Fear of failure and pencil-whipping

Fear of failure and pencil-whipping

I suspect that directors and managers so often end up injecting fear into their organisations by their table thumping approach to health and safety. How many times have we found that organisations claiming to have long and distinguished “zero accident” records are simply kidding themselves? They may even believe their own all-important statistics, but the fact is, all they are doing is pushing reality underground and bringing on the next disaster by a culture of fear and blame.


Why are boards of directors and senior executives so simplistic to think that their obsession with negative indicators like Lost Time Injuries has any connection with reality? Perhaps they actually know this, but the only thing they really care about is what looks good in reports and on fancy charts. No, I’ll amend that statement. It IS the only thing they care about.

Fear of Reporting

fear of failureAccording to an article in the New York Times July 21, 2010, it turns out (surprise, surprise), that workers on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which had a “7 year LTI free record”, had expressed fear of reporting mistakes, knew about routinely risky behaviour and tolerated unreliable and unsafe equipment. This is not your usual “wise after the event” tale telling. It was apparently part of the findings of a confidential survey conducted by employees in the weeks prior to the explosion.

Employees reported that their employer, Transocean, “Used fear tactics” and that safety behaviour audits were being “pencil whipped” at least some of the time.

The result of this approach, which is hardly unique to that industry, or that particular location, is that issues get hidden away as ticking time bombs by the culture of fear. By the sometimes benign laws of probability, the majority of those bombs never go off, and the employer is able to blithely carry on believing in their own nonsense. But by the same laws, occasionally, several factors combine together to lead straight to the scene of the accident and we all watch as the blame and fear machine grinds on.

Blame and Fear

These types of employers show bad leadership. The sort of “leadership” that relies on control, uses devices like blame and fear. Does not listen, does not ask open questions, is obsessed with compliance rather than ownership. Is unconditional, harsh and limiting of individuals. That sounds unfair. I’m sure many people in these organisations mean well, but humans tend to fall in behind when their jobs are on the line. That’s how the fear of the culture is perpetuated.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Managers need to understand that leadership is a lot more successful and productive (and more fear free) if they cultivate individual responsibilities and ownership. You’d almost think this is easier than “traditional” approaches. But it requires certain skills that may not be valued or recognised by those that appoint them.

Time for a change. I’m not holding my breath.

Read this related safety leadership blog

Read this related safety culture blog

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