Is Your Leadership Hurting Your BBS Program? Modeling the Way for Behavioral Change


By Jon Neubauer, Director of Organizational Change

As leaders, we are constantly trying to change or alter the behaviors of others; through behavior based safety (BBS) programs, wellness programs, company policies and standard procedures.  Many recognize that in order to achieve safety excellence we must focus not only on the physical hazards within the workplace but the habits and actions of each of us as individuals.  We all have the ability to impact the safety culture and performance within our businesses each and every day simply by the actions that we choose to take and the decisions we make.  It is for these reasons that employers have focused heavily on behavioral based safety programs.

If we can find a way to impact each employee’s behavior and create an environment in which we all make the right choices, all of the time, we can create an injury free workplace.  Many of these behavior based safety programs, however, focus on the actions of the front line employee and not on the actions, habits or behaviors of the organization’s leadership.  I believe this to be a fundamental flaw with how behavioral based safety is implemented and can lead to failure within a short period of time.     


Research has shown that human behavior is a significant contributor to injuries in, and out, of the workplace, and a focus has been placed on eliminating these unsafe acts, as one would do with a physical hazard or unsafe condition.  BBS programs typically identify what the unsafe behaviors are and how to correct them by employing an observation program. The observations utilize colleagues to watch the work being performed and analyze the behavior that they see.  If the observers identify an unsafe act, or condition, this is discussed with the person being observed, corrective action measures are taken and data is generated to track what has been observed for communication to the entire community.  These types of observations are extremely effective at determining if the identified safe behaviors have actually been infused throughout the workforce, but they tend not to offer insights into the leadership of an organization, which typically are the primary force behind the established culture and values of an organization.

Becoming a Visionary Safety Leader

Strong leaders have developed habits along their journey that either help support and create an injury free workplace or shift focus to other operational areas and away from safety excellence, so why are we not observing the habits of our leaders as well?  One of the most common pitfalls of any BBS program is the lack of management commitment; another is generating a feeling of management blaming the workers for the injuries or incidents that do occur.  I believe that the second pitfall mentioned above is commonly caused because the focus of an observation program tends to only be on the front line employees and never addresses the management or leadership failures within a workplace.  I also believe that leaders and managers may not always know how to show their commitment to a safety program.  For the vast majority, it is not that they do not care about creating a safe workplace or because they feel their employee’s safety is not important, they simply do not know how to engage themselves fully on leading safety.


To address both of these pitfalls, EnPro Learning System designed a behavioral based safety program, SafetyFirst®, to incorporate observations and self-assessment checklists for organizational leaders.

  • Have you provided support for the daily start up meetings?
  • Have you had a conversation about safety with an employee today?
  • Do your direct reports know about safety activities within their control?
  • Have you helped close out a safety opportunity or audit finding?
  • Have you shared your personal views on safety and why you value the safety of each member or our team?

These are just a few of the self-assessment checklist questions that we ask our leaders to challenge themselves with.  When leaders share their personal voice for safety it helps create the espoused values that model safety as the core value within the organization.   

Safety, Excellence and Respect

Edgar Schein determined that there are three distinct levels of organizational culture.  There are the artifacts, which are the tangible or verbally identifiable elements of an organization.  These could be things like the aesthetics of the workplace, attire policy, etc.  The second element is espoused values.  These are the organization’s stated values and rules of behavior.  EnPro Industries’ values are Safety, Excellence and Respect with our vision to be the world’s safest employees both at work and at home.  The last element, according to Schein is shared basic assumptions.  These are the deeply imbedded, taken for granted behaviors which we are typically unconscious of but make up the very being of the culture.  This last element is extremely important.  Schein wrote that “basic assumptions…have become so taken for granted that one finds little variation within a cultural unit.  In fact, if a basic assumption, such as we will not perform any unsafe work, is strongly held within a group, members will find behavior based on any other premise inconceivable.”  Establishing a culture that has clearly established values, basic assumptions and a strong EHS or safety management program is a vital piece of the behavior based safety puzzle.

