Safety culture fuzziness and how to change “the climate”

The fuzziness of the (safety) culture concept and the unconscious nature of the basic assumptions make it difficult to influence culture directly. Some thoughts on what does constitute this culture and how we can better define and influence, direct it.

In our thinking we’ve mentioned “common sense” as one of the pillars of a healthy safety culture. Common sense is a pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group has learned as it solved issues of external adaptation and internal integration. These basic assumptions are not readily observable or measurable as they are unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs that are the ultimate source of values and actions.

One way to approach culture change could be by looking at the related concept of climate, which describes the shared perceptions of organizational policies, practices, and procedures, both formal and informal.

Within safety science, Dov Zohar has proposed that safety climate is formed by the workers’ perception of the relative priority of safety versus efficiency goals in supervisory practices. Supervisory practices are guided by supervisors’ basic assumptions (culture) and are taken as guiding principles for employee actions as they are perceived by employees (climate). Of course, not every supervisory practice is directly guided by basic assumptions, as many other behavioral influences exist.

The formation of climate and culture is not rooted in any single instance of supervisory practice, but relates to the general pattern of priorities in supervisory practices over time. Thus, creating a sustained change in supervisory practices becomes a way to put safety climate and culture change into practice.

However, neither organizational nor cultural change is a prescriptive linear top-down process. Change becomes significant when a double-loop is installed. Both top-down and bottom-up. This approach is better articulated by the word Self-organization and is seen as a process by which novel and unpredictable order emerges from the interactions between distinctive agents. Hence, leaders are not in full control of change processes and cannot predict the outcome of changes. Thus, change cannot be implemented top-down, but instead emerges out of the pattern of interactions between the individuals in the organization.

At Safety Changer we use OKR’s to clearly define priorities and help self-organize our employees to work towards the strategic goals and visions of the company. The change arising from the pattern of interactions of our employees with the overall objectives is that which make our “climate”.

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs):

A management methodology that connects the work of employees to an enterprise’s strategic plan. OKRs help businesses:

  • Impose a disciplined goal setting process
  • Clarify expectations for employees so they’re working on the right things
  • Enable better communication and conversation through the visibility and transparency
  • Establish indicators for measuring progress
  • Connect objectives and key results throughout the enterprise

We’re constantly looking for partners who’re willing to challenge themselves and take a step further in disrupting their thinking on safety culture. We think there is much more to it.

Next, what do OKR’s have to do with safety culture.

This article was inspired by the research done by Kent J. Nielsen, Improving safety culture through the health and safety organization: A case study.

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