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Talk the Talk! Your Safety Culture needs a Shave.

WHO HAS BEEN IN A TRAINING CLASS where some consultant is teaching you about “Culture”?  Shoot, you’ve probably been in many such classes.  The teacher was probably defining culture as:

The assumptions, shared beliefs, and values held by people in the organization.

Attitudes toward work, degree of personal responsibility for work.

The “rules of the game” for getting along in an organization.

Admit it, you nodded along with everyone else feigning understanding and then probably started using the term around your boss and colleagues to pretend that you knew what it was.  But, in reality, deep down inside where these things are hidden, you admit to yourself that you really, really don’t know what this term really means.

The reason you don’t is because you don’t know how to use the term to make things better.  You don’t know how to “operate” using the term.  Operations in your business, in any business, are how things get done. We have trouble describing “culture” in a way that, well, gets things done to reduce injuries.

I'm a Psychologist so I'm used to being around terms like “culture” that have been constructed to describe things that are not tangible. Psychologists call terms like this “constructs” because we had to construct a term from scratch to describe something we can’t see.   It didn’t exist except for some inkling of a phenomenon we all kind-of experience.  So we had to construct a term for this and then try to build an understanding of what may or may not exist in the real world. 

In fact, we can be bad at constructing constructs.  "Culture" has been over-studied in Industrial/Organizational Psychology where we argue in hundreds of articles over silly differences between "Culture" and "Climate".  In fact, as early at 1952, Kroeber and Kluckhohn complied a list of 164 different definitions of Culture.  And, despite a century and a half of the term, linguists conclude there is no agreement regarding it’s nature.

Even though I’ve been trained to deal with such constructs, I had a big problem getting my arms around what a "Culture" is. To me the term “Safety Culture” is an undefined mess of other constructions like “value”, “beliefs”, or “assumptions” that don’t mean anything either (admit it, you don’t know what a “value” is either).  When you define constructs with constructs you get confusion, not operation.   

Unfortunately, this game of constructs leads to haphazard attempts at changing safety cultures, often at the expense of more confusion among your leadership and workforce. Thus, the term will begin to diffuse into meaninglessness in your company like so many good-ideas-turned-fad before. This is too bad because the real concept of Safety Culture is profound and can lead to significant improvements.

A New Definition of Safety Culture

As a Behavioral Psychologist I prefer to see parsimony as the goal. Thus, I apply Occam's Razor to terms like "Safety Culture" to end up with an extensively more useful concept.  William of Ockham was a Franciscan friar who dropped some medieval knowledge on us in his razor.  Somehow we forgot his maxim in our modern age of constructs.

Definition of Occam's Razor according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary is: "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. The simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex. Explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities."  

Translation: Keep it Simple, Stupid (K.I.S.S.).

Let's try this new definition of Safety Culture on for size: 

Safety Culture is people talking to each other about safety.  

Period.

I argue to anyone who will listen that safety culture is not some value-laden, touchy-feely, fuzzy construct of an imaginary utopia. Instead, safety culture is people talking about safety and listening to each other. Simple, huh? 

You can see conversations, engage in conversation, and experience their consequences. Managers can talk and listen, workers can talk and listen… its universal and it makes an impact.

So there you have it.  You can’t do anything about people’s values, beliefs, and other constructs because you don’t understand them and frankly, you can’t change people.  But you can change behavior.  Define Safety Culture as a behavior and that behavior is talking.   It’s operational because you can see (and hear) people talk and talking can be a direct goal of your safety management systems and other efforts to improve safety.  All of these tools should explicitly be designed to get people talking … and you’ll know if your successful because, well, you’ll see people talking.

Consider a worker telling another about a short cut to a task that involves risk. Consider a supervisor who emphasizes speed in getting a piece of equipment back on line.  Consider a leader who tells subordinates to push the equipment upgrades off for yet another year to save costs.  In all these instances the safety culture promotes risk through talking – a negative safety culture.

