Relationship Based Safety: The Science and Applications

Many of the responses to our first blog on Relationship Based Safety (RBS) were from people who recognized that building relationships has been an important part of their efforts to improve safety performance. We hope to get more of their stories and incorporate them so that we can all learn from them. This blog, as promised, will explain some of the theory behind RBS and how it can transform the way we think about safety management. For some, the science is not important because they already know how important relationships are. Others work in cultures where the word “relationship” stirs unease. It can be interpreted as undermining fact-based, professional approaches to problem solving. This post is meant to provide scientific research that encourages the examination of these ideas in such environments.

The best performing companies have strong management systems.  However, incidents like the Deepwater Horizon Explosion continue to drive the search for better ways to understand how to prevent failure. This is because in spite of the fact that the workers on that platform had one of the best safety records and formidable and redundant defenses (NY Times, 2010), disaster struck leaving us with the responsibility to ask why and how. (National Commission, 2011).

Behavioral and systems safety helped us see that we need to pay equal attention to the human and technical factors. Safety culture helped us to further understand leadership’s role and that the unwritten rules of conduct carry more influence than policies, procedures and sometimes engineering safeguards. Research has led to a new safety improvement approach called by different names: adaptive safety, resilience engineering, or relationship based safety. Its premises are based on quantum physics and complexity management theories that seem better suited to work in environments with heavy schedule constraints or high levels of uncertainty. (Reason 1997, Dekker 2006).

Even though system thinking is the dominant view of how organizations are shaped, and influence human behavior, it has been hard to let go of the idea that human error is primarily responsible for accidents.  One could say this is because blaming is an easy way to explain what went wrong, but there is also a part of us that believes holding individuals accountable is part of affirming our free will. This thinking is also linked to the predominant management approach of command and control.


The Gulf Oil explosion showed us once more that management couldn’t control the unexpected. Thus, complexity management experts have been studying the application of quantum physics to the challenges of managing risk. One of the most promising applications is called complex responsive processes (CRP). It is promising because it appears to best explain how people affect each other’s thinking, feeling and behavior. This interaction shapes the way we interpret data and problem solve. This continuously occurring process causes drift from procedures and is the underlying cause of innovation.

CRP is an alternative to the systems view (Stacey, 2007). It stresses human interdependence and the importance of social interaction in shaping how people think and act. Reliance on systems to influence behavior or blaming individuals does not fit into this paradigm because things in the organization happen based on what people are saying to each other, how they are treating each other and even the self-talk going on inside their heads.

Stacey called this theory “relationship psychology,” and it rocks the foundation of popular approaches to accident prevention because it takes the focus away from individuals to organizational relationships in all forms. It considers human interaction as the primary influencer in organizations. Systems such as rewards, strategic objectives or rules do not control outcomes. Instead, outcomes are influenced by 1) the human tendency for self-interest and relating everything to their own experience; 2) conversations that shape people’s understanding of what is true and what is appropriate action (although sometimes the conversation takes place silently within); and 3) the radical unpredictability of the direction in which connections and relationships evolve.

CRP is the thinking that led to Relationship Based Safety (RBS).  CRP principles are heavily based on the most recent brain research indicating that relationships, the need for inclusion, respect and recognition are as important for survival as food and shelter. The brain registers the threat of exclusion as threatening to life because we are wired for relationship. We instinctively know we need others to survive. Yet, our structures and management decisions most often treat people as individuals who should do the “right thing” even if it threatens these connections.

We all know from experience that going along with the crowd can have detrimental consequences, yet we have an internal drive to be part of something larger than ourselves. One of the useful things about using culture concepts in safety is that it gives us a way to identify the various groups people belong to in organizations. Some of the primary groups are occupational (engineers, doctors, mechanics). Other groups are hierarchical (executives, managers, first line, employee). We also have generational, gender, ethnic, and many more groups who all have their own set of values and principles that influence behavior. How do we leverage this need for relationship, yet avoid some of the pitfalls of groupthink?

Relational Coordination (RC)

The complex responsive processes described above are ongoing. It is how people are moved to collaborate, how shared goals are created, and how shared knowledge emerges. Because we are fundamentally social animals we cooperate in order to survive and develop. This makes us interdependent and reliant on the quality of information we receive from each other.

