October 16, 2020 @ 6:29 AM

Pushback and Tactics Faced by Safety Professionals
(and other people too!)

By Jim Poesl ©2020

During safety training younger safety people or managers ask, “How do I manage a workforce that often is 100% against safety?”

First of all, the workforce is not “100% against safety” the workforce wants to work safely.  The discussion should be how do we attain a safe workplace? Finding common ground, common goals, patience and understanding is a good starting point. If you don’t have these your job becomes much harder and jobsite less safe.

My training classes include the classic Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky.  Alinsky wrote the book to teach progressives to implement change.  When I first learned about the rules, I recognized them as many of the same tactics used in organizations to prevent change.  They contribute to toxic work environments and negatively impact safety.  

Employ these rules and you will not have a “safe” work environment.  If you recognize them in your behavior, you are likely a part of the “problem”.  The solution is changing your thinking and behavior first, then you can worry about everyone else’s.  Be the safety person you aspire to..

Alinsky uses the word “Enemy”. Do not to think of your co-worker as an enemy but as a team member that you need to work with towards a common goal.  You need to be a leader.  

We don't recommend that you use these tactics on your co-workers, but it is critical that you understand them.  If you understand these tactics then you can manage, prepare, and respond to them positively.

The 13 Rules are as follows:

1.   "Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have."

This could be as simple as hearing “I have worked here a long time.  I am a <insert your favorite relationship or association>.”  Then the person says, “leave me alone and don’t rock the boat, or I’ll make trouble.”  

This is can be done overtly or it can be implied.  Often this is the reason why a company hires you to manage their problems.  Sometimes this is better left to the human resource department.  

The end result is that you cannot do your job effectively and might lose it.  The person who said this keeps theirs and people get hurt.  

Usually once you finish your assignment you discover that person lied to you.  They often are not respected in their organization and you were called to “manage” them.

Identify these situations and handle them early.

2.   "Never go outside the expertise of your people.” 

Provide expertise and advice about what you know.  Tread carefully into areas you don’t have expertise in. You might be told that you are wrong thus destroying your credibility.  

If you find yourself outside your expertise.  Admit it, ask, research, and get an answer from someone qualified.  Better yet, ask someone for their opinion.  Gaining other people’s input gets better solutions and perhaps gets them on your side.  

3.   “Whenever possible go outside the expertise of the enemy."

Rules 2 and 3 complement each other. One strategy to undermine you is to find your strengths and weaknesses then concentrate what you do not know.  

For example, you know little about forklifts and you are auditing a one trade.  You identify a problem, the response is “Why are you worrying about this? You should be worried about Frank upstairs on the forklift.”  You learn that there is no one named Frank, and there is no forklift.

4. "Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules."

Prior to enforcing a rule make sure you obey it. Don’t make a rule you don’t intend to enforce.  This can be as easy as telling someone to wear a hard hat, and then not wear one yourself.  The easiest way to show good leadership is to lead by example.  

Be especially careful if management encourages the breaking of rules, they will often blame you, and will mention it during your annual review or other inopportune moment.

5. "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon."

This is the “go-to” especially if you have the potential to be successful or to achieve some success with changing a culture.  People who are against change often use ridicule behind your back.  

The strategy for managing this includes not taking yourself seriously and not getting upset.  Getting upset invites more ridicule.  Get the leadership of the team on board with safety and the group will follow the leadership and ridicule will curtail.

Concentrate on problem solving not emotional reactions.  Emotional reactions seldom lead to good results.

6.   "A good tactic is one your people enjoy."


7.   "A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag."

How can you use this to your advantage with safety programs? Learn an activity that the workforce enjoys, is easy to do, hopefully is affordable, and gives effective results.  

How are these used against safety?  If the workforce enjoys a negative tactic, they will continue to use it.  React emotionally to it, its guaranteed to continue.

When you use an old safety program that does not work or is stale and the team cannot relate to it you will have failure.  

8. "Keep the pressure on."

Know your weak spots ahead of time and make sure they are fixed or at least have a way to manage them.

If someone finds a weak spot then they focus on it, repeating the attack or casually mentioning it—always at inopportune moments.  This is done to undermine you.

Grow a thicker skin and don’t take yourself too seriously.  If the activity is illegal, then document it and bring in third parties.

9. "The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself."

Your own imagination can be your own worst enemy.  People who have been at rock bottom and worked their way out of it will tell you that rock bottom isn’t so scary.  Something not scary can’t be used as a threat.  If you are not intimidated, you disarm the other person.  

10. "The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition."

These tactics usually manifest themselves in the following ways:

  • Call you on days off to ask questions that can be left until your return.
  • On the same day people coordinate and come to you with all the problems.  This is usually not a “coincidence”.
  •  Change paperwork, lose paperwork and then blame you or somebody else.
  • Steal resources.  It could be something as simple as dry erase markers for a presentation, to taking critical equipment
  • General sabotage.
  • Favoritism. 

Continue to do your job and be professional.  One result of these tactics is to get a reaction out of you, then the perpetrators play the “victim card” and report you as the problem. Document these situations, secure your own resources, documents, and equipment.  Call people out professionally when they try these tactics and get caught.  Work for positive solutions.

11. "If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside."

Make a negative into a positive.  

I had a hostile site leader complain to me during a meeting about one of the other contractors.  He told me that I should be arguing on his team’s behalf.  I knew that if I did as he asked, I would likely be thrown off the project.  This was his main goal.

I told him that his ideas had merit and he can argue them himself to the decision makers, with everyone’s support.  

He knew that if he did that, he would be thrown off the project. When he did not follow through it made him look bad to his team of 80 people.  He never confronted me in front of so many people again.

I kept a cool head, which is what he did not want and it turned out in my favor.  

12. "The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative."

Offer a solution, don’t just say something is wrong. Turn it into a positive. If you have no alternative plan, then you look like a “blow-hard” or malcontent.  

The same rule applies to the people you supervise. Work towards positive solutions.

13. "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it."

This takes many forms from bullying to just making people look bad.  Some ways this manifests itself are

  • Being excluded from meetings or not being invited to meetings.
  • Not having the correct equipment.
  • Breaking equipment you need.
  • Unreasonable schedules.
  • Rushing an accident investigation.
  • Not having resources, time, or personnel to do the job.
  • Not budgeting professional training or development.
  • No scope of work is communicated for a contract.
  • Colluding with others or simply bullying you.
  • Overloading you with work.
  • Distracting you from duties.
  • Team members doing work on projects you know nothing about and not telling you.  Then making you responsible for them.
  • Blindsiding you.  Surprising you with information or situations that need your immediate attention or put you in a bad situation.

There is not much you can do to counteract this except document it, report it to human resources and consider moving to another position or company.  Don’t let these tactics get the best of you and rise above it.  

They are trying to illicit an emotional reaction from you or don’t know any better.  If you try get revenge or try to vindicate yourself, you will not be successful.   Revenge in any form is fleeting, and these people are usually not worth your time, effort or soul. Concentrate on the positive people with potential, don’t waste time with these folks.  And remember:  


A positive safety culture is very difficult to achieve as it is. Having a culture working against safety or you makes it even more difficult.  Especially when you are contributing to the overall negativity. Hopefully, these “rules” will give you information on what to recognize in yourself, so you can fix that first, then help others. 

Changing a safety culture does not happen overnight. It takes years.  

Managing people and situations effectively will ultimately save lives.  Isn’t this is why we are safety people?