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Without Trust “Zero Harm” is a Pipe Dream


“Three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust.

If a ruler can't hold on to all three, he should give up the weapons first and the food next.

Trust should be guarded to the end: without trust we cannot stand” - Confucius 


Debate continues to rage about whether or not the “Zero Harm” goal (or aspiration) is achievable, helpful or even moral. Frankly I’m bored with it. Call me a pragmatist, but I’m much more interested in putting my attention on what actually works.

Despite widespread anecdotal ‘evidence’ advocating both for and against the “Zero” stance, there is not a shred of peer-reviewed research anywhere (at least that I can find) that demonstrates that the presence (or indeed absence) of the goal increases safety performance or outcomes.

In the meantime a wealth of empirical data has amassed that points to powerful variables that actually do predict positive safety performance and culture, and at the front of the pack is trust. By all means aspire to “Zero Harm”, but just know that the goal itself will not improve safety performance, in fact, if you don’t attend to any existing mistrust in your organisation, then “Zero Harm” (or even reduced harm) will remain a pipe dream.


"... the evidence is that safe behaviour programs do not work when the workforce mistrusts its management.

Where such beliefs prevail, employers must first win the trust of their workforce by tackling some

of the issues they see as affecting safety" - Professor Andrew Hopkins, (Melbourne, 2005) 


Why Trust?

In the last decade, there has been a plethora of studies pointing to trust as a key predictor of safety performance and an essential component of effective safety cultures (e.g., Burns et al., 2006; Eid et al., 2011; O’Dea & Flin, 2001). 

Findings from these studies show that trust in management can increase employee engagement in safety behaviors and reduce rates of accidents (Zacharatos et al., 2005). Conversely, other studies noted that distrust is negatively associated with personal responsibility for safety (Jeffcott et al., 2006) and positively related to injury rates (Conchie & Donald, 2006, cited in Conchie et al., 2011).

Furthermore, in a recent Australian study focussed on the mining industry, Gunningham and Sinclair (2012) found that “ … unless the mistrust of the workforce can be overcome then even the most well-intentioned and sophisticated management initiatives will be treated with cynicism and undermined.”

Clearly employee distrust is a major risk factor in terms of physical injury, but also in terms of the wider organisational culture, and employee well being. 


Trust – A Working Model

One of the most frequently cited models of trust (particularly in the safety literature) was posited by Mayer et al. (1995). This integrated model suggests that trust is based on perceptions about three key factors:

Ability (Perceived Competence)

Benevolence (Perceived degree of Care shown)

Integrity (Perceived honesty and openness)

Subsequent research has demonstrated that all three factors are important in building trust and overcoming mistrust. For example, a leader may be viewed as highly competent, open and honest, however, if he/she is perceived as uncaring then trust cannot be built nor sustained, and any existing mistrust will not be overcome. 


“ … Thus, in order for the employee to stop the job/challenge his workmate, he must trust both his workmate and the management's commitment to safety.

This example shows quite poignantly that in order to cultivate a culture of safety, trust must exist in different levels of the organisation.

It is not in itself sufficient for members of the workforce to trust each other and not trust the management,

or even for members of the workforce to trust the management but not each other to foster positive safety behaviours.”

The Role of Trust in Safety Management - Rhona Flin and Calvin Burns;

University of Aberdeen & University of Strathclyde, UK


Interestingly, in terms of building trust, the Integrity factor has emerged as the most significant, while the Care Factor has been found to be the most powerful component in terms of overcoming mistrust (Conchie et al., 2011).


"Trust is the most important foundation of a successful reporting program,

and it must be actively protected, even after many years of successful operation.

A single case of a reporter being disciplined as the result of a report could undermine trust

and stop the flow of useful reports" - O'Leary and Chappell"



I am still baffled about why so many safety “thought leaders”, global safety consultancies, organisations and managers spend so much time advocating slogans, platitudes and “doing what the others are doing” instead of focusing on tangible and actionable factors that research has shown to be highly impactful on safety performance. 

Perhaps part of the reason is that producing yet more policies, procedures, rules and systems (etc.) is seen as easier than focusing on trust and care (“soft skills are hard!”). 

“Contrary to popular belief, cultivating a high-trust culture is not a “soft” skill — it’s a hard necessity.

Put another way, it’s the foundational element of high- performing organisations” - Stephen M. R. Covey 


Surely though, leaders owe it to their teams to do what works in terms of keeping them safe rather than doing what is easy or comfortable?


