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The language of safety



In safety, as in other elements of a business, language is vitally important. By way of example, I’m interested in what impact you think they would have on you. Would they motivate you? And if so, to do what and for how long?


My first example is when I was in a senior leadership meeting and the CEO stood up and clearly said: “I would like anyone who doesn’t believe that we can prevent all incidents to stand up now”. Of course, no one stood up.

While this statement/question from the CEO is probably meant to demonstrate how seriously they are committed to safety, what it also does is take power (to speak up and express doubt or dissent) away from the individuals in the group.

It would be a very brave person who stands up in that group, and so that gets carried into the rest of the organizational culture. A consequence of this is that the CEO won’t get told about things they should because people are not empowered to speak up.


The second example was at a leadership off-site, and the project manager running the session made it very clear that this one particular project was very important to the business and so they expected everyone to do “whatever it takes” to hit the milestones.

There was lots of nodding and general agreement within the room, and generally, I see this language used as a way of suggesting the group should always give 100 per cent, or accept no excuses. Of course, what it also does is prime decision-making at critical times.

Maybe they will do whatever it takes, even if it contravenes rules or ethical considerations, because that is what they think their leader wants.


Finally, I was hanging around during a pre-start run by a supervisor. They were talking about work for the day, and it was something the crew did occasionally, but not often.

At the end of the meeting the supervisor asked: “Okay crew, this is all pretty much all common sense. Any questions?”. There were no questions of course.

So the seemingly innocent concept that we all know what we are doing (it’s common sense after all) means that if someone actually doesn’t know, they are very unlikely to put their hand up and self-identify as someone with no common sense.


The challenge is that language is never neutral, and so even though a leader may say one thing, there can be unintended impacts somewhere else. This is because language has the ability to influence decision-making.

People take cues from what they hear, and then this influences that way they think, and it generally happens unconsciously (just google priming experiments to to see some of the amazing ways that people can be unconsciously influenced).


It’s hard to convey how important language is in terms of influencing the way people think.

Leaders think their language is simply what they say, not what people make it mean. They underestimate the ability of key words to prime decisions (now and in the future) and for it to subtly move power around – often towards leaders and therefore disempowering the workforce.

Of course, it works both ways. Because language is like the currency of culture and leadership, changing the language used by leaders can change the culture. How might these statements have a different impact?

dave-whitefieldI’m pretty sure safety is important to all of us, but I’m really interested in what it means to you.

This project/job/task is really important, so if we are going to put some extra effort in I just want to talk about what I’m okay compromising on and what I’m not.

I know we have done this job before, but let’s just talk through a few parts of it before we kick off to make sure we are all on the same page.


Have a think about the language that you think is important for safety and see if it is used in your business. This is where you will find clues that help explain why some organisations don’t have the culture they want.

To achieve a people-centred culture, you need a language of learning, teamwork, communication and support, not accountability, compliance and enforcement.

Dave Whitefield

“Leaders think their language is simply what they say, not what people make it mean.”


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