Overcoming Cowered Dog Syndrome

file0001874622666We have all heard the old adage “spare the rod and spoil the child”. Well here is a new one: “use the rod and cower the dog”. You do not train or teach a dog new tricks by punishment, you do it with loads of affection and reward. Fear of punishment cowers a dog in the same way as fear of punishment creates covert OHS culture. A dog is reacting to a negative action from its owner with a negative reaction by cowering; a negative response to a negative action. Likewise a negative action from a company will be met with a negative response from the employee.

It is human nature to fight negativity with negativity which in turn creates a negative worksite. Negative worksites produce dull and boring products as there can be no sense of achievement or accomplishment at the end of the day.

Like dogs, people thrive in a positive environment, one where there is positive thought, positive reinforcement, where people are rewarded for their accomplishments in the form of good remuneration. Dismissal and punishment allows covert culture to thrive within an organisation and our people become like cowered dogs.

To overcome the cowered dog syndrome, I suggest the following:

Firstly, an organisation must turn the negative workplace into a positive workplace. This cannot be achieved overnight but a good place to start is with a Workplace Safety Agreement. The agreement must clearly set out the following:

  • Safety rules and expectations
  • There will be no dismissal for any reported safety related indiscretion
  • Employees will report all incidents and near misses
  • Mandate that employees will participate in the investigation process
  • No person will be disciplined for any report of an incident or near miss

Gain agreement with employee representatives and then clearly articulate the agreement to all in the workplace. Ensure that everyone understands how it will be in the future and that there will be no deviations from the agreement. Have the CEO of the Company and the Union Leader sign off on the agreement first, then have all employees sign the agreement.

Sound investigation and root cause analysis is the key to ensuring a change of culture. Employee involvement is essential. Investigation must be positive and be looking for fact not blame. At no time during the investigation is blame to be placed on any employee who was part of the incident. It is important that at all times a person’s self-esteem is maintained. If the investigation reveals that an indiscretion or safety violation has occurred, then allow the employee to be contrite and gain their commitment that this incident will never occur again in the future. In other words people see the error of their way and understand that they may have seriously injured themselves and hurt their family. Again the self-esteem of the employee must be maintained at all times. It is to be remembered that once the root cause is understood, act on the root cause not the person.

It is very important that all employees see that the company is serious about fixing anything to do with poor safety. The company must be prepared to invest in the fixes, revise policy and procedure and train employees.

When auditing, supervision and management must positively reinforce safety rules; ensure people are complimented for doing their job safely. Reward people by good remuneration. Do not use large reward and recognition programs as this becomes an expectation and drives the wrong behaviour. A simple “thank you” is usually great reward for good safety behaviour. If a violation or indiscretion is found then the investigation process must be immediately adopted. Again it is about finding the root causes of the violation not placing immediate blame on the individual. What system failed to allow the indiscretion to occur?

Training and induction of new employees is essential. Education of the new employee in the overt culture of the company is extremely important. Articulating the company’s expectations, safety rules, policies and procedures is imperative. All new employees must end the induction by signing the Workplace Safety Agreement.

A company who embarks on this paradigm can expect that their safety performance will remain on a plateau or in fact may get worse as the safety culture moves from covert to overt. More reporting will result in more recording, with increased investigation and removal of root causes, the injury rate should improve after 1-2 years.


Serial Offending

What happens with the serial offender? Serial offending is rare when people are constantly required to take time out to investigate indiscretions; quite simply people get tired of interruption to their daily schedules. If a person is serial offending the company must also gain buy in from the employees representatives to assist the person in not re-offending.

If the person continues to re-offend then the Company must question if the person is in the right job, do they need to be redeployed or simply do they have the capacity to understand the rules? For example, if a company has an electrician who is constantly breeching lockout, then one has to ask if that person is suited to being an electrician or should they be redeployed. However this must still be a part of the participative and consultative processes of the company. The employee must agree that the outcome is best for them.

However, there comes a point, when all avenues have been exhausted, when the company must ask themselves is the person right for the industry. This is the time when outsourcing the employee to another job or other company that suits their capacity to understand and obey rules, must be considered as an option.



To summarize: this post is not about people who conduct wilful acts, flagrant breeches of the law or bullying. However, dismissal and punitive measures for safety indiscretions does nothing to reduce injuries in the workplace. Fear of punishment drives covert culture and sets the cycle for “cowered dog syndrome”.

People respond in a positive environment, they thrive when the culture becomes or is overt. Reporting becomes second nature and investigation is a fact finding mission not a process of finding blame. Safety programs drive the safety statistics: there is less pressure on management to deliver good results. Safety disputation and loss of production are greatly reduced.

Only a very brave company will embark on a completely opposite ideology that may send their injury rates backward for a while. Are companies and consultants prepared to take the plunge and break the self-perpetuating cycle of covert culture? Only time will tell.

One Comment

  1. John Culvenor Reply

    Hi Kim,

    Logical, creative and useful!

    Extend this to society. At present safety laws encourage the internalizing of safety information especially after an accident. The exact opposite of what is needed.

    Reverse that and give organizations an incentive to be open. Thus I propose that an organization in society (like an individual in an organization in your context) would be exempt from prosecution if they did certain things which would be around:
    – public disclosure
    – timely disclosure
    – investigation to a certain standard
    – direct advice to some parties
    – access for people with a genuine interest in using the information for prevention.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *