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In getting the Covid-19 message across, government should take lessons from industrial safety leaders


Dr Damien Anciano has post-graduate qualifications in clinical and organisational psychology and a PhD in psychology from the University of York. He is a partner in Global Future Partners, an international consultancy specialising in purpose-driven leadership coaching.

Psychology tells us that the government’s current approach to Covid-19 management is likely to fail. If it wants to change our behaviour, it needs to apply basic psychology and go beyond punitive rule-making.

We were lulled into a false sense of confidence in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ability and intentions in taking the people with him on the difficult Covid-19 journey. Behaviour speaks louder than words, however, and it seems entrenched habits of central control have drawn government leadership towards authoritarian diktats rather than engagement with the people (notwithstanding on-screen assurances to the contrary).

Seemingly draconian rules and severe punishment systems — no matter how well implemented — do not align people behind a common cause, let alone shift behaviour, and can lead to active resistance. Those who lived under apartheid rule understand this at a visceral level.

If the intention of the government is to shift behaviour, rather than exercise power, it needs to consider and apply basic psychological principles of behavioural change. Otherwise, the country runs the risk of “change fatigue”, leading to non-compliance. Specifically around safety-linked behaviour, there are important lessons to be taken from behaviour-based safety that is rooted in basic psychology. 

We require insight into behavioural change, not punitive policy-making. We need to apply lessons from change management and behavioural safety.

A particularly relevant area of organisational psychology our political leaders would do well to apply are practical lessons learned in hazardous industrial environments – behaviour-based safety leadership.

Global safety standards in industries involving hazardous materials, processes or settings have risen dramatically thanks to the behaviour-based safety approach. While some compliance departments might disagree – it is far easier to publish rules and punish the breaking of those rules than to lead behavioural change – our current leadership could take a cue from this.

Talk to good mine managers and they will tell you that detailed written policies on how to safely conduct work – and even rigorous training in those policies – barely shifts the safety dial. Articulating negative consequences (punishment for non-compliance) also rarely makes a difference and often encourages creative workarounds.

Anglo Coal recently engaged not only staff but families of staff in how best to embed safe behaviour, through video messages to parents, brothers or sisters. Observers reported that these videos moved staff to tears and made a huge impact on Covid-19 safety behaviour.

The idea was to reinforce collective responsibility as a change lever, in addition to clear messaging from “the top”.

Behaviour-based approaches seek to understand what motivates people to make unsafe choices in the first place and try to build positive payoffs for safe behaviour, including building a sense of “we”.

The strategy recognises that many safety programmes fail because they do not emphasise positive consequences. Almost a century of psychological research tells us that positive outcomes shape behaviour much more effectively than threats.

Research has found that if employees are fearful of negative consequences they are unlikely to report near-misses, let alone misdemeanours or even actual incidents. So the organisation doesn’t learn what works and what doesn’t.

Further, if enforcement of the rules is inconsistent – as it inevitably is in large organisations – there is sufficient motivation not to adhere to those rules (particularly if, for example, wearing safety equipment is uncomfortable or driving under 30km/h is viewed as not macho). Workers are likely to ensure the pretence of compliance – get away with it rather than change their behaviour.

If people don’t buy into draconian measures, perversely they will actively look for opportunities to undermine the rules and get away with as much as they can. That is the human expression of independence.

What to do, what to do?

If strict policies such as our lockdown “laws” don’t fully work, how do we ensure lasting behavioural change? After all, society isn’t looking for another police state, a strict parent to control our behaviour forever. We are rather looking for sustainable shifts in our safety awareness, our hygiene, voluntary compliance with mask-wearing, safe support of our most vulnerable and so on. We don’t want to continue to live in “fight or flight” mode, as we are doing at present.

The government would be remiss to ignore the following:

Building a “safety culture” requires genuine engagement, involvement, listening and “co-creation”, not top-down rule-setting. We need to build self-managing communities who listen, problem-solve, innovate and have a sense of collective responsibility; not destroy a sense of community through punishment. Fear causes people to withdraw, to be clandestine and to inform on others, and breeds mistrust (not least of those in authority).

Leaders need to demonstrate understanding and empathy with people who may feel impelled to non-comply (for financial or social needs, for instance), not threaten with heavier controls.

People find ways to undermine perceived diktats. We are great at creating narratives to underpin resistance to change (“they’re doing this to protect their own bonuses”, “it’s a few power-mongers at the top playing dictator”, “I’m only one person – it won’t matter if I don’t comply”, etc).

Behaviour-based safety tells us that paying undue attention to “antecedents” – rules, policing strategy, penalties, even clear communication of what changes are needed – is insufficient. What is needed is reward for the right behaviour, a “pay-off” for changed behaviour. Without this, a true safety culture is rarely embedded.

Companies applying behaviour-based safety will elevate positive examples; they try to build a sense of “team” in beating safety records, and even reward innovation in safety leadership. Local Covid-19 leaders could do the same.

Avoidance of unpleasant outcomes – not getting hurt, or in Covid-19 not being infected – is insufficient motivation for wide-scale behavioural shifts. Look at the difficulty in reducing obesity. People have an enormous capacity to rationalise (“it won’t happen to me”, “this is the last time – I’ll change tomorrow”, etc) so threats of negative consequences often don’t bring change.

Learning from failures must be distilled and disseminated. If a community becomes a Covid-19 hotbed, we need to be discussing learnings from it – in communities across South Africa. Once people understand what went wrong, and they have a sense of control and “co-authorship”, they will generate solutions. And leaders need to listen to these ideas.

Embedding a safety culture – or any kind of culture – requires leaders who are seen to be fair and transparent. If I see people in my community being punished beyond their “crime”; if I see leaders talking about consultation but manifestly not listening; if I see leaders abusing their position for personal gain without consequences, it will build a dynamic of “them and us” rather than “we change together”.

Does the government need psychologists?

Yes. I don’t mean in order to address any psychopathology that might exist in the top echelons, but rather to advise on how best to shepherd behavioural change; how best to embed a safety culture in a hugely complex context.

And no. Much of the above is common sense if we are given the opportunity to reflect on our common experiences. Telling people what to do without engaging them in the rationale, let alone the solutions they have to implement day-to-day, doesn’t often result in sustainable change. At best, it will result in a lack of collective ownership and an “every person for themselves” attitude; a trust gap the government will struggle to bridge. DM


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