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Neurosafety, the science of safety leadership

To create a safe workplace culture, leaders could use neurosafety to manage the brain processes that determine behaviour, instead of reacting to unsafe behaviour with threats.

Recent research in neuroscience provides new insight on how to manage brain processes, writes Manie Bosman. Two findings are of particular importance to leaders and managers that want self-sustaining safety cultures where people are able to work safely and productively, not in fear of retribution, but because the organisational culture allows optimal performance.

These two findings concern neural threats and rewards; and the brain’s function as primarily a social organ (see an explanation of the neural processes below).

Some leaders trigger counter-productive behaviour by their own behaviour.
Some leaders trigger counter-productive behaviour by their own behaviour.

“We are behind on production and now this! How could he do such a stupid thing? He knew the safety procedures; he was not supposed to touch the conveyer belt while it was still running. There will be hell to pay when he returns from the hospital!”

Brian Maxwell is fuming with anger. He is the production manager at a manufacturing plant and one of his team members just sustained a serious injury to his hand when it was caught in the conveyer belt as he tried to remove debris without locking out the energy in the system.

“We have spent thousands on developing operational procedures for this job, and they have all been through the safety training. What else can we do to get idiots like these to work safely?”

Times change, but safety management does not

Brian does not realise that there is a serious flaw in how his company, and many others, think about safety. They religiously rehearse and rely on procedures, structures and processes, some of which date back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

And then they are surprised when people fail to comply with procedures in a21st Century workplace that has changed quite a bit (an understatement) from the days when George IV ruled Britain, and slavery was still rampant worldwide.

Employers like Brian are forever trying to engineer better systems, and they spend millions trying to educate and train people to understand and use these systems.

When that fails, as it often does, they try to enforce compliance with strict disciplinary and punitive actions.

Challenges to safe behaviour do change

They talk about leadership, but they fail to understand that safety starts with people, and that people at all levels – leaders in particular – are all struggling to cope with the challenges of the world we live and work in today.

On the one hand there are challenges in the external environment, which are now characterised by constant and exponential change; information overload; uncertainty; ambiguity; and increased complexity.

On the other hand, we also suffer from challenges in terms of our internal capacity. Genetically, the human brain has not changed much in 50 000 years, so our ‘caveman’ brains are fraught to keep up with the demands of the complex, fast-paced, ever-changing 21st Century workplace.

Genetically, the human brain has hardly changed in 50 000 years. This means that we are still wired to respond to perceived threats and rewards, even in the workplace.
Genetically, the human brain has hardly changed in 50 000 years. This means that we are still wired to respond to perceived threats and rewards, even in the workplace.

Neuroscience key finding 1: We scan for Threats and Rewards

The first important finding in neuroscience research, based on a large number of studies, shows that the driving principle of the human brain is ‘threats and rewards’.

Just as in the old ‘cavemen’ days, our brains first and foremost want to keep us alive. It is therefore constantly scanning the environment, using all our senses, for anything it might perceive as a threat or a reward.

When a reward is detected (food, shelter, money, recognition), it triggers an automated neural process that drives us towards that reward.

When we are in the ‘reward state’, we work at our best; experience improved creativity; show more balanced judgment; have enhanced neural memory; make better decisions and are more effective communicators.

When we detect a threat (predator, attacker, loss, rejection), the opposite happens. The brain immediately allocates fewer resources to the prefrontal cortex, or ‘executive management centre’, where conscious thinking takes place.

In a fraction of a second, the brain’s limbic system, the amygdala in particular, activates the sympathetic nervous system, causing a release of hormones such as adrenaline and nor-adrenaline which ‘supercharge’ us to either fight or flee for survival.

The heart rate and blood pressure increases, breathing accelerates, pupils dilate, and small blood vessels in many parts of the body is constricted to force more blood into the larger muscles for better physical performance.

Now the body is primed for action, to run faster, jump higher, and endure more pain. This is all good and well when you face a Sabre-tooth tiger or an aggressor from rival clan.

However, going into fight-or-flight mode becomes a potentially serious challenge at work, and comes at a considerable price to productivity and safety in a team context.

Our brains respond predictably to threats versus rewards, and to opportunities for social rewards.
Our brains respond predictably to threats versus rewards, and to opportunities for social rewards.

Neuroscience key finding 2: The Brain is a Social Organ

Exactly how costly this could be become clearer if we understand the second key finding from social neuroscience.

A large body of research shows that the automated neural responses that are activated by physical threats, such as a lion or an attacker, are also activated in social situations.

Our brains not only constantly scan the physical environment for possible threats and rewards, they also scan the social environment, including the workplace, for threats and rewards.

Whether we are having lunch with colleagues, reporting to a manager, in training, or trying to hold our own during a meeting, we scrutinise (and are scrutinised) the behaviour of those around us for any social threats which can then trigger the fight or flight response in our brains.

When a social threat (aggression, humiliation, rejection, embarrassment) is detected, our ability to perform even simple routine actions, not to mention assessing safety risks and hazards, is disrupted.

While our body is primed to fight or flee by any kind of threat, the stressed prefrontal cortex is ‘locked out’ and goes into neural ‘limp mode’.

In this condition our ability to focus, solve problems, make decisions, think creatively, memorise information, remember, understand consequences, communicate effectively, collaborate with others, cope with adversity and challenges, correctly interpret other people’s behaviour, inhibit impulses, and discern between right and wrong, is impaired.

