Your Safety Culture

“In the battle of you versus the world, bet on the world.”

~Dave Barry

Ask a training room filled with front line leaders what their toughest safety challenges are, sometimes they’ll put “Culture” on the list. “We’re fighting an uphill battle trying to get our people to….  (fill in the blank: report near-misses, slow down, take less risk). That’s not the culture here.”

I’m sure you are perfectly capable of filling in that blank – for your outfit.

That difference – some of the time versus all of the time – largely owes to perspective. From HQ, culture looks like a forest: it’s not what one or two are doing, but what hundreds and thousands should be doing. From the vantage point of the front line supervisor, every day they’re staring into the eyeballs of twenty or so sequoias they’re trying hard to get to do the right thing.

Especially when their supervisor is offsite, attending a workshop on safety leadership.

Be that as it may, culture is one safety challenge for which the view of the front line leader is the more useful – and correct. And one for which the view from the top is often flawed – in a very significant way.

Want proof?

You should. Read on: culture is no small matter.

“The Culture Ate Our Corporate Reputation”

Those exact words served as the headline for an article on the subject of culture Lou Gerstner wrote for the Wall Street Journal. When it comes to expertise and credibility, Mr. Gerstner has plenty of both: he served as CEO for RJR Nabisco and IBM, doing a terrific job running a cookie company and a computer company. The guy can manage!

Mr. Gerstner took pen in hand (more likely put fingers on a keyboard. He was an IBM guy for more than a decade.) to take exception to what a certain soon-to-be-former retail bank CEO had to say about a high profile failure down in the ranks of his bank last year:

“In describing what caused a recent retail-banking debacle, the CEO said that employees failed to honor the bank’s culture. They did not do the thing we asked, namely to ‘put the customer first’.”

Gerstner went on: “This is not the first time I have seen corporate leaders blame a flaw in the ‘culture’ for major shortfalls in their company’s performance.”

Think about this: Here’s one high profile former CEO calling out another (at the time, current) CEO for throwing his employees under the bus. For not “honoring the culture.” In the Wall Street Journal, no less. Darn near fighting words.

I’m thinking about inviting each to be a guest editorialist for a future MSP News edition on the subject of corporate culture – and SAFETY. If they agree, my toughest safety challenge will be to make sure nobody gets hurt.

But first, they’ll have to agree on a common – and common-sense – definition of culture. From what I’ve read, they’re not on the same page. Not even close.


In this corner: The Bank CEO, who is of the opinion that five thousand bank employees “failed to honor” his bank’s culture, which is found in his statement of corporate values. In the other corner: The Computer and Cookie Company former CEO who writes, if you want to understand the real culture, “do not look at the value statement in the new employee handbook.”

Words, words, words. Enough already.

As it relates to culture from this point forward, let’s use this simple definition: “Culture is the way things really are around here.” Don’t thank me for that: this definition comes from Noel Tichy. When it comes to culture, Noel knows culture.

So do you. So does every front line leader. It’s the way things really are. In the real world. Where you work. Culture isn’t words on a poster on the wall. Most places, the culture is not anything at all like what the top executives want it to be…or even think it might be.

But it’s real. And really important. And often a real problem for those directly responsible for getting the work done. Done safely.

Not to mention those at the top, who might be shocked – or even fired, as that retail bank CEO eventually was – for what the culture in his company REALLY was. Those five thousand followers of his didn’t “fail to honor the culture.” They were the culture.


Reality Is Reality

It’s all so simple. Culture is the way things really are. If you want to know the culture, all you have to do is to look for the culture. Don’t bother with the outliers: what the best and the worst are doing. Look at what most everyone is doing. On things that matter, to you and to safety. Do most people report near-misses? Roll up the hoses? Put things away? Hold on to the handrails?  Carefully complete the checklists? Faithfully follow the JSA process? Show up for meetings on time? Pay attention in safety meetings?

Those are your “cultural dimensions” – fancy schmancy for collective behavior on a particular matter. Collect some data, look at it honesty, and you’re well down the road to knowing your culture. You might like what you see; you might not. But it is what it is.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s social science.

Culture: The Challenge!

When a supervisor says, “I’m fighting the culture” they’re almost always right. It’s like swimming upstream: fighting the current requires a huge investment of energy to simply stay where you are, let alone make upstream progress.

On the other hand, when an executive says, “We need to create a culture where….” they’re almost always wrong. That’s because there already IS a culture. But it’s probably not the culture they want.

Thus, the work facing the executive is to CHANGE the culture. Tough work as it requires far more energy than they think; often far more than they’re willing to invest. First, there’s the energy required to bust up the existing culture: to succeed in getting the bulk of people to “stop doing that” or “stop doing it that way.”

But wait: there’s more. Next, they’ve got to put even more energy into reassembling those fragments, molding them into the collective behavior they want to have – in their outfit, by the majority of people working for their outfit.

Which, after all, it is: their outfit.

Failing that, the powerful current of culture will take their outfit where it – the culture – wants to go. On its own.

Which well may be “on the rocks.” You don’t want to go there.

Now you correctly understand the challenge of culture. And probably have a headache, too.

Paul Balmert
September 2017

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