Chapter 21 – Are You Creating an ‘Obeyience Culture’

*A Free Chapter from Social Sensemaking by: Robert Sams and Max Geyer

“Culture as a collective programming of the mind thus plays an obvious role in motivation. Culture influences not only our behaviours, but also the explanations we give for our behaviours.”

Geert Hofstede in:
Culture and Organisations; Software of the Mind (2010, p. 327)

Are we compliant?

When I started consulting in risk and safety, people would regularly contact me and ask “are we meeting our legal requirements?” or “are we doing all we need to do, ‘under the law’”. Consulting in risk and safety seems to attract these questions, and people expect that this is an area I am interested in. After all, if you’re into safety, you must be focused on legislation, right?

When an organisation focuses only on legislation and rules, people are often treated as objects within a system. This is because the focus often becomes about the system and perfection and there is little understanding of how people make decisions and judgments. This may actually increase risk in an organisation because people work out of fear rather than understanding; follow process rather than thinking creatively; and are more concerned with perfectionism than learning.

This is why I’m not that into Safety anymore.

Some organisations are so fixated on meeting their legal requirements (and obeying ‘the system’) that they become blinded to the impact that this has on culture. Companies that focus their attention solely on a ‘system’ create a culture that demands obedience, in what I refer to as an ‘Obeyience Culture’ – obedience in the name of compliance.

This type of culture fosters fear, silence and blame; all of which lead to organisations where surprises are the norm, and unusual events appear from nowhere because people in those organisations do not reports mistakes, near misses or ‘oh dear’ moments. This is because this type of reporting is not how things are done in an ‘Obeyience Culture’ for fear of reprisal (blame, loss of bonuses, safety awards etc). So why do these organisations require obedience?

The reason is that leaders in such organisations believe that obeying instructions, following directions and adhering to rules is what the law requires. You will hear such leaders say things like “we just need clear guidelines, standards and processes, and people who will follow them”. Such leaders are treating people like robots expecting that they should do everything that is asked of them, without question. Rules are there to be followed.

In one recent organisation that I heard of, they developed ‘Sensible Standards’ that had to be followed, and they expected ‘uncompromising compliance’ (which meant a first and final warning if you didn’t follow the standards) from everyone. They told their front line supervisors (that to make it easy for them), that the supervisors had no discretion when it came to their people ‘breaking’ the standards. They were expected to punish people, no questions asked. The site leader added, ‘we are doing this to save lives; that’s what we are about’. I’ve become attuned to words like this, and I now listen for the discourse of these words. Words like this are a sure sign that this was an ‘Obeyience Culture’.

The irony is that organisations with an ‘Obeyience Culture’, do not deal with risk as we well as organisations with ‘learning cultures’. ‘Obeyience’ creates an environment that is structured, fixed and difficult to change (see Chapter 23). ‘Obeyience’ cannot entertain critical thinking because it cannot entertain being wrong. ‘Learning cultures’ instead provide an environment that is full of critical thinking and of challenging ideas and practices. They are nimble, creative and resilient. So organisations that strive to meet legal requirements and deal with risk through obedience, may well just be doing the opposite, because in those organisations people cannot learn and when they make mistakes, they must be punished.

So why are organisations and leaders seduced into thinking that an ‘Obeyience Culture’ will help them meet their legal requirements?

The seduction comes from the belief that employees obeying rules means that they, as leaders, are doing what the law requires them to do. This is often what is portrayed in various legal briefings and advice that is distributed to organisations and managers. We are constantly being advised that we must have and review policies, procedures and standards and we must create a culture where people follow them – ‘Obeyience’.

I understand why it is tempting for some leaders to focus on developing an ‘Obeyience Culture’, however I wonder though whether they stop to consider the by-products and trade-offs that are created by fostering such a culture?

The by-products and trade-offs include silence and under-reporting; no one wants to bring bad news or to highlight mistakes (breaches of ‘the rules’). However, there is a greater concern that leaders should be aware of, which is the power that they have over people and their behaviour when their focus is on obedience.

Milgram (2009) highlighted this in his social psychological studies in 1962 in which 40 people, all males, participated in an experiment that demonstrated what ‘ordinary’ people will do to each other when they are operating under the authority of another.

In his experiments, Milgram had actors, who were dressed in white coats to demonstrate authority, issue instructions to some of the participants to administer electric shocks to other participants when they answered incorrectly to questions they were asked. As people continued through the test they received increasingly higher doses of electric shock each time they answered incorrectly ( accessed 5th July 2016).