Alternatively, when a worker takes a moment to alert another employee when they are taking a risk, when a supervisor asks his work team about the potential hazards in a job and discusses the safe behaviors that mitigate the hazards, or when a leader asks his subordinates about the safety implications of budget decisions, the safety culture promotes safety through talking – a positive safety culture.

People talking to people about safety, your safety culture, happens through all levels of the organization and is not necessarily top-down or bottom-up. 

Note also that Safety Management Systems are just formalized methods of communication:

•  Minor Injury/Close Call reporting = talking about incidents that happened instead of hiding them;

•  Safety Procedures = written versions of talking about safe behaviors on a task;

•  Training = talking, a lot of talking;

•  Safety Culture Surveys = Trying to listen to a proxy of talking (not a really good one either).

The question here is: how effectively are your safety management systems at influencing the critical talking that needs to go on between and among your employees and managers?

The way we’re going to solve any problems with our safety management system is gain insight into the risks people take and the only way we are going to get insight into the risks people take … is by talking to each other.

To be sure, conversations can also hurt your safety program. Workers and managers can discuss how to hide at-risk behavior. Workers and managers can complain about the management systems designed to help them stay safe. They can run through safety meetings in monotone voices, teach each other how to pencil whip forms, and outright lie about inspections or preventative maintenance.

More insidious is when managers only talk about safety in compliance, disciplinary terms, a type of talk that makes it far less likely anyone will report at-risk behavior. I talk about the labeling that goes along with this in my book Dysfunctional Practices that kill your Safety Culture). When this type of “talking-down-to employees” kill the conversation, risks are taken and the system that promotes this risk- taking remains hidden, deep in the culture of silence.

Everyone can and must speak up about at-risk behavior. When conversations happen among workers (and with managers) safe behaviors increase.  We know this, there is ample evidence.  This is because conversations point out risk, discuss why risks are taken, and then identify alternative safe behaviors. 

Take it further -- those same conversations support other aspects of your safety program.  They identify hazards, come up with better processes, and share best practices.   A positive safety culture is one where people talk about safety – in a lot of different ways.

Talk the Talk 

Conversations can be messy at first. When I do focus groups with employees about safety I often hear a messy response. Sometimes animated workers start complaining how safety incidents are mostly management’s fault because ”they” have “failed” to provide safe equipment and facilities; or ”they” push production and budget over safety; or ”they” rely on the workers to do all on the job training with folks who are too green to know better; or ”they” blame workers through the discipline program, or…or…or…  the complaint typically points at some mysterious manager named ”they.”

I always retort, 

Well then ‘they’ should be fired! 

Wait. 

Who are ‘they’?” 

No one ever knows, because these systems are complex.   Because of this complexity it’s all too easy for workers to blame managers. This same complexity also makes it too easy for managers to blame the workers as well with the nebulous ”they.” In bad safety cultures you hear the word ”they” and “them” a lot. 

”They” is the poison word lurking behind the blaming and other dysfunctions that kill your safety culture. “WE” is the antidote to fix it.

Imagine an empowered workforce and management working together as a ”WE” to constantly talking about hazards and risk. That’s how a culture reduces injuries. 

The Verbal Behaviors that can create a positive Safety Culture are reinforced just like any other behavior.  You reinforce when people talk about safety, report minor incidents, and point out risk, these behaviors increase.  When these verbal behaviors increase, they happen more in the work site.  When more safety talking occurs then more people will try it themselves, modeling those who do.  They, in turn, will get reinforced by this emerging Safety Culture and the safety talking builds and builds. 

Most importantly, data shows that talking to someone about safety can help change their behavior... But most, most importantly, talking to someone about safety makes it 2X more likely that you’ll change your own behavior.

Why mess with a messy concept of Safety Culture.  Instead, cut the fat and recognize Safety Culture for what it is... people influencing each other by talking.  With this recognition comes a definition we can do something with, something we can operationalize into useful tactics to reduce injuries.

So go out and “Talk the Talk”!

         William of Ockham (1285-1349)



     


       

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