When someone says safety culture, what comes to mind?
I was recently at a conference with some peers and a great discussion started about global, organizational culture. I do have to note, I loved the way they talked about their company culture, not just safety culture. Safety was conveyed as an integral piece of the overall culture. In other words, they had no company culture without safety.
The discussion was focused around creating a system that would create a company culture for their global network. Also, the company had been around for decades. So, they were a highly diverse company. They wanted everyone to use the basic tools, principles, and essentially speak the same cultural language of their company. The basic idea was to take that amazing diversity and create a single culture that could function in synchrony. Their goal was not to take away from the diversity but to use it to sculpt what would become the organizational culture.
This is what got me to think more about culture across this scale. Can there be nuances of culture (specifically for me the safety component)?
Safety culture is like any other cultural component. It can be based on so many people based factors: location, age, education, and so many more. From the creation of a safety culture standpoint, this is where I feel we fail as companies. The company is driven by a laser focus on lean mentality to standardize. So much so sometimes that the tools and processes are forcefully integrated into the culture. They forget that lean is about having tools to eliminate waste and using the right tool for the right process. The local culture is not a waste. It is something that needs the right tool to be applied.
Here is a rough example. The idea of peer-to-peer observations has always been a tremulous path. So often, it is not used or implemented in a way that reaches its full potential. If a culture of the location or region is one that does not bode well to that type of interaction, why force it? There are other observation and hazard recognition tools available that can be just as effective.
I love the story of a very dynamic supervisor I worked with. He was amazing. He loved uplifting his people. He was very handshake, high-five, pats on the back, energetic leadership. There was a subset of our team that culturally did not like to be touched. He had to adapt his energy to their culture. And he did! And he continued to be super successful! He did not force his method. He used other motivational tools to achieve the same goal. The overall company culture of inclusive and positive leadership was fully working. There was a nuance to the culture.
So, how do you create the organizational culture and still allow you sites, regions, and people to maintain their culture? There is no silver bullet approach, but there are some basic principles that will help.
Create a cultural vision statement, and use it as the litmus test.
Teach the tools. Expect the right tools to be used. Don’t expect the same tool to be used everywhere
Focus the culture on embracing problem-solving and continuous improvement.
Talk to the front line employees about culture regularly and ask if it is working
Invest in training and reinforcing the principles and tools of the culture
Culture is the culmination of the people that make up the workplace. A company should have a company culture and should work to educate and reinforce that culture. The organization should also remember that cultures have little differences that make them special. These differences should be inclusive to the culture and embrace those aspects of the people.
My own arrogance gets in the way of my objectives much more than I would like to admit.
This post will take some time to explain. But if you make the journey with me, I promise that I will make a point 🙂
Throughout my career and life, a common theme continues to emerge. Yet, I always keep doing exactly what keeps causing me grief. And even knowing that today, I am not sure that I will really embrace the change.
In high school, I was in speech and debate. I was pretty good at it too. My real ability was to be able to BS. Give me a topic and watch me ramble on about items that were like the topic but not really the topic. I competed in two different categories. Both were limited prep speech processes. One was a formal persuasive speed (extemporaneous), the other was informal and more laid back (impromptu). I really loved impromptu. It gave me a lot of joy to talk about fun things of my own interest. The problem was that I wanted all my speeches to be impromptu. It was later in college when I went back as a coach and really saw the difference. My coaches in high school would explain and explain that extemp needed to be very fact based, formal, scripted almost. I always chose to do it my way. This limited me. I did well but never as well as it could have been. Why? I wanted it my way refusing to change my style to what the audience needed.
In college as a chemistry major, there were very different types of methods that I was taught. Quantitative, qualitative, and organic chemistry were very different in their approaches, even in the way they kept lab books and wrote up findings. In a typical me fashion, if I found one way of writing something up that I liked I kept using it. I would just write it like I wanted to. My professors would comment on my writing style and try to guide me. Again, I wanted it my way.
In my first safety job, I would write reports and send emails just like a scientific write up and then wonder why no one read them. I had to have it my way. Eventually, I learned better, but I was slow to learn that lesson (and still am as you will see).
When I began work on my masters in business, I wrote my papers just like a scientific paper. Again, I did good but not great. I had to learn to write based on the topic. A statistical review is (or should be) different from a leadership case study.
In another job, I became interested in safety training. I took on a mentor as part of a company program. I deliberately wanted someone in instructional design. I was paired up with an amazing person, who again, made me focus and reflect on not only what I needed to say but who I was saying it to.
My greatest challenge was my dissertation. It was an APA format paper. During the many, many revisions there were parts of the paper that continually gave grief to my mentor, my committee, the department chair, and multiple editors. I kept wanting to cite safety information as part of the work. From a psychology perspective, it confused those not in the safety field and was very hard to format. I, being a tenured safety person, refused to change that information. Quick sidebar for background: The dissertation format was 5 chapters. Each chapter was reviewed and revised between 2-4 times. My full dissertation of all chapters combined was on revision 11 when it was accepted for publication. What made revision 11 so different? I took out the safety citations that did not add real value to the psychological study. I could have potentially completed the work sooner if I had just not been so stubborn about communicating the way I wanted. What is even worse is that my dissertation was about creating meaning in safety training. The findings pointed to making the information pertinent to the employee. Evidently, I struggle to learn from my own work. 🙂
Why have a blog? Because I want to communicate the way I want.
That was a really long story to make a simple point. One that I still struggle with everyday. Before your next email, training, talk, or paper take a moment to really consider your audience. Is this what your audience needs to hear? Is it what they expect to hear? Is it something that makes sense to them? Is it meaningful for them? Will it have meaning for them? Are you delivering it in a way that helps them see the meaning in your communication?