The people, who were receiving the supposed shocks, were not really strapped up to the electricity, but those who were administering the shocks believed that they were. They were told ‘they will learn more, because they get punished when they make a mistake’.

Of course, this was not the case at all; there was no learning for the participants who were receiving the supposed electric shock; the real learning related to how far people will go, and what they will do, when a person who is perceived to be in a position of authority, administers a command.

Milgram’s experiment provides a fascinating insight into the power of authority, and demonstrates just how obedient people will be, even when they feel uncomfortable, and don’t want to do what is asked of them.

So what can we learn in risk and safety from Milgram’s experiments, and what do they mean for organisations with an ‘Obeyience Culture’?

There are two key lessons for leaders to consider. Firstly, leaders should be aware and reflect on how their own authority and style may impact on the people they are leading. This can often be a difficult thing to detect. After all, if their style is to issue instructions and people always seem to follow these instructions, they may think everything is going fine.

Of course, if this is done in the social context of an ‘Obeyience Culture’, they will not hear from their team when things go wrong, because this is not the way things are done in an ‘Obeyience culture’. A lack of honest feedback is another by-product of an ‘Obeyience Culture’. If you are a leader and you rarely hear of problems, mistakes or errors from your team, you should be concerned that you may have created an ‘Obeyience Culture’.

Secondly, leaders need to be aware of and reflect on the overall culture of their organisation. Leaders in an ‘Obeyience Culture’ may themselves be fearful of the ramifications of not meeting their legal, head office, regulator or other imposed requirements (their due diligence). The irony is that the leaders themselves may be blinded or at least mislead by Obeyience.

What does it mean to be diligent?

In the ‘Obeyience Culture’ we will hear reference to ‘due diligence’. We hear people saying (and rightly so) that we have to demonstrate due diligence. But when we hear this we are usually drawn to a six-point checklist, which someone has extrapolated from The Act, and we hear them say that by checking off the points on this list you will be able to demonstrate due diligence.

That approach is challenged by some. Greg Smith (in his “Risky Conversations” collaboration with Dr. Rob Long and Craig Ashhurst has this to say:

Due diligence, has got a lot of noise lately in the safety space… I’m absolutely convinced that the way it’s being flogged around the safety industry fundamentally misrepresents what due diligence is about. I think it also represents the real lack of critical thinking that we see in the safety industry.

(Long, Smith & Ashhurst, 2016, p. 20)

So what does this mean?

The point is that being able to demonstrate ‘due diligence’ is not about having a thing (a policy or a system) it is about doing a thing. Demonstrating due diligence is about being diligent. And diligent is defined as “showing persistent and hard-working effort in doing something” (Encarta Dictionary: English (UK) viewed 6th July 2016). That is, those who have responsibility for making decisions across the majority of an organisation (as defined in Australian Health and
Safety legislation. So, demonstrating due diligence is focused on doing; it is an activity thing.

So what does demonstrating due diligence really mean?

Being diligent requires ‘Officers’93 to go and look, question and understand what is going on in their business. It requires ‘Officers’ to enter the workplace and actively interact with the people conducting the work. It also requires ‘Officers’ to understand about (not just be aware of) the risks that they (actively) know are present in the business and that people are engaging with. The ‘Officers’ understand about the risks because they are diligent (persistent and hard working) in their risk understanding activities. They are diligent in their active pursuit of these activities which include: active questioning, active listening and active understanding.

Further, demonstrating due diligence is also about being able to (actively) confirm that ‘what is going on’, is actually what they agree is ‘what ought to be going on’. It is actively confirming that what the human, fallible, error prone people conducting the work, understand the policies and procedures are saying is what they (the Officers) deem are the most appropriate ways to manage the risks that they (actively) know are present in the business. And they know this because they are active in finding out from these same people what those most appropriate methods might be; including actively ensuring ‘as best they can’ that these same people have the necessary resources (skills, knowledge, well-being, support, equipment, etc.) to discern and manage the risks.

But wait…. there’s more: demonstrating due diligence is also about being active in knowing when the unexpected happens (what Weick and Sutcliffe (2007, p. 12) call having a “sensitivity to operations”). Again this means that ‘Officers’ actively engage with people to learn about what is ‘really’ happening, as opposed to what they ‘hope’ is happening. And most importantly it is about: stopping, reflecting (as individuals and collectively) on what has happened (good and not so) and paying active heed to experiences and learning from them.

I’m reminded of Dewey’s philosophy on learning “… education’s purpose is to prepare us to survive and, hopefully, flourish in a future that is by nature uncertain.” (Dewey, cited in Hildebrand, 2008, p. 125).

