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Your Company Culture’s Effect on Safety; Just Lip Service or Something More?

Posted 1/1/2016

What is “company culture?” How can you tell what yours is? Why should you care?

By R. Bruce Wright 

For most people at work, their company’s culture is like the air they breathe. It is all around them, but it is invisible, unnoticed, and seldom given a first thought, never mind a second thought. Culture isn’t a physical object. You don’t see it, don’t often think about it, and find it hard to describe in the abstract, even though we all recognize it when we experience it.

And yet, many experts believe that company culture is the most important single issue influencing employee happiness, performance and yes, safety, at their workplace. A recent article in the New York Times advised job seekers to look at a company’s culture first in their job hunts. [To read that article, click here.] The impact of a company’s culture on safety is more influential than OSHA, more compelling than safety rules and programs, more important than meetings, manuals and safety committees, even more predictive of safety outcomes than inspection programs, field checks, and safety equipment. As safety experts, including those reading this now, all know, all the formal safety programs in the world won’t overcome poor attitudes, attitudes that are molded every day by a company’s culture.

One unusual and important characteristic of company culture is that it is created from the “top down” rather than “bottom up.” The reason for this is straightforward. Employees who want to get ahead in any organization look at those around and above them, their peers and supervisors, to find behaviors and attitudes to model. After all, if being successful is your goal you would want to do as your peers and leaders do, wouldn’t you?

This holds true at every level in a company, from the entry level workers all the way up to those who report directly to the CEO. How CEOs reward and punish their direct reports, how CEOs generally treat those people, is a primary factor in forming their employee’s models of success. Accordingly, it is highly likely that senior leaders will model the treatment they see meted out to them and their peers, and in turn treat their direct reports similarly, and so on down the line.

Take a moment to reality check this. How does your boss handle errors you make? As an opportunity to teach? As a coach who wants to help you to learn? Or even seeing errors as a chance for that boss to dig deep and learn what went wrong and to look for the gaps in the job process that let you make a choice that ended up being the wrong one so that a fix can be found? Or, on the other hand and less positively, does your boss give you a reaming out, venting frustrations, or look to assign blame for errors, or even talk about who's to blame with peers and other managers up the line? Is your company culture supportive or punitive?

Then, once you have determined what style your boss practices on you, ask yourself how you think his boss would handle a similar issue with him, and so on up the chain to the top. Consider how the CEO might handle shortcomings from among his or her direct reports. Even for the highest level in your company, I bet you have an idea how mistakes are handled, how the CEO reacts and treats subordinates. There is a continuous thread, isn’t there?

Good leaders select and train for good management, and in most organizations, the person at the top sets the tone for the entire company. Of course, when companies get very large, with hundreds or even thousands of employees, it becomes possible to have pockets of variation within groups, particularly when subsidiaries or divisions operate with some degree of autonomy. But most of you reading this do not work for truly large companies, so I will bet that you see the thread of consistency I described.

If you have read along this far, you may be starting to feel one of two moods washing over you. If you are one of the lucky ones, a smile plays on your face as you realize that your company has good leaders, a strong positive culture, and is a supportive place with regard to safety programs that you are responsible for, in whole or in part. Other readers may find their chins dropping as they realize that not only do they not enjoy a positive culture, worse yet, if my premise is right the culture they do have comes from right the top, and most of you are not at the top of the chain of command. But wait, don’t give up yet!

Even though a company’s culture starts at the top, it is not hopeless to try to alter it. It is possible to intervene, to have an effect, and to guide the direction of the company culture from below. Everyone knows that a part of their job involves “managing up” or influencing those above them in the chain. To change a culture, it is necessary to start a new behavior model, a new “thread,” by using good management skills yourself, by not copying any bad examples from above, in order to set a new and better model for others to see, and perhaps copy themselves. In addition, you can coach and teach your peers when you observe them making mistakes in how they act. You may need to present your advice in the form of a safety issue, wrap your management “gifts” in “safety paper” in order to get it accepted, but it can be done.

Those of you that have gotten into deeper philosophical conversations with me on the issue of how to promote safety cultures and attitudes may have recognized that this is something Synebar Solutions promotes in a large number of ways. But there is just too much to say to try to cover it all in this article. If you want to talk about a specific issue with me, just call me or drop me an email. I promise to spend all the time you want on this, since if is a favorite topic of mine.

If you want to read more about some of the ways you can affect the attitudes of those around you, both at work and at home, there are many pertinent articles that can be found in the RE-marks archive. For example, you can go to the two-part series on Shaping Workplace Attitudes. 

(Part 1 can be found by clicking here; Part 2 by clicking here.)

You might also look at the article Fix the Problem, not the Blame, (Link to it here) for ideas on how to use safety ideas to wrap around management issues.

If you already work in a company with a positive supportive culture, congratulations. If not, this is a good time to start on a campaign to fix it.

Best Wishes for 2016!