Influencing Habits and Behaviors Through Core Values

Most organizations do a good job of establishing the artifacts of their culture and even some of the espoused values.  Many also implement a strong safety program, typically through the creation of policies and procedures, training and education, however, they never truly reach perfection or 100% compliance.  To demonstrate the challenge of altering behavior, take a tobacco cessation program for example: employers still see large numbers of employees using tobacco, even after offering incentives on medical plans, eliminating smoking from company property, providing medical resources, etc.  In fact, studies show(1) only 11% - 22% of smokers even signed up for the cessation program and of those, only 15% - 20% of those who participated in the programs reported to be tobacco free after participation.  With this particular example, there is no doubt that tobacco use is linked to adverse health effects and yet people’s behavior is not changed by the realization of that hazard.  Additionally, there is a financial advantage to stop using tobacco as well as any monetary incentive offered by the company.  Money not spent on tobacco can be used for other needs.

In New York, where I reside, a pack of name brand cigarettes will cost you close to $10, so even the incentive of $300 each month, for a pack a day smoker, will not change everyone’s behavior.  Each individual has his or her own reasons to quit, or not, and yet each individual requires the same thing to truly quit and change their lives; a value that they hold so dear that they can simply no longer put it at risk.  That value may their loved ones, money, health, career, or life itself.  When truly rooted in that value, when an individual truly examines how and why they feel a certain way, the values drive the habits of excellence which leads to behavioral change.

Habits of Excellence

William Glasser, MD wrote in his book, Choice Theory, that “…the only behavior that we can change is our own.”  This thought seems to be in contrast to the objectives of a behavior based safety program, a BBS program that is specifically created to change or impact employee behavior.  However, if we focus on changing habits we can influence behaviors.  Habits are routines of behavior that are repeated regularly and tend to occur unconsciously.  When an event occurs that would precede a behavior; the habits, values and cultural conditions trigger the desired behavior that is to follow.

It is for this reason that the SafetyFirst program was created to focus on creating habits of excellence to influence behaviors.  Dr. Kazmiriez Gozdz describes habits of excellence as disciplined and trained conditioning that shapes responses and behaviors to external stimuli.  This program utilizes easily recognizable triggers to drive the habits of excellence which will lead to safe behavior, but this differentiating point is not enough to overcome the challenges of implementing and sustaining a successful BBS program alone.  Within EnPro Learning System, we look at behavior based safety as have four critical components:  culture, leadership, values and habits of excellence are all critical for a successful BBS program.

As leaders, we are constantly sending clear direction to our organizations.  People observe what we do, what we say and tend to act accordingly based on what they perceive to be our communicated basic assumptions.  If we spend time talking about safety, actively improving conditions in the workplace that could lead to injury, having coaching conversations with our direct reports and colleagues throughout the business, we will create a culture that holds safety as a core value of the business.  Through that core value we begin to knock down the walls that can negatively affect a behavior based safety program.  We can alter the perception that a discussion regarding unsafe acts or conditions or a behavioral observation is an attack or insult, and instead create an atmosphere of caring, sharing and learning.

By conducting peer to peer observations and self-assessments within the leadership team, and communicating the results, as we would with any other behavioral observations, you can eliminate the perception that behavioral based safety is all about placing blame on the front line worker.  It is not easy to stand up and recognize when we have not done everything that we can to create a safe workplace, and publicly acknowledge those failures.   While it may not be easy, if we expect our employees and colleagues to change their habits and behaviors we need to lead and be the change that we want to see within the workplace.


Whether you are the CEO, president, manager or front line supervisor of an organization, before you can place your focus on the behaviors and habits of your workers, you need to spend some time reflecting on yourself.  If the only behavior that we can truly change is our own, this is where we need to begin.  This begins with the practice of internal contemplation.   SafetyMyVoice is a tool that was created to help individuals reflect on why safety is important to them.

  • What drives me to sit back and let something happen or to rise to the occasion and lead safety in the workplace?
  • Why do I care about the safety of those around me?
  • How will I show my commitment?

It is through this process that you truly come to understand your individual thoughts and motivators.  We tend to know why we focus on things like cost or on time delivery or quality; our customers demand these from us.  Determining why we focus time, money and energy on safety is not always as easy.  Yes, regulations exist that tell us what we need to do and injuries place a high cost on the business but history would show us that these motivators are simply not enough to truly lead an organization to becoming injury free.  Once I have established my voice for safety, I can work on establishing my habits of excellence.  These habits will soon become an unconscious behavior and will be visible to all that I interact with.  When employees see us having positive conversations with colleagues regarding safety and taking action to fix issues, these become the basic assumptions of the organization and community.  This is what is expected within our workplace and conducting ourselves in any other manner is simply not acceptable.  

Tags: safety leadership , safety culture , behavior based safety , BBS ,

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