Have you ever been in a work position where only absolute perfection was accepted? Yeah, I have been too in both a safety role and in other positions.
This is both the requirement for success, the punishment for failure, and the fast track to burnout. As people, we can only handle this type of strain/stress for so long. In short bursts where it is needed, we can perform at that high level. When it becomes the all time standard with no deviation, we lose the motivation or we lose ourselves. It was once described to me as “if everything is that important, then nothing is important.”
This is a tough place to be for anyone. You need a job, but your job is also causing undue amounts of personal strain.In cases such as these, there are a few things that you can do.
- Start the job hunt. The market is rich for safety professionals now. We are in a fortunate position that our work is needed, and there is work available.
- Baseline the expectations. I remember a time where there was a weekly performance call. It never mattered how well you performed, you were going to be told how bad of an employee you really were. Someone new joined the meeting one day and asked me what the expectations of the call was. My answer . . pain! I had baselined the entire process to know that the point was to be told all the things wrong. Once I understood the true intent of the call, I could create an internal baseline to overcome the pressure
- Find a peer group. Talking to co-workers who you trust about the situation. Sometimes, it helps to commiserate with people who are in the same situation as yourself.
- Don’t give up. Our work affects so much more than ourselves. The situation may be bad. Keep going and know you are helping to protect our teams. Keep good records and take lots of notes. Focus on what is most important, protecting our people, environment, and communities.
This applies to many in the workplace, but I like to think as safety as a unique position. We need the ability to be problem solvers and not have fear of failure. The desire for improvement and flexibility to adapt to the culture and behaviors of the workplace is what makes our roles so vital to the overall health of an organization. If the constant expectation is perfection with a dose of punishment, the limitation placed on the position becomes unmanageable and unproductive.
Overall, know that your work is important and that change is the only constant in business.
Sometimes an Evader is born. Sometimes an Evader is made.
In the spectrum of success and failure, The Evader one who is doing all they can to avoid failure and not one bit concerned with seeking success.
Before you judge the Evader’s motives, I have three semi-rhetorical questions:
- How many times does your success not be recognized before you don’t care about it anymore?
- How many times does an organization attempt to prove your success was not one before you quit trying?
- How frequently do you simply wish to be “off the radar?”
The life of the Evader is a slippery slope and can be enabled through organizational climate.
There are so many stories of organizations trying to do the right thing, but end up creating a whole systemic group of Evaders.
The company that has the top five worst performers and the top five best performers work together to find solutions and both groups have to develop and overly complex presentation and documentation. Why does the top performer have to do all the work of the worst performer?
The company that forces all annual reviews to be in a bell curve. The lowest get fired, the highest get to participate in an inquisition on why they deserve the honor.
The company that has meetings to discuss low performers only to change the metrics at random to make sure everyone “has an opportunity to improve.”
The company that claims to be a “learning organization” only to call every non-success a complete failure publically. Where learnings have to be defended with the utmost passion and authority.
The company that requires that your good idea has to be the good idea of your boss and boss’s boss or it means nothing.
In safety, the company that wants compliance but nothing more.
Each of these scenarios creates a culture that seeks refuge in the middle. The best are punished right alongside the worst. It’s a different punishment, but it is still an organization method to not have to reward those that are actually seeking success.
Ultimately, the Evader is a direct result of their motivation. There are extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivators are those things that are outside of our control yet have a relatively minor impact. While intrinsic motivation is very personal, hard to change and make a big impact on us.
I find myself, at times, falling into the mold of The Evader. It is easy to do when intrinsic motivation is low and the perceived extrinsic motivation is high. It is through self-reflection and calibration that changes can be made. Here are my tips to make that mental shift back into success seeking rather than failure avoiding.
- Focus on your intrinsic values/motivation
- Do you believe in a higher power? If so, is our work not to serve that rather than a company? We should do our utmost with what we are given.
- How would your family, friends, those that you respect feel about your current performance?
- You have something/ are someone to be proud of! Make your personal brand mean something. Don’t let someone, some organization, or something take that away from you. You are the only you there is. You bring something wonderful to the company. Don’t let them dim the light you shine.
- Calibrate the extrinsic motivations
- Talk to someone you trust in the organization and see if they see the same issues you do. Maybe it is just a perspective issue and not an organizational one.
- When encountering negative stimulus to learnings or positive items, professionally point out how they are good. Emphasize what works and how to sustain it.
- Never miss a chance to talk about what you do well. Keep that 30-second elevator speech ready and keep it current to the great things you are doing.
Each day we have the choice to make on how we engage the day . . . hour . . . situation . . . moment. As safety professionals, there are real and personal consequences to what we do. We must keep trying to keep our motivation up. Even though our work may not be recognized, we must remind ourselves constantly that our work is for a greater good.
It sounds sappy, but it is true. Take pride in what you do each day to make our workplaces and homes safer.
Here is a copy of the live feed for the presentation “Creating Meaning in Safety Training” from May 8, 2019 in Louisville KY.
Jump to 16 minutes for the presentation to actually start.
Thanks again to all those who supported me through this process.
I will be live from the TN Safety Congress in July for those who are interested.
My warmest appreciation and thanks to everyone who was able to be present and watch the live stream of the presentation. It was such a great honor for me to share my work with you today. As promised here is a link to the presentation: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/gnw3uzdpt9vkzq9/AADsTc_IDJ0-DM1rSLwBN8coa?dl=0
Hopefully in the next few weeks my dissertation will also be publish officially and I can share that also 🙂