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Rethinking paradigms of change in HSE? A positive…and essential OVERTURN

Updated: Apr 26, 2023

Executive summary available:

The extraordinary context created by the global sanitary crisis around Covid-19 has constrained individuals, organizations, states and associations to radically modify our way of thinking, behaving and organizing ourselves to unite in a common cause. This drove us to urgent actions to fight the pandemic thanks to the extraordinary mobilization of health professionals as well as millions of anonymous workers. This period has led to much reflection and conversations around «nothing will ever be the same again», «we need to radically change our methods”,… Unfortunately, many of these good (and necessary) intentions could be caught up by the reality and the desire to come back to «normal life», meaning “like before”. This imposed time of confinement leading itself to reflection, I have questioned myself about this notion of change which comes up repeatedly as a leitmotif particularly in these troubled times. What are our classical approaches to change, more specifically in the field of Health, Safety and Environment (we will use the acronym HSE in this article)? May we imagine a radically different way to conceive and live the change in HSE, and maybe beyond HSE?

Change takes multiple forms; it is either dictated by regulatory and technical evolutions or motivated by processes that organizations wish to implement to boost HSE management and/or non satisfactory performance. There is another area that reaches for changes: the human and cultural dimension of prevention that operates in any organization. « We need to change safety culture », « we need to change behaviors », we so often hear. We rejoice to see the human dimension of prevention emerge as a strategic lever to sustainably improve the performance in HSE as a complement to technical and systems areas. Performance in HSE is therefore the product of the dynamic alchemy among these three dimensions: human, technical and systems.

In short, all culture plays itself out through shared convictions (what is right, what is wrong) and social norms which drive individuals’ behaviors. Beliefs and behaviors are guided by values. In this context, HSE systems reflects the existing corporate culture. It is therefore the resolute action around human dimension that will create conditions for a prevention culture experienced positively within the organization… Here lies the challenge for decision makers… We regrettably observe that traditional approaches to change (the so-called change management) appear very limited in attaining grounded long-term results.

In this article we start by identifying the traditional paradigms of change which we refer to as «myths» and point out implications for current change processes in HSE .

In the second part we will discover what could be the paradigms for a renewed and engaging approach of change and, based on this, trace the way for a different approach towards prevention.

This contribution relies on many years of experience that Perrier Consulting possesses in supporting organizations globally and in varied business environments. We have witnessed change processes in different forms, assessed the impact and gathered stakeholders’ reactions and feelings, from corporate executives to employees at all levels. I am also grateful to the research developed by David L. COOPERRIDER and his team at the Center for Appreciative Inquiry du Champlain College/Stiller School of Business. I had the pleasure to exchange with him at the last World Appreciative Inquiry Congress held in Nice in 2019. We noticed the extent to which his activities resonated with our own experiences. His accomplishments with the United Nations, among others, around sustainable growth are an insightful source of inspiration.

To illustrate the traditional HSE change approach I have selected six specific myths that influence the way organizations drive the so-called “prevention”.


The first myth, states that people naturally resist change. Change essentially involves an emotional process to which every stakeholder goes through. Many studies have been dedicated to the analysis of the mechanisms of this process and its different phases: denial, resistance, exploration, engagement. Change brings gains and losses for the individual. The same studies suggest different ways to manage the different phases of change. Nevertheless, there is a persistence to consider that the individual is, by essence, resistant to change.

The second myth, suggests that change is initially motivated by failures, problems and weaknesses. This is particularly evident in HSE: many changes are initiated due to a poor performance, an increase in incidents and, in extreme cases, the experience of a dramatic event.

The third myth, strongly tied to the previous one, assumes that people seek change when unsatisfied. Unsatisfaction is expressed through many different ways and at each level in the organization, such as how managers handle prevention or in the means implemented to move forward. Note that, regardless of how it is expressed, a change motivated by unsatisfaction is a change primarily motivated by a negative feeling.

The fourth myth suggests that people’s actions are based on past incidents and past events. This is very prevalent in HSE where resources spend a considerable amount of time attempting to understand and analyze accidents or near-misses. As well, prevention management is frequently based on KPIs measuring frequency rates and number of accidents. By doing this, organizations deal with past performance looking to the rearview rather than ahead; focused on avoiding to reproduce the past rather than inventing the future.

The fifth myth relies on the belief that trust is created through exchange between individuals. Dialogue with all stakeholders is considered as the booster for individual as well as collective engagement. Moreover, extended and repeated exchanges build individuals’ confidence in the global process.

From there comes the last mythrelated to change : communication builds commitment ensuring a successful change. The loop is closed! It is easy to become convinced by this when we look at the considerable efforts that are taken in communication actions around the change process. Naively, it is believed that these actions will « sell » the change and, therefore, impacted people will « buy » it. Too often these brilliant initiatives in prevention sum up to a marketing effort.


As a whole, these traditional paradigms influence directly the approach companies take to drive HSE change within an organization.

