September 15, 2016

Where Did the Concept of “Safety Culture” Come From?

We’ve found that organizational culture is one of the most important dimensions of business performance, especially in the realm of safety. But “safety culture” is often taken for granted because the concept seems so obvious and so powerful and few people realize the context in which organizational culture exists. Indeed, it didn’t emerge as a subject of inquiry until 1960, and it didn’t become prominent until after 1985. Organizational culture as we understand it started with Edgar Schein’s observations in the late 1950s.

Schein was working for National Training Labs in Boston, doing leaderless training groups, also called ‘T’ groups. Schein and his colleagues were interested in how business leaders acted in groups. Specifically, they wanted to know how authority was related to leadership, how employees decided to follow (or not), and what leaders did to gain informal authority.

Schein would bring a group of executives in for several days of training and he would begin by assembling the group, sitting down with them in a circle, and saying nothing. When people finally asked what was going on, he would answer with a question: What do you want to be going on? And then he would be silent.

What followed was very interesting: People would begin to structure the activities of the group. Leaders would emerge and standards would start to be set. Some individuals were angry, some were having fun, others perplexed. But it didn’t take long for the group to begin to develop ways of doing things, and out of this came a sense of group identity, a set of unwritten rules for how things would be done, and an informal designation of leaders. A culture of the organization had been born, often within a few days. Schein named these sets of behaviors “organizational culture” and began to study and write about it. When learning about the organizations he was consulting with, it was of primary importance.

In a formal sense, culture is now defined as the shared values, beliefs, and assumptions that govern behavior. Informally, culture is expressed as “the way we do things around here.” Even though most people have heard and understand these definitions, culture can be difficult to pin down because values, beliefs, and assumptions are not directly observable, and “the way we do things” is too vague to be useful. In the book Leading with Safety, we present a set of measures, drawn from the research literature, that characterize an organization’s culture and safety climate. These characteristics turn out to be excellent leading indicators of safety as well as organizational performance in general. With them, we can measure specific cultural attributes that predict safe behavior and which correlate statistically with injury frequency.

This is an excerpt from Tom and Kristen’s latest book, 7 Insights into Safety Leadership.

For more information on improving your culture, visit our safety culture page.

Learn more about our approach to safety culture

Where Did the Concept of “Safety Culture” Come From?

September 15, 2016

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