If you are in an organisation that focuses mainly on LTI’s, risk assessment scores, completing checklists, counting ‘safety observations’ and ‘zero harm’ and little focus on understanding people and motivation, and no acceptance of mistakes; and you think that demonstrating due diligence is about ticking off boxes on a checklist; it is likely that you have an ‘Obeyience Culture’, or you are on the path to developing one.

So what do leaders need to be aware of in order to avoid an ‘Obeyience Culture’?

Further growing and developing the ideas in this Chapter

Leaders who are keen to understand whether their culture may be based on ‘Obeyience’, may want consider these questions as a starting point:

  • What words are used by leaders across the organisation and what is their discourse (or trajectory)? Words like ‘uncompromising’, ‘must do’, ‘no discretion’, ‘zero tolerance’, ‘absolute expectation’, ‘we are serious’ and ‘no room to move’ can all be signs that the organisation is focused on ‘Obeyience’.
  • What language is used in organisational policies and procedures? Is it focused on words like ‘compliance’, and ‘adherence’, or instead on learning, acceptance of error, and an open culture of listening and ‘humble inquiry’?
  • How are people rewarded and recognised? Is the focus on injury numbers (lag indicators), or effective conversations (lead indicators, or preferably, not measured at all)?
  • How are incidents dealt with? Is an incident, near miss or hazard report seen as a failure, or an opportunity to learn?
  • When the unexpected happens, what is the first question asked? If it is “who did it?” instead of “how can we learn from it?” – then you may have an ‘Obeyience Culture’.
  • How is the demonstration of due diligence seen? Is it an ‘activity’ as in a “persistent and hard-working effort” to understand that ‘what is going on’, is actually ‘what ought to be going on’ in order to discern and manage risk? Or is it a desk top audit process governed by a 6-point checklist?

Segue to the Next Chapter

Of course, understanding organisational culture is a far more complex task than simply considering these few questions, but they are a good starting point in understanding whether your organisation has, or is on the journey to an ‘Obeyience Culture’. So, how may you go about impacting on your organisational culture to make it more focused on supporting people to discern risk, rather than on trying to control behaviours?


*This is a free Chapter from the book Social Sensemaking by Robert Sams which can be ordered by clicking HERE.


Wrestling in the Mud

‘Wrestling in the Mud’

He began crying without notice, it took me by surprise. We were in our late teens and just finished cricket practice. Following our usual routine, we stuck around for an extra ½ hour, just the two of us, as best mates do. As soon as we finished he broke down. I had no clue what to do, I’d never experienced it before.

I do remember that I simply wanted his pain to go away, it felt uncomfortable and awkward for both of us. However, at the same time it also felt comforting. We were only there for a short time, not a lot was said and he soon ‘came good’. There was nothing that I did to mysteriously change things, but somehow after 20 minutes of two mates sitting side by side, as one expressed his despair and anxiety, and the other allowed these things to sit between them, things got better.

I wonder if I somehow lost this adeptness as I progressed in a career in Safety and HR or, maybe it was taken from me?

Mental health is often a tricky topic to tackle, particularly in modern organisations where the convention is that such ‘problems’, just like any other problem (or hazard), ought to be eliminated, or at least fixed where possible. The challenge is that some problems (if that’s how we want to think of them – that’s a whole other topic) can’t, perhaps even shouldn’t, be fixed; at least not easily or efficiently.

This is one thing that I have learnt during the 5 years I’ve worked with Lifeline. Counter intuitively for some, often the best approaches to supporting others is to simply be ‘with them’ as they experience pain; as uncomfortable an idea that this may be. This can help people heal and learn for themselves.

Of course, it may not help people and they may spiral into further pain and discomfort. However, this is the very nature of human beings, we are fallible and we will all suffer from time to time; it can’t be avoided. Things aren’t and cannot always be positive or cheerful, it’s our approach for how we deal with these situations that I would like to reflect on in this piece.

Let’s begin by exploring why Lifeline is so important in our community. It is an organisation that provides a place, and the space, for people to be heard, this has been the case since it began.

Lifeline was founded in 1963 by the late Reverend Dr. Sir Alan Walker, when he took a call from a distressed man who later took his own life. Determined not to let isolation and lack of support be the cause of more deaths, Sir Alan launched a 24-hour crisis support line. This service (13 11 14) now answers around 1,800 calls each day, with around 50 calls from people at high risk of suicide.