This approach can be summarized through the following structuring patterns:

· One seeks to identify the highest number of problems, what doesn’t go well. A considerable amount of time is spent reporting the most numerous at-risk situations, incidents, unsafe behaviors, deviations, gaps,… And the list can go on! By in large, these « problems » become the justification and the engine of prevention actions. A rather caricatural, and largely witnessed, example of this is the “deviations’ chasing” that companies request managers to regularly complete.

· A response is requested when a « problem » occurs. As such, prevention in a great number of organizations is built as a reaction to events, to incidents, to deviations as mentioned above. More significantly, when no accidents occur, many organizations disregard signals (such as near misses or at-risk behaviors) believing that, since there are no accidents and the frequency rates diminishes, they have achieved maturity in prevention. How many times have we heard such organizations say things as “we have no accidents, everything is going well”? Awakening from this illusion is sadly very often dramatic. Recent history cruelly reminds us of the Deepwater Horizon disaster which occurred in the Gulf of Mexico 10 years ago following seven years of so-called excellent safety performance.

· Risks and potential consequences are categorized. Assessing risks and its consequences is one of the most evident characteristics of a prevention approach based on the myths described here above. In many countries it is an obvious and legal obligation. We do not imply that a resolute action on risks is not necessary. All the contrary ! As we will illustrate below, the issue is not the assessment itself.

· Linked to the two preceding principals, inquiry and analysis are carried out to identify the immediate and root causes of HSE related events. The toolbox is filled with many different investigation processes and often HSE experts are primarily experts in analyzing incidents. This characterizes the reactive approach inherent to the myths briefly described above.

· Individuals are considered as the main source of risk : senior employees are at risk because they perform their tasks by habit, newer employees are at risk because they are unaware of the risks due to their inexperience. As well, corrective actions implemented following an incident investigation consist in technical measures fundamentally aimed at “protecting the person from her/him-self”. This applies to all levels within the organization, from top management to the more humble collaborator : when things go wrong it is always someone else’s responsibility/problem/fault.

· In this context, the focus is on the norm, the rule, the procedure. HSE management systems are therefore very often complex, over-weighted leading to heavy documentation bureaucracy. This is not only due to the fact that authorities, as well as corporate levels, contribute to producing this bureaucracy. By doing this, companies define a corpus of obligations that each and every one must « respect ». As a result, managers are stuck in a role of policing to ensure that rules are effectively « respected » and, when there is a deviation, to take measures ensuring proper « respect » of rules (as a side note, let’s place “respect” where it must be, that is in the relationships between and among people, and let’s apply rules!). By the way, how many of the rules and procedures that employees are asked to follow would we recall from one day to another?! Very interesting studies exist about this phenomenon.

This managerial approach to prevention and the way companies pilot change in HSE is the direct result of the founding myths we described above. This very classical approach is above all a reactive approach to managing change in HSE. It may be summarized as follows :

Let us be very clear, we do not imply that risk assessment, implementation of norms or incident investigation are not necessary and important. However, experience has demonstrated that the traditional approach to change hardly generates a sustainable performance nor does it create enthusiasm and engagement. More damaging, this reactive approach instills in employees’ mindset the idea that HSE is foremost a matter of constraints, fostering it as a Value associated to a negative connotation. In our interactions with managers and employees, we never heard people say that they come to work expecting to hurt themselves, but we have frequently heard that HSE is not experienced positively. The prevention culture cannot evolve when Health, Safety and Environment are perceived negatively by stakeholders.

In the following second part, we propose to challenge the traditional change myths and highlight which paradigms may guide HSE action for the future. We will then integrate these new paradigms in presenting a renewed approach to change in HSE. For clarity, in challenging the traditional myths, we will restate six inspiring paradigms


In the first of these paradigms we state that change is an opportunity for naturally bringing out the best in each person. Change is a formidable opportunity to liberate initiative instead of creating shackles. If the best is at stake, let’s support people originating progress and value what is being done. What a great way to bring positivism in the change process and, by doing so, we reduce the traditional mechanisms of resistance very often observed in such change processes. An extraordinary example of this paradigm is watching how many people are mobilized to help, to support, to accompany the most vulnerable or the most exposed people during this COVID-19 crisis.

The second of these revisited paradigms: the motivation to change rests on strengths (not only on failures), while relying on the intrinsic qualities of the stakeholders. This, we believe, paves the way to success. In this context, any evolution towards prevention process needs to be built on each person’s potential and the shared strengths of the organization. This makes definition of ambitious objectives standing up to the challenges more easy as well as ensuring the dynamic achievement of these objectives. This allows one to focus on the future. As we have said before, we don’t change the past, we invent the future.

The third paradigm: change is easier when we feel strong and not when we feel unsatisfied. To ensure long term success, teams and individuals at all levels of the organization need to feel respected and valued in their action and contribution. The issue here is to create motivation along the change process. The feelings of wellbeing and self-assurance are essential to motivation. From this point of view, any positive reinforcement is necessary and at the heart of the cultural evolution process in HSE.

The fourth paradigmis that positive human action is necessary for an inspiring future. This is the direct consequence of the previous paradigm! The more people in the organization feel valued and positively reinforced in their initiatives, the more they will questionned imposed status quo, the more they will be ambitious in their objectives and actions. How many interesting doors are open in HSE towards this paradigm! How many opportunities are sadly lost leading to distancing stakeholders from prevention processes?

