The Problems With Safety Culture Change Programs, and How to Fix Them

There are a number of problems with defining exactly what a “safety culture” is, according to an expert in the area, who explained that this can lead to subsequent culture change initiatives missing the mark.

“To be honest, the main issue is that while nearly everyone can easily talk about safety culture (it’s good, bad, toxic, positive etc), no-one can succinctly and meaningfully define it,” said Dave Whitefield, director of consulting firm People and Risk.

“The closest we get is the old ‘culture is the way we do things around here,’ which effectively defines culture as behaviour.

“This is how we arrived at most culture programs actually being behaviour change programs, and so they completely miss the mark by focusing on frontline behaviours (what we do) and not influences from leadership (why we do it).”

Whitefield noted that culture is not the same as behaviour, so organisations need to have a meaningful working definition to provide the context for leaders to work with.

There are a number of models that can be used to better understand and discuss safety culture, according to Whitefield, who said that organisations need to use a variety of models and frameworks depending on the context and situation.

“I use Edgar Schein’s definition of culture, and then about four or five different models including Dr Rob Long’s Risk Maturity Matrix, Cameron and Quinn’s Competing Values Framework, Karl Wieck’s Sensemaking and Organising (HRO), Nassim Taleb’s Fragility framework, and sometimes Reason’s Culture Maturity Spectrum,” he said.

“I know this might seem a bit academic, but these are great models that each provide a different context for leaders to work with. I also use a framework for enacting cultural maturity that I have developed that steps leaders through the change process.”

In setting the foundation for strategies to effectively improve safety culture, Whitefield said organisations and leaders firstly need a shared context to start the process.

This means defining what culture, safety and risk actually means to them, and being okay with the high level of complexity and uncertainty built into the very idea of culture.

From there, they can then define what the end point should look like, or their vision.

Next is identifying the actions, capabilities and resources needed to implement and support the vision, and then going out and enrolling the key stakeholders by creating meaning through engaging, listening, talking and sharing stories.

Whitefield cautioned against starting with what behaviours leaders want to see in their workforce, and instead focussing on what underlying beliefs and assumptions they think are necessary to support their safety vision.

“As an example, when I work with leaders I get them to discuss things like ‘When is it okay to disappoint a customer because of a safety concern?’” he said.

“While they might say ‘all the time’ the more interesting question is to consider what their think their workforce would say.”

Whitefield also suggested organisations resist branding any culture change program.

“First, frontline workers are sick of safety initiatives, and second, this shouldn’t really represent a change, but rather an extension,” he said.

“You already have a safety culture, so you aren’t trying to make one, you are just trying to make it more mature.” 

Whitefield explained that a real challenge for OHS professionals is that not much of the knowledge and skill used in the orthodox safety world is useful for culture improvement.

In fact, often the traditional safety processes need to be removed or reduced to make room for culture change, he explained.

“For example, if you think trust is important for a mature safety culture, you might have to stop measuring as many things (like observations or ‘take fives’).

“This could lead to awkward questions like ‘if you’re not monitoring that process anymore, what are you doing?’ You need a really good answer, and it shouldn't necessarily be just doing more of something else,” he said.

“Culture change can’t be systemised and proceduralised. You can’t really measure it, you can’t just tell people to have a better culture, and you can’t force it.

“It has to happen over time and has to be inside job.”

Whitefield said OHS professionals need to build their cultural literacy, their ability to talk about culture in a meaningful way, and to be able to coach leaders in that.

They also need to be able to say why spending all day talking and listening to people is more effective for influencing culture than doing an audit or counting things, he said. 

“My bias obviously sits slightly outside the current mainstream approach to culture change, which was heavily influenced by behavioural safety (cognitive psychology) proponents like Dupont, and then everyone,” said Whitefield.

“This puts all the focus on the individual and their behaviour. We came to believe that people just needed to find the right reason to be safe, because clearly without thinking of your family, dog or hobby etc, you won’t be safe. What complete rubbish!"

"Because culture is a social construct, I use a social psychological lens to looks at the issue. This brings the focus onto how groups of people (which includes the individuals in it) are influenced."

"What would your staff say if you asked them if it’s OK to disappoint a customer?

“Their answer is much more about how they think the leaders and organisation will react, and much less about their personal commitment to safety."

Originally published by the Safety Institute of Australia.

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