they use performance data to locate problems; they use tools from Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing and the Toyota Production System to diagnose problems; and then they use a variety of communication skills to hold people — operators, maintenance, engineering and their own managers — accountable for implementing solutions.


In some organizations, people believe a good excuse can substitute for good performance. There is more finger-pointing than accountability. In these firms it's the exceptional leaders who accept responsibility and demand accountability.

But imagine what can be accomplished with a culture of accountability — an organization where every leader and every employee feels ownership for results and holds others accountable.

Creating a culture of accountability can be incredibly challenging. The mistake most leaders make is to rely exclusively on a single source of influence — a training program, an incentive system or a promotional campaign — to drive the change. These leaders quickly find the status quo exerts more gravity than they realized.

The culture may budge a little, but is soon pulled back into the familiar orbit with all its blame games, finger pointing and other low-accountability behaviors.

The reason a culture like this is so hard to change is that the world within an organization is perfectly organized to produce the current results. The status quo doesn't stem from a single root cause, but from multiple root causes. These causes include personal values and skills, social norms and practices, and organizational incentives and structures. We group these causes into six sources of influence, described below:

  1. Personal Motivation: Holding others accountable must be amoral imperative. People need to find meaning and take pride in their ability to hold others accountable.

  2. Personal Ability: People need the skills required to diagnose and understand the root causes of problems. They also need the communication skills required to explain and involve, instead of threaten and punish.

  3. Social Motivation: Social norms must encourage, rather than punish, people when they try to hold others accountable. The organizational culture needs to expect and demand accountability.

  4. Social Ability: People must be able to count on support from their managers and peers when they try to hold someone accountable.

  5. Structural Motivation: The formal reward system (performance reviews, pay, promotion and perks) needs to encourage, rather than ignore or discourage, accountability.

  6. Structural Ability: There must be established times, places, forums and tools that make it easy to hold others accountable.

It's common to find barriers to accountability in each of these six sources of influence. Sometimes, multiple barriers exist within a single source. Creating a culture of accountability requires addressing these barriers and building positive support within multiple sources. Our research shows that initiatives are 10 times more likely to succeed when leaders draw on four or more of these sources of influence.

Creating a culture of accountability can be difficult, and requires a multifaceted approach. But many of the exceptionally safe organizations we've studied have discovered the path to this culture — and that path begins with workplace safety.

Which organizational priority has the greatest personal value for you? Is it cost control, customer satisfaction, productivity, quality or workplace safety? Or is it the firm's profitability or shareholder equity?

The respondents in our study were clear. Nearly half of respondents selected “workplace safety” — more than twice as many as selected the runner up, “customer satisfaction.”

It shouldn't be too surprising that employees come to work already caring about their own safety and the safety of their teammates. Yet this personal motivation is the missing ingredient in most of the culture change efforts that fail.

Here's the challenge: When the behaviors required in the new culture are not personally motivating, leaders have to rely on external incentives or even punishments to keep them going. And, if the firm ever lets up on enforcement, employees stop doing the new behaviors because they don't like doing them.

Therefore, a major barrier to creating an accountability culture is that most people don't like holding others accountable. Managers say it's the least enjoyable part of their jobs and employees say, “If I'd wanted to hold people accountable, I'd have become a manager.” But workplace safety is an area where the organization can connect to values that are already deeply held by their employees.

Employees don't invest themselves in just any cause. After all, these investments define who we are. Taking ownership for a set of results is an act of self-identity that engages our ethics, values and passions.

Research shows we are far more willing to invest ourselves in causes that involve human consequences. And this especially is true when we have a personal relationship with the people who are impacted. Few employees invest themselves in abstract results such as share prices, productivity numbers or returns on investments. But they passionately can become invested when the results involve their own personal safety and the safety of their friends and coworkers.

Safety also is an area where social pressure can be helpful. “How is anyone going to object to safety?” asks Wildfong. “If you come to me and say you don't want to be held accountable for keeping people safe, that's a major tell. You're signaling you don't want to be held accountable, period. That you don't want to be on the accountability bus.”


Our research clarifies several steps leaders can take to build a culture of accountability within their organizations.