There are over 11,000 people who volunteer their time at Lifeline and on the surface, it may sound like a simple approach to what they do; that is just listening to people, as I did with my mate. While this is true in one sense, and the skill of listening is critical for the role of Counsellor, what is more important than the methods though is the methodology behind the vocation of Counselling. Exploring this methodology is at the center of what I would like to do in this piece.

So, what can other organisations learn from the methodology that motivates the profession of Counselling and organisations like Lifeline? Perhaps ‘wrestling in the mud’ provides some clues?

“Allowing people to ‘wrestle in the mud’ is one of the keys to helping others. As tempting as you may find it, if you try to pull them out, while you may think you are helping, the mud may not go away.”

These were welcomed words of advice, received when I commenced my studies in Counselling; a vocation that purposes to support others through ‘attending’ and ‘meeting’. Counselling is a profession grounded in an ‘unconditional positive regard’ for others (see below) and as McLeod (2013, p.8) notes in; An Introduction to Counselling:

“Counselling is fundamentally based on conversation, on the capacity of people to ‘talk things through’ and the generation of new possibilities for action through dialogue.”

The idea of ‘wrestling in the mud’ is a metaphor to suggest that the person who is seeking counselling must be allowed to, and be supported in, ‘wrestling with their pain’ (or concern, or anxiety). The methodology of Counselling engenders this. The key to a person ‘generating new possibilities’ for themselves, is that they must be allowed to feel tension as this may support ‘generation’. It is the role of the counsellor to support this by allowing the person to ‘feel heard’; rather than feeling ‘fixed’.

I submit that such a methodology, that requires (and permits) methods such as ‘wrestling in the mud’, is more humanising than those that insist on the methods of policing behaviors or those that are captivated by the measurement of them. These are methods that come from a methodology that cannot cope with pain and harm, and sees them as demons that must be eradicated. Paradoxically, in doing this, you would also eradicate much of what it means to be human. This is not an easy proposition to wrestle with.

The methodology of Counselling is not consistent with much of how our (western) society, especially organisations, operate. Sadly, people are often seen as commodities and the focus is on their utility. Anything that gets in the way of this is a problem that ought to be fixed or eliminated, including challenges with mental health. Organisations seem naïve that a by-product of this is isolation, seclusion and loneliness, and while the rhetoric you hear may be of a ‘care for wellness and wellbeing’, this is tested when it comes to tolerance of people who experience challenges with mental health. So why do organisations struggle to deal with and accept people who experience such challenges and pain?

The current predominately reductionist methods adopted in organisations may provide some clues. They are consistent with the way in which health, safety and wellbeing is generally perceived and treated. That is, the interest is largely on identifying and ‘making good’ the symptoms and ‘parts’. Elimination of pain and suffering trumps tolerance when the goal is efficiency.

What is needed is not an understanding people for their utility or their ‘part in the system’, but a more holistic notion, one that views people socially and as part of community. The field of Counselling that Lifeline is built on, knows too well the value of community and its importance for ‘good’ mental health.

As our CEO of Lifeline Australia Pete Shmigel noted during the organisations AGM in November 2016; “addressing the challenge of suicide in Australia is a social concern, not a medical one”. The key to supporting those who face challenges with mental health is embracing them as part of our community, which also means permitting them to do this while feeling their pain. We ought not ostracize and isolate people, but sit alongside them as they ‘wrestle’ with their challenges.

Counselling recognises people as social beings and that also ‘good’ mental health necessitates ‘belonging’ and being part of community. Organisations can hardly claim to support this if their approach is instill processes that seek to isolate, rather than bring together. In many organisations, very little attention is paid to mental health beyond what is often a superficial and short-lived interest. In many cases, it is simply a ‘problem’ to be outsourced ( Who are the people in organisations who are required to deal with mental health most commonly?

Those working in Safety and HR are often at the front line when people experience such challenges. This may be when someone has been injured or a person is feeling anxious or distressed. In such situations, it can feel counter intuitive and uncomfortable to resist the urge to fix and control, however Counselling does this well. So, what can be done by those at the coal face when faced with such challenging situations?

Firstly, we need to resist the notion that it’s much better if the problem ‘just goes away’. The key is accepting and supporting rather than dismissing. However, this may take time and be grey and messy; so too is ‘wrestling in the mud’. When Counsellors ‘meet’ people, their priority is ‘presence’ and listening without agenda (attending), not ‘absence’ (eliminating) or fixing (crusading). Sadly, there is no space for ‘meeting’ in organisations that are deeply rooted in efficiency, standardization and regularization.