Sixth and last paradigm : Intrinsic motivation comes from doing and propels the heart of change. It has been long demonstrated that the more people feel «part of» the process, the more they feel engaged and motivated, liberating creativity and boosting results. Being a stakeholder is first of all «doing», accomplishing. This involvement in action allows one to experiment a positive relationship with the change process without being stuck to losses (which inevitably are present) but rather experiment the gains for oneself firstly and then for the organization. It is an essential booster for motivation.Fifth paradigm : trust, essential to the success of the change outcome, is gained when people are actively involved in the design, the innovation and the doing. Any change process is foremost an emotional experience for those involved. It is therefore fundamental to see beyond classical interaction processes, regardless of how appealing these may be. What creates trust is the involvement, not only during the design or innovation phases, but also in the, hands-on participation in change actions. Trust is developed through movement and shared experiences; it cannot be mandated. Stakeholders must feel not only listened to (indispensable for self-worth) but equally personally involved in the change project.


Let’s now take these new paradigms and see to which new change approach they may lead to. Based on these dynamic foundations, we may structure the evolution of the prevention culture around the following principles:

· Identify as many things as possible that go well. Let’s pay close attention to safe and preventive behaviors perfectly taking place in our organizations, to the individual and team initiatives boosting prevention. Let’s stop chasing deviations and start recognizing what is going well. Traditional focus on problems renders us blind to all other much more valuable dimensions of prevention. It is all about re-educating our eyesight, our sense of observation when we are on the shop floor to (re-)see what people are doing well.

· Anticipate trends rather than respond. For a prevention culture to evolve, it is fundamental to have a medium/long term vision, to understand where we wish to go as a business or a facility or even service. Visualizing how we wish to see our organization in the future in terms of prevention is the cornerstone to a dynamic change in HSE. Beyond the process itself, it is fundamentally a new way of thinking prevention in action.

· Eliminate hazards and, when hazards cannot be eliminated, master risks. The issue here is to look beyond stricta sensa risk assessment and place our energy with the people who daily face risks on what must be done to eliminate or master risks. We are strongly convinced that the best controls come from those who best know the risks. It is therefore key to involve line managers and their collaborators at the heart of the process. Notice that this is a good way to jump out of “prevention as a constraint” and, by being an actor of the process, we no longer undergo it in a passive way.

· Analyze why things go well. This statement may cause skepticism for many but let’s think about it. Many HSE professionals and managers have long practiced incident investigation (and not only in HSE – think about quality, technical AMDECs…). In addition, the toolbox is generally well known and mastered. Why not use this amount of knowledge and skills to analyze what is going well in HSE ? Why not build a cause tree analysis of a successful prevention process ? Identify its root causes. Rather than looking for who’s responsible, who’s to blame, as so common during incident investigations, we will find new dynamics that may be duplicated easily. To echo Sydney DEKKER’s research on this matter, more than 99% of things go well from an HSE perspective. How motivating does it not become to identify, to analyze, and then to duplicate these.

· See people as the (re)source of progress. This renewed and proactive approach in change rests foremost on the strong belief that each person within the organization has a role and is a contributor to the project. One hundred individuals that each undertake a prevention action of which he/she has been the builder creates more dynamic and performance than actions imposed by a few in a top-down approach that employees will have to undergo. It matters therefore to actively seek out this energy and give room for creativity in the evolution process of a prevention culture.

· If we consider the individual as the (re)source of change, we dedicate our attention on behaviors rather than on rules or norms. This is an essential condition for success. When we speak of behaviors, it is about everyone’s behavior starting from senior leaders to front line managers ending with every single collaborator. For that, it is key to understand how behaviors work, to openly interact (without checklists) with the people we are in charge of as manager, to show interest in the work they are doing and to provide feedback which reinforces good practices or to help the person improve. This presupposes an impactful leadership from managers ; a leadership where the manager first finds genuine interest for him/herself leading to “wanting to do” versus “having to do”.

It is to this evolution that we invite organizations and companies that wish to progress toward prevention, moving from a reactive culture to a proactive culture, without artifices, relying first and foremost on the action principles described hereabove.

In this article, it is our wish to demonstrate the extent to which paradigms structure our individual and collective mindset and have a direct influence on how we drive change in HSE. Is it to say that there is a «right» and a «wrong» way of doing?

Absolutely not. Many of the means implemented in a classical approach are indispensable. We simply invite you to identify the paradigms that are at work in your organization, to understand how these translate into your change management. By doing so, we may open our minds to a different manner of thinking about change in order to seek new ways to experience (and let others experience) change in HSE. This is a major challenge allowing us to approach these new times in the best possible way.

Prevention is avoiding dramas, disasters, that too often affect our life, our health, the physical integrity of our collaborators in our companies and our communities. It is a moral imperative for each and every one of us. Let’s live this as a positive imperative, moving out of classical schemes in order to re-enchant prevention in our organizations. No doubt that this approach will also help us to invent a new post-pandemic future. Each and every one of us stands so much to gain…

Executive summary available:

Olivier Leroux , vice-président. Mai 2020

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