I was hired by the head of an oil company to help a particular refinery improve itʼs safety standards. Accidents had been occurring at an alarming rate over the last few years. This was well above the OSHA standards. The head of the refinery had tried to use financial rewards and punishments in a carrot and stick approach to improving safety. He monetarily rewarded the crews with the lowest accident rates while fining those who had more problems. He was confident that this would bring results. His motto was “Unleash capitalist principles to bring greater safety.” It sounded great but after a year of using his program, the safety record was only marginally improved.

I suggested that I be allowed to interview the crews with the best safety record. I wanted to learn what they were doing right. What I discovered was that the stories of safe and effective procedures were being told to everyone on the team. For instance, a problem had arisen when crew members needed to select specific tools for a job. New crew members could get confused or feel rushed in selecting the correct wrench. They were reluctant to ask too many questions for fear of sounding “dumb” Consequently oil lines were improperly being shut down with the resulting unexpected pressures and potential fires.

One resourceful crew member painted the needed wrench bright blue. This visual cue made clear which wrench to select, even for neophytes. The crew chief made sure that this story was told to everyone, especially the newer crew members. The chief also urged his team to collect more safety stories and pass them on. Top management working with each platform chief adopted the policy of capturing and telling success and safety stories. The last time I checked, the refinery had a zero accident rate after 14 months of instigating this program.

It is human nature that everyone wants to feel safe. Financial incentives may not help or even get in the way. Instead, I suggest doing three things. First share stories of what is working well in your company. Second, make sure these stories are told again and again to all members of the team. Finally, let your team know that stories of success are welcome and appreciated.

Change is tough in any organization. Make sure that positive events in your culture are turned into stories about how problems get solved. Then encourage that these stories be told with passion and frequency.