The methodology that models ‘wrestling in the mud’ on the other hand, accepts that problems will co-exist with people going about their lives and it allows people to tackle them while experiencing pain. ‘Wrestling in the mud’ means that we do not need to be expert in others, rather they are the experts in their own life. As noted earlier, one of the keys to successful counseling is ‘unconditional positive regard’ a phrase coined by Carl Rogers who notes that:

The central hypothesis of this approach can be briefly stated. It is that the individual has within him or herself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering her or his self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behavior—and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.

So how did our society end up in a place where adopting this approach is often the exception rather than the norm? Perhaps a short understanding of the history of counselling might be helpful?

Counseling can be traced back to the beginning of the eighteenth century when the industrial revolution brought about large scale changes in society. Before this, people generally lived in small, local communities where the head of the church, or community elders would usually support people who were experiencing personal challenges. Further, people who appeared to have more serious medical (or mental health) problems were also generally tolerated more than you would see today. Gone are the days where people would be considered ‘down on their luck’ or just different; nowadays, they must be labelled and sorted.

The introduction of the industrial revolution also meant more fragmented communities, a greater focus on efficiency and with this a shift toward placing people with mental illnesses into asylums. As French Philosopher and Social Theorist Michael Foucault explains in his book Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason;

…. the modern experience began at the end of the eighteenth century with the creation of places devoted solely to the confinement of the mad under the supervision of medical doctors, and these new institutions were the product of a blending of two motives: the new goal of curing the mad away from their family who could not afford the necessary care at home, and the old purpose of confining undesirables for the protection of society. These distinct purposes were lost sight of, and the institution soon came to be the only place where therapeutic treatment can be administered. He sees the nominally more enlightened and compassionate treatment of the mad in these modern medical institutions as just as cruel and controlling as their treatment in the earlier, rational institutions had been.


During this period also grew the field of psychotherapy. Counselling shares some of the philosophies of psychotherapy, however it has stronger connections to social reform and a strong presence in the voluntary sector. You can see this in the way that Lifeline operates.

Perhaps there is a lot we can learn from our past about how we deal with people who experience challenges with mental health? Attending and tolerating are surely more humanising than isolating and rejecting.

What can modern-day organisations and those in Safety and HR learn from all this?

If we see ourselves as valued and trusted ‘Advisors’ in our organisations, and if mental health is and will continue to be one of an organisations greatest challenges, then don’t we need to better learn the skills, and more importantly reflect on the methodology offered by Counselling? That is, to support others to ‘wrestle with’ and find answers for themselves, rather than aim to control them.

I wonder if these questions may help us to further reflect and continue a conversation?

  • How do we feel when others appear to be ‘wrestling in the mud’?
  • How do we respond when others appear to be ‘wrestling in the mud’?
  • What societal factors may influence how we feel and respond?
  • What do others learn if we continually ‘pull them from the mud’?

Perhaps working in Safety and HR creates your own feeling of ‘wrestling in the mud, how is that for you?

How do you cope when people are ‘wrestling in the mud’?

*Acknowledgement: a special thank you to the friends who critiqued my initial version of this blog and provided some great questions to help me further reflect on the ideas shared here.


Advanced Return to Work Training

A Humanising Approach

Key Questions:

  • Are you frustrated by the workers comp. system and looking for innovative ways to naviate through it?
  • Are you interested in learning about how we can better support people with injuries?
  • Do you want to learn more about people and how we make decisions?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, this Workshop may be for you.

Workshop Facilitators

This Workshop will be facilitated by James Ellis from Framework Group and Rob Sams from Dolphyn.

James and Rob provide a unique mix of both hands on experience and study in the fields injury management, physiotherapy, social psychology along with health, safety and well-being. The focus of their work is to develop a more humanising approach to Return to Work which seeks to benefit people who are injured at work along with their employer.

Read more about the Workshop and book by clicking this LINK

Introductory Workshops – Social Sensemaking

Intro. Workshops – Social Sensemaking in Melbourne 27 & 28 Feb.

Author of Social Sensemaking Rob Sams, along with good friend and Chapter Contributor Hayden Collins, will be hosting two Introductory Workshops to Social Sensemaking in Melbourne on:

  • Monday afternoon (3-5pm) on 27th Feb. and;
  • Tuesday morning (7-9am) on 28th Feb.

The sessions will run for two hours and will introduce participants to the key tools and concepts that inform the idea of Social Sensemaking.

The cost is $150 pp which includes a signed copy of the the book.

You can message us at if you’re interested in attending or have any questions. Details of venue will be sent to those who express interest.