"People don't care how much you know - until they know how much you care” - Theodore Roosevelt 


When we formed our psychological consultancy we chose three core values (Care, Competence & Character) that consistently guide us toward creating trust within our clients. Now into our 7th year, the vast majority of our work is repeat business or results from “word of mouth” recommendations. 

Any organisation serious about reducing, minimising or even eliminating harm needs to be values-based in order to create the trust required for such lofty and laudable goals. More policies, procedures, rules and slogans simply won’t do it.

Our safety, well-being and cultural development workshops are evidence based, and we settled on the name Care Factor Program (given the research cited above, the reason for choosing that name is no doubt obvious). 

An added bonus for our consultancy is that the Care Factor Program branding tends to result in the self-selection of clients who are ready for the program, with a few would-be clients viewing the key word (Care) as too “soft” for their workforce (and we know this has happened in a small number of cases). 

Imagine that! A senior leader (or leadership team) decides that their workforce is not ready to experience a change program with the word “care” in the title. While we know from experience that the workforce (as the program unfolded and they understood the context) would disagree with their leaders, this mindset tends to suggest that the leadership team is projecting its own limiting beliefs onto the workforce. 

Moreover, it points to a leadership team that lacks the emotional maturity to really get behind a care-based program, so there would be little point moving forward. The sad irony is that some of these companies zealously emphasise their goal of “Zero Harm”, and in such cases it becomes obvious to observers (and indeed the workforce) that the aspiration is a meaningless platitude more likely to create cynicism than any intrinsic motivation to buy into the goal.

That such thinking still exists in a country where eight people per day take their own life, and around 200 people per year die as a result of workplace incidents is alarming. It raises questions on how such immature cultures can possibly deal effectively with any emerging mental health challenges among their workers when they view the word “care” as outside their comfort zone. 

To a degree I can understand this discomfort. Many such organisations are in traditionally male-dominated and “macho” industries. Moreover, young males in Australia tend to receive early childhood messages such as “big boys don’t cry”, “harden up” (etc.) so to actually show vulnerability or demonstrate care can be a daunting proposition for Australian males (in particular).

Nevertheless, leaders need to lead! It is time for senior staff and their respective organisations to (psychologically) grow up and gain the emotional maturity required to genuinely promote a safe, well and mentally healthy workplace.

Conversely (and thankfully), many of our clients choose to roll out our programs because they focus on care and trust, and invariably they are the companies that end up referring us to other organisations based on their own successes and positive gains.

As well as “Zero Harm”, another often-used phrase in organisations is “Your safety is our highest priority”. If that is true - if the phrase is to be more than a mere platitude, then senior staff need to start leading based on values rather than fickle priorities and glib slogans. They would do well to follow the examples of more mature organisations by doing what has been shown to be valid and evidence-based rather than what is easy or comfortable.  



Burns, C., Mearns, K., and McGeorge, P. (2006). Explicit and implicit trust within safety culture. Risk Analysis, 26(5), 1139-1150. 

Conchie, S.M., Taylor, P.J., & Charlton, A., (2011). Trust and distrust in safety leadership: Mirror reflections? Safety Science 49, 1208–1214

Eid J, Mearns, K., Larsson G., Laberg, J., and Johnsen, B. (2011). Leadership, psychological capital and safety research: Conceptual issues and future research questions. Safety Science. 

Mayer, R.C., Davis, J.H., and Schoorman, F.D., (1995). An integrative model of organisational trust. Academy of Management Review 20, 709–734.

O’Dea, and Flin, R. (2001). Site managers and safety leadership in the offshore oil and gas industry. Safety Science 37, 39-57 

O’Dell, (1998). California Management Review. Volume: 40, Issue: 3, Publisher: California Management Review, Pages: 154-174 

Zacharatos, A., Barling, J., and Iverson, R.D., (2005). High performance work systems and occupational safety. Journal of Applied Psychology 90, 77–93.


“This workshop very cleverly explains human nature and how it affects safety. I believe this course has completely changed my outlook on safety, as ultimately safety is your own responsibility. It has changed the way I manage myself in pressure situations and stopped me getting upset with things I cannot control. The course was excellent...”


"Clive is a highly motivated and dynamic trainer. He has a deep understanding of his subject and delivers a very powerful message in an incredibly short space of time. This is probably the best training session I have ever attended and I would highly recommend Clive and GYST Consulting."

Business Manager

"The Care Factor Program has enabled me to be conscious of taking responsibility and understanding the how/what/why my thinking is built on. Also, that to change culture, I must empower others by asking questions and not being afraid to intervene"

Mining Engineer  

published on June 23, 2017

Clive Lloyd introducing the Care Factor program

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