If We Are Going to Change Culture – Then What to What?

There is much discussion concerning how to change a safety culture providing ideas on what you can done to begin and sustain a “safe” work environment. Many people have their own idea and agenda. Who is to say who is right or wrong with their analysis? However, to move towards this culture, it might be a good idea to know more about the current culture you are in. How do “things get done around here?” This is a core question to ask. If you know the culture you are in, you can better assess where the obstacles are hidden, the personalities you will encounter and the resistance to change that might be present.

In the book Corporate Cultures, written by Deal and Kennedy they address several questions, such as: Does the Company have one or more visible beliefs? What are they? Do people know these beliefs? How do these beliefs affect the day to day business? Are the beliefs reinforced, by formal personnel processes, recognition, rewards?

Other things to consider or understand include the following: What is the business environment? What are the values? Is safety a priority, where things change all of the time, or a value where that will remain the same. Who are the Heroes? What are the rites and rituals day to day? What is the primary/informal means of communication? “A strong culture is a system of informal rules that spells out how people are to behave most of the time?” This not a trivial pursuit.

If the heroes (and senior managers) are from the sales staff and they get most of the rewards, presenting your safety presentation in the form of an engineering study may not fly, how do you translate the message into their language – They speak sales and commissions, client attainment, not rules and regulations!

How are meeting held? Formal, informal, complex or brief, bullets or in depth text, graphs? How and what is communicated. Read the newsletters as if you were tracking some great beast, you are!

Deal and Kennedy discuss several corporate “tribes”. The “tough-guy, macho” – where high risk are taken expecting quick feedback; The “work hard/play hard” where one seeks fun and action having few risks with quick feedback. It expects a high level of low risk activity. Next is the “bet-your-company’ with big stakes, very high risk, slow feedback; Finally the “process” culture that provides little or no feedback, people show up do their job and go home – bureaucracy!

The authors suggest a number of areas to look for clues about the organization: Study the physical settings, spiffy corporate office, dumpy outlying sites, and class differences? Contrast between what is said to be a value and clues as to what is really held as a belief. How does the organization greet strangers? Service cultures may ask if you need anything; Macho may ignore you. Short term focus? Long term focus? Inward focus? Inconsistency, different standards of dress, work habits, rituals? Guess the culture. Has the safety coordinator set up a successful process that reduced losses. If his/his GM walked by and threw a gift card on the desk with no comment. I’d go with tough-guy/macho. Each of these cultures requires a different approach- asking for feedback in the process culture, yawn! Setting up a multi-year process in a rah-rah sales driven culture, become the perceived anchor to their success. Your strategy and tactics must vary, maybe at each level of the organization. This is not to say a safety environment cannot be achieved in any culture but knowing what drives the organization may increase the potential acceptance of the process you want to implement.