Organizational leaders recognize the importance of getting the culture right in order to enhance safety performance. A positive work environment is essential. But all too often they approach the safety culture issue with worn out platitudes.
I once coached an inexperienced leader in his first job of supervising three manufacturing plants. He came up through marketing and didn’t really understand what his plant managers were up against. He knew he didn’t know the technical aspects, but he had been taught that his job was to lead. He had come to believe that technical knowledge was not important; he could rely on people knowledge.
In some cases that might be true, but in this case what he had learned was a pile of vacant platitudes. The plant managers he was supervising had real issues to manage. Their employees were not engaged, communication was poor, and supervisory skills were low. The parent company had recently acquired these plants and wanted to bring them up to the corporate standard. Safety performance was poor and it showed in the incident rate, which had the attention of the head of the business unit.
The leader’s first impulse was to go after the culture. He wanted to create a “high-performance culture” and talked with his plant managers about it. When he started talking about ‘authentic leadership,’ ‘emotional intelligence’ and ‘managing with empathy’ they rolled their eyes. It didn’t feel to them like the real world they were confronting. The more he talked about it the less attention they gave it.
It wasn’t difficult to get him to see the opportunity to lead with safety. Workplace injuries represented something concrete that the plant managers could relate to. Instead of talking about culture, they could change culture by preventing injuries. Instead of talking about engagement, they could engage their workers in safety improvement. Instead of trying to act empathetic they could find out about real issues that affected people. They didn’t fully realize it, but they were creating a high performance culture. A real one.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about all this is that it isn’t obvious to leaders what the relationship between cultural excellence and safety performance is. They recognize “safety culture” as something desirable, but again that can easily lead to vacant talk. The fact is that a wide base of research has established the relationship between positive culture, safety performance, and overall organizational performance. Leaders may not know this, but they will recognize it when you point it out.