Insights on Culture

By Phil LaDuke

On Friday I went to the neighborhood bar as I am wont to do from time to time. While there I saw a regular who works with my brother in an open die forge. I passed the pleasantries with him and asked him how he was. He said he was doing a lot better and was healing. I didn’t know what he was talking about so I asked him. He explained that he was burned badly at work; second-degree burns over most of his lower leg. He quickly produced a cellphone and proudly displayed a gruesome photo of a badly burned leg. As I looked at the sickening display he recounted the details. He prefaced his story with a quick, “It was my own fault, I was so (expletive) stupid”, and told his tale of his not paying attention to a hot piece and having his pants catch on fire. Instead of using sand to put out the flames he panicked and ran. There were some jokes made in poor taste about the old Bill Cosby “Stop, Drop, and Roll” television ads, and I asked him how much time he missed. “Not a day. I took it like a man.” Took it like a man; his comment made me think about culture.

Culture is all the rage in safety these days. Circa 1972 James Reason made the observation that before an organization can create a “Just Culture” it must first create a “Safety Culture”. Reason wasn’t talking about worker safety, at least not in the way we tend to think of it. Unfortunately, the snake oil salesmen have glommed onto the term like lampreys on a fish’s soft white underbelly and subvert it more and more each day.

My acquaintance’s story tells us a lot about culture and the relationship between safety and culture. It occurred to me that there are levels within culture and if we are hoping to change the culture of our organizations we need to examine the nuances of culture. Each level of safety culture is characterized by a perception of a reaction of some sort; each one is driven by a fear of some sort.

Fear of Discipline

The other day I was late for a doctor’s appointment and I was tempted to speed; I didn’t. My first thought was, “I don’t need a ticket”. The idea of spending money on a ticket and the time it would take up just didn’t seem to favorably balance against the time I might save. As many times as my doctor made me wait (ultimately I had to wait in the doctor’s office anyway) I figured I was owed some slack. In the moment of decision, I placed more value on compliance than I did on the potential value.

Fear of Loss of Reputation

As I reflected on my decision I thought about culture. What, I asked myself, would I have done if my speeding had been through a school zone. What influence would the opinions of my friends and neighbors have on my decision. I think it would be fair to say that for many the risk of damaging our public image (coupled with the fear of discipline) would put more pressure on me to conform to a norm and to adhere to the values of the community. My desire to preserve my reputation was stronger than my desire to get to the doctor’s on time.

Fear of Culpability

Of course there also was my concern for public safety. I’d like to think that most of us want to behave safely when the lives of innocent school children are at stake. But even when the situation isn’t about endangering school children there is on some level a desire to be a good person and good member of the population; a good citizen, if you will. In our heart of hearts we all want to conform to the shared values of the culture. We go along to get along.

Putting It Into Practice

If these fears are the drivers of culture then what are we to do with this information. Well think back to the guy in the bar who set fire to his leg. Clearly the culture of his company valued guys who “man up” when it comes to injury. Here is a guy who is working while heavily medicated; doped up on pain medication. This is a culture that values a lower DART rate than it does the safety of the remaining employees (how do you think the performance of a heavily medicated employee will be effected?). This is a culture that encourages workers to “man up” and work while injured. This is a culture that doesn’t seem to value worker safety much. I realize this is harsh criticism and that I can’t really make judgments on the company simply because of an account from an injured worker. I think it’s important to note that the worker in question likes his employers and generally has good things to say about his company. The net sum total is this worker’s willingness to go to work rather than to stay home and recuperate he didn’t do it out of fear of repercussions he did it out of fear for his reputation and to conform to the shared values of the population.

The takeaway here is to change your culture you first have to understand the coercive pressures you put on people every day. You need to ask yourself three basic questions:

  • What value does the organization place on discipline? Are people hailed as heroes for “manning up” or dismissed as wimps because they report injuries or seek appropriate medical attention.
  • How are people who value safety viewed? Are they seen as solid professionals
  • How is risk viewed? Are people with a low risk tolerance seen as top performers or as “worry warts”?

The point I’m trying to make is that you may be fostering a culture that actually promotes the things that you are trying to change.

 

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