When threats rise, workplace safety dives

In hazardous, risky and socially volatile workplaces, such as the plant where Brian works, this could have serious consequences. Instead of doing what they normally do right, people more often take short cuts to avoid pain (social or physical), personal loss, punishment and retribution.

Brian’s aggressive leadership style, his constant threats about production targets, and the resulting fear culture at work, probably has a direct and sustained negative impact on his team’s ability to work, and to work safely.

With so much going on in his team member’s prefrontal cortex, their brains are ‘choked’, and they operate in constant fight or flight mode, ignoring safety procedures in order to deal with what is perceived as more immediate threats.

What makes this worse is that threat responses have a greater impact, and are easier to trigger, than reward responses. In other words, for our brains, ‘bad is stronger than good’.

We experience negative interactions with other people more intensely than positive interactions of similar magnitude.

If you tell someone that they are not performing as expected, especially with others present, the negative impact of that criticism is much greater than the positive impact when you thank someone for a job well done.

Create and lead a ‘brain-friendly’ workplace

From a neurological perspective, many of today’s workplaces have become extremely threatening as a result of (among other things) autocratic leadership such as Brian’s; increased demands; constantly changing goals and expectations; information overload; ineffective communication and the fear of punishment if a mistake is made.

Under these circumstances people are often in constant neurological fear-states resulting in constant under-performance in terms of safety and productivity.

Some leaders instinctively bring out the best behaviour in their teams, and some have to consciously and systematically follow a behaviour pattern. The results remain predictable.
Some leaders instinctively bring out the best behaviour in their teams, and some have to consciously and systematically follow a behaviour pattern. The results remain predictable.

Lead the work team with CARES

Neurosafety is a new approach to safety leadership that integrates principles and insight from social neuroscience, safety engineering, and organisational development; to help managers create brain-friendly working environments that optimise performance, productivity and safe behaviour.

Neurosafety improves issues such as decision-making, organisational safety culture, diversity management, conflict resolution, employee engagement, and change management. Sustaining it depends on leaders following a brain-minded approach to production and safety.

Since leaders play such a crucial role in the formation of culture, one of the core focuses in neurosafety is applying the principles of neuro-leadership. We lead people in ways that enable them to function at their best, when we consider the neural processes that precede behaviour.

Neuro-leadership uses new applications of insights from neuroscientific research, to trigger more ‘reward-engaged’ neural responses, and avoid ‘threat-disengaged’ responses.

Understanding that the human brain is primarily a social organ that perceives the workplace as a social environment, helps leaders to work to the benefit of individuals and teams, enhancing general performance and enabling safe work.

Leaders can make a start by applying the trademarked CARES model of brain-friendly leadership.

This model is based on neuroscience research which identified five social needs of human brain; Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Equity, and Standing.

Using CARES as a guideline to manage these needs during their interactions with people, can help leaders create sustainable safety cultures in any workplace:


Certainty refers to the brain’s yearning to know what will happen next. Our brains are constantly assessing patterns in the environment, and prefer familiar patterns which indicate safe and predictable outcomes. Threats to certainty include half-truths (hiding information), inconsistency, change, job-insecurity and new experiences or new places.
Reward-responses are triggered by transparency, familiar places, consistency, signs of security, effective communication and stability.


Autonomy refers to the brain’s craving to feel that we have some decision-making power, and that we have some control over our circumstances. In the workplace our need for autonomy is threatened by micro management, working under very strict guidelines and policies, authoritarian ‘command and control’ leadership, and inflexible policies.
A Reward-response is triggered by participating in decision-making, organising your own workflow, choosing what to focus on, and self-directed learning.


Relatedness refers to our need to feel safe with other people and to feel that we are part of the group. Workplace threats can be triggered by feeling ignored, being excluded from a group, rejection, working with a new team, being alone among strangers, or a different culture.
Neural rewards are triggered by feeling included, being trusted, friendship, pursuing common goals, or coaching.


Equity refers to our need for fairness. Threats are triggered by broken promises (explicit or implicit), expectations not met, and inconsistent rules or standards.
Rewards for equity are triggered by keeping commitments and promises, maintaining transparency, open communication, and admitting mistakes.


Standing refers to our social need for comparative importance, significance, respect, esteem, and a place in the social ‘pecking order’. Workplace threats to ‘standing’ could be someone with a superior attitude, negative feedback, feeling ignored, signs of superiority, patronising advice, humiliation, or disapproving reviews.
The Standing reward response is triggered by signs of promotion, public acknowledgement, winning, positive feedback, learning a new skill, or receiving respect.

Manie Bosman is a specialist in neurosafety, and a leadership consultant at Saacosh.
Manie Bosman is a specialist in neurosafety, and a senior leadership consultant at Saacosh.

Where to learn more about neurosafety

For more information on neurosafety and neuroleadership, contact Saacosh (Pty) Ltd on +27 12 998 2602, or, or visit;

Saacosh’ NeuroSafe™ Programme is an extensive and ground-breaking safety culture transformation programme, specifically designed for organisations working in hazardous and high risk environments. NeuroSafe™ integrates principles and insights from social neuroscience, safety engineering, and organisational development, to help organisations to establish brain-friendly working environments that optimise performance, productivity, and consistently safe behaviour.

Manie Bosman is a leadership and organisational development consultant, specialising in the neuroscience of leadership and neurosafety. He can be reached at +27 (82) 925 4125 or

• This post is an extract from a detailed paper by Manie Bosman of Saacosh, February 2016. It is re-posted on in February 2016 with permission. © All Rights Reserved. Not to be copied or reprinted without the author’s permission.

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