Culture, community and curves: The journey of safety improvement
The term safety culture was popular and sought after in the 2000s and has fallen out of favor in the past five years. As safety professionals advise and guide their organizations or a single site on a journey of safety improvement, culture is indeed important, but most have found that a safety culture is not something that can exist on its own. In fact, a safety culture may not be desirable. To test this, try out different words before “culture,” like the two other elements of the traditional three-legged stool of safety, productivity and quality.
To harken further back in the 2000s, consider the buzz around priorities and values. Many safety professionals spent time lobbying for safety to be included in their organization’s mission, vision, or values statements. The argument was that priorities change, and values remain steady. A company saying “safety is our first priority” was not good enough, because, as some safety professionals argued, priorities can change.
In this brief and recent history of safety culture, priorities and values are presented to show how safety professionals are often misaligned with the organizations they serve. It seems agreeable to the profession that safety should not operate in a silo, but old habits die hard! Breaking free of safety culture will bring safety out of their silo at the organizational and site or team level. Words matter and goals are important – safety professionals must align with the organization even when individually they may subscribe to other priorities, values, or philosophies.
What is culture?
Applicable phrases from the Merriam-Webster definition of culture include:
- “The characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time.”
- “The set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.”
- “The integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.”
In short, culture is often an observation of outcomes, practices and human behavior. It just “is.”
How can community help us understand culture?
A safety professional already has a monumental task at an organization: to impact worker safety and improve upon the metrics that describe that outcome. Remember the last time you started a new job? Think back to how you evaluated the organization for fit before you accepted the role. You likely picked up on clues pointing to the organization’s culture, not their safety culture.
An organization’s culture is often summed up in a statement, but a safety professional is able to see what that looks like in daily operations – often the culture plays out differently in each community of an organization. Communities include individual teams, areas of a shop floor or construction site, a satellite location, a corner of the office building, or other groups of people in a place or time.
Merriam-Webster defines community as: “an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (such as species) in a common location.” This definition may help you understand why safety culture is limiting. In pursuit of a safety culture, often an organization is attempting to instill the same definition of the company and its goals to a diverse workforce.
Looking at the workforce as multiple communities within an organization that ebbs and flows by the day is more realistic. Due to the common location of these diverse individuals and the endless varying factors to contend with each workday, culture will play out in many different ways. How these communities operate and include safety in their work will clue you in to the organization’s culture. This culture will not match what the marketing department and executives of the organization have crafted, this will be a different culture statement that describes the outcomes of the work environment. This is the true culture of an organization!
What about culture from the top down?
A culture statement can be crafted, but it is not reflective of the true culture of an organization. That culture is played out by the various communities of an organization every day, no matter what the statement says. Safety professionals can guide communities based on the culture statement to create this top-down impact, but many organization’s culture statements are so vague, yet optimistic that there is little direction for daily work. Consider these culture statements generated by OpenAI:
- We value an environment that supports teamwork and collaboration.
- We hire workers from diverse backgrounds to work in every department and at all levels of management.
- We prioritize and take action on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
These statements sound nice and may be true but are vague at best. You may have nodded your head in acknowledgement of these statements confirming that these are existing conditions at your workplace.
Impacting safety performance through culture and community
Now that you understand the limitations of safety culture, and the definitions of culture and community it is important to identify useful tools to gauge the culture at your organization. A classic evaluation tool is the Bradley Curve. The tool remains popular because it is fairly simple and incorporates time-tested advice from Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. As individuals pass through stages of habit formation, so do communities at an organization and an organization itself.
The original Bradley Curve is geared towards safety culture, so for the purposes of this article, please look at it as a curve of overall culture at an organization instead. The stages are reactive, dependent, independent and interdependent. The interdependent stage is the ideal culture in which employees and teams feel ownership and responsibility. As an overall culture outcome, this is a bit vague, but evaluating with a safety lens, one can identify several ways an organization’s communities demonstrate interdependence:
- The safety professional is an advisor, not the sole person responsible for safety outcomes.
- Managers are evaluated on safety performance in addition to production and quality metrics.
- Individual employees take action for safety at their level because they are empowered to do so.
These ideals of interdependence vary greatly from the reactive and dependent stages that are marked by measuring lagging indicators, lack of responsibility for safety, an attitude of “accidents happen,” rule following and minimal manager involvement in safety.
Addressing safety professional burnout
As you evaluate where your organization falls on the Bradley Curve, take note of where your personal philosophy of safety lies. It is likely in a different stage of the curve than your organization. This self-awareness is key to avoiding burnout. Scores of safety professionals have taken a hard stance on organizational culture based on their personal safety philosophy. This is a recipe for daily frustration leading to burnout and potentially career-inhibiting job-hopping. Holding your personal safety philosophy separate from your organization’s will save your stress levels and allow you to guide your organization and its leaders in a focused way.
Introducing another C: communication
In part two of this series, we’ll touch on presenting practical strategies for communication that relate to the four stages of the Bradley Curve. Communication can be accomplished through influence, direct communication and curating small groups for conversation and action.
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