First, leaders must recognize the central role accountability plays in achieving every other priority. When peers look out for each other, watch each others' backs and hold each other accountable, it super charges everything the organization strives to accomplish.

Second, leaders should build a culture of accountability that begins with workplace safety. Additionally, the high-accountability leaders we studied took special care to build personal motivation by connecting accountability to the personal values related to workplace safety.

Below are a few examples of how leaders made this connection. Notice they avoided data dumps, lectures, sermons and rants. Verbal persuasion is the least powerful way to connect to values. Instead, they used field trips, face-to-face meetings and powerful stories.

  • Francis Price, the CEO of Q3 Industries, takes his senior team to the hospital whenever an employee is injured. They spend time with the injured worker and his or her family. They create a personal relationship and experience the harm the injury has caused.

  • Mike Wildfong, the GM of TI Automotive, asks the injured worker's team members to collect donations and to bring them to the injured worker's home. The visit cements the broad and lasting effects of an injury.

  • Randy Arnott, the environment, health and safety manager at Cree Industries, arranges for injured employees to meet with their teams and describe what happened during their accident and the impact the injury has had on their lives. Coworkers often realize that luck is all that separates them from their injured teammate.

  • Gerry Klimo, an instructor with the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, brings Sean George, a disfigured accident survivor, to speak to workers, insurance companies and others in the construction industry. He finds that meeting and talking with an injury survivor creates compelling levels of motivation.

Third, leaders need to define the vital behaviors involved in “accountability.” These are the two or three clearly defined actions that capture the essence of what accountability means. Examples include:

  • “I speak up and hold people accountable for creating and maintaining a safe workforce, regardless of their role or position.”

  • “When I have concerns that someone is being unsafe or creating unsafe conditions, I take action to make sure the problem is addressed — first by speaking directly and respectfully with the person, and then, if unsuccessful, by escalating to those who should be responsible.”

As Wildfong says, “Every manager, supervisor and employee needs to sign up to ride this accountability bus.”

Fourth, leaders should focus on a handful of crucial moments — times and circumstances when it especially is important to speak up and hold others accountable. Our research study, Silent Danger: The Five Crucial Conversations that Drive Workplace Safety, identifies five of these crucial moments that have a disproportionate impact on safety. When leaders focus their efforts on this handful of crucial moments, instead of spreading themselves too thin, they can achieve rapid improvements. (See EHS Today's February 2010 issue for more about these five crucial conversations.)

Fifth, leaders need to marshal a critical mass of all six sources of influence. The high-accountability leaders we studied aimed all six sources of influence at improving the two or three vital behaviors in the crucial moments. They added an overwhelming combination of training, incentives, structural changes and social support to the personal motivation that was already there.


During the course of our study, we were surprised to find a number of firms that have achieved remarkable advances in workplace safety, but then failed to transfer this success to their quality, productivity and cost control initiatives. This failure to transfer seems to stem from two quite different causes. We found that some organizations had achieved improved safety through better systems and tools, but hadn't really built an accountability culture. Often, their safety improvements, while dramatic, topped out well before they achieved a completely safe workplace. There really is no tool or process that can replace total accountability.

Other times, successes in safety didn't transfer because leaders didn't understand what made their safety program so successful. Often, they used all six sources of influence with workplace safety, but used only two or three sources in their other initiatives. Still other times, leaders assumed accountability in one area would transfer automatically to every other area. The transfer will occur for those employees who see the connection, but most either will fail to see the connection or will wait for permission to hold their peers and bosses accountable for quality, productivity and cost control. These employees aren't sure it's what the organization wants. In these cases, leaders need to make the connection clear and compelling.

We believe many safety and other priorities have been constrained by the outdated and inaccurate belief that you can't have it all. Once leaders understand that accountability is the operating system that drives all of their desired results — in safety, quality, productivity, cost control, etc. — they can stop pitting one priority against another and work to achieve a culture of accountability that supports bottom-line metrics across the board.

It especially is rewarding that the first step along this path to success is one that also saves lives. Who can't get on that bus?

David Maxfield is the coauthor of the bestseller Influencer. He is a sought-after speaker, consultant and cofounder with Joseph Grenny of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance.

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