CRP is continuous communicative interaction and in that interaction emerges a common understanding of reality, both individual and collective. Someone wishing to create a change in the current understanding of a particular group needs to become first a part of that network. That means getting out and having conversations with people.

All of this points to the power of conversation. It is already going on in the organization and it is producing the results currently experienced. In normal conversation, talking is a social or collaborative activity where people make sense of what is going on together, taking account of each other’s sensibilities spontaneously coordinating efforts in an unreflective, unforced, unplanned and unintended way.

If you are not communicating  (speaking and listening) you are not building relationships.  If you are not building relationships, you have no influence.

A change agent can be more successful by understanding what information to gather and what information to give that will impact a particular group. This leads us into the theory of Relational Coordination (RC) as discovered by Jody H. Gittell(2013). (RC) is a scientifically proven theory of the dynamics behind effective communication in complex environments.

There are seven dimensions: The first four relate to the qualities of viable information (frequency, timeliness, accuracy, problem-solving); the last three describe the context that gives meaning to the information (shared goals, shared knowledge, mutual respect). These dimensions facilitate the transfer of knowledge as well as influence the decision-making process. They can be measured via the RC survey found at


RC   Dimension Description   of Interaction with Groups/Roles Involved in a Process
Frequent Communication How frequently do people in each of these groups/roles communicate about work or organizational focus?
Timely Communication Do people in these groups/roles communicate with you in a timely way about work or organizational focus?
Accurate Communication Do people in these groups/roles communicate with you accurately about work or organizational focus?
Problem Solving Communication When there is a problem with work or organizational focus, do people in these groups/roles blame others or work with you to solve the problem?
Shared Goals Do people in these groups/roles share your goals in addressing work or organizational focus?
Shared Knowledge Do people in these groups/roles know about the work you do to address work or organizational focus?
Mutual Respect Do people in these groups/roles respect the work you do to address work or organizational focus?

Impact on Safety Management

One of the applications of CRP has the potential to reshape the way we transfer knowledge and understanding of risk—a critical SHE management goal. We tend to think of knowledge as static and stored in documents or someone’s mind. CRP causes us to rethink this view.  Knowledge cannot be stored. Symbols are stored. It is the interaction with the information that gives meaning to the symbols and creates knowledge.  This may seem academic but it helps to explain why procedures, JSA’s and rules are so often forgotten or disregarded. We pay attention to the things we are talking and thinking about (thinking being a dialogue within our own heads).

Think of the organization as people in constant communication and interaction, influencing and changing outcomes sometimes in ways that are unpredictable. Without a practice of interacting with procedures or processes on a regular basis they stop being relevant in the everyday business of getting the work done. The knowledge that people rely on is in the conversations with others and with themselves in the present.

How do we get people to engage in conversations relevant to risk assessment and safe action? One path offered by RC research is to identify the key players involved in a core process and explore where and how they are interdependent. Once that is accomplished, set up a conversation where they can evaluate the effectiveness of their communication and collaboration as it relates to the risks and hazards of the operation. How does my work affect yours? How does yours affect mine? Are we dropping the ball? Do you feel I have your back? Using the seven RC dimensions as an anonymous survey and conversational guide will reveal where and how the interdependence is breaking down. Improvement will appear as the rhythm, content and way information is delivered changes.


Reason, J. (1997). Managing the risk of organizational accidents. London, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing.

Dekker, S. (2006). Resilience engineering: Chronicling the emergence of confused consensus. In E.Hollnagel, D. Woods & N. Leveson (Eds.), Resilience engineering: Concepts and precepts (pp. 77-92). London, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing.

Stacey, R.D. (2007). Strategic management and organizational dynamics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. (2011). Deep water: The Gulf oil disaster and the future of offshore drilling. Retrieved from


Rosa Carrillo

Written by Rosa Carrillo

Rosa Carrillo, President of Carrillo & Associates, is a thought leader in transformational leadership for environment, safety and health. She brings 20 years of industry experience with all levels of the organization. Her results and many publications create instant credibility with leadership and the workforce. She is fluent in English and Spanish and is at ease working across many cultures. For more information, please visit her website:

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