Denison’s Director of Research and Development, Levi Nieminen, was asked to join other scholars and practitioners from around the world at the 28th International Congress of Applied Professionals in Paris, France, to discuss their latest findings on culture and climate underpinnings of organizational well-being and effectiveness. In his symposium, Levi discussed the practical benefits of applying a culture lens to investigate and manage both safety and effectiveness within high-hazard work contexts. Below, Levi shares a few highlights from his presentation.

The leaders of most high-risk and high-hazard companies know the importance of managing their culture.  And in some cases the lesson is learned the hard way.  Following nearly every high-profile safety blowout of the last 30 years, subsequent investigations (often by panels of outside experts) have pointed to a ‘culture gone wrong’ in one manner or another.

Beginning with Chernobyl and NASA Challenger (both in 1986), the term/concept “safety culture” sprung to life in part to give more specific recognition to the central role of culture and in part to begin to un-package the elements of culture that are most directly to blame.  Since then, many models with many elements have emerged, hundreds of studies have been done on the topic, and numerous consulting firms have emerged as safety culture specialists.  In 2011, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a policy statement strongly advocating proactive steps to build and maintain a safety culture and specifying which elements are deserving of special attention. There are nine in total.  Other high-hazard industries are likely to follow their precedent and adopt similar prescriptions.

A number of scholar-practitioners in this space, me included, continue to mull over a very basic question: Is the “safety culture” perspective a useful distinction to make?  My answer for now is an uncertain one, though some of the considerations and many of the yet-to-be answered questions have become clear.  [This was one of several topics explored by a panel of expert culture scholars this morning at the 28th International Congress of Applied Psychology in Paris, France.  The international panel included presentations by Neal Ashkanasy (Australia), Lena Lastad (Sweden), Laura Petita (Italy), Celeste Wilderom (Netherlands), and me representing the U.S.].

The safety culture perspective has certainly provided important insights into the collective values, behaviors, and mindsets that most proximally impact safety outcomes within organizations.  Using the metaphor of a camera, its lens captures a relatively narrow field of content with clarity and specificity – a close “zoom.”  But is its scope broad enough to reveal much about the total organizational system and its interacting components?  Beyond the diagnosis, does it focus attention and energy on the right set of issues to intervene on?  And do the resulting actions create lasting change?

As a single approach, we might reasonably conclude that safety culture will fail to live up to these criteria on a number of grounds.  The most troubling is that we continue to learn how easily safety-specific resources, such as money, people, and tools, are discarded after incident-free periods within organizations, and how quickly the key lessons about safety fade from memory once people get down to working on the “real” jobs to be done.  The non-stop financial performance pressures that most companies experience nearly guarantees that all other points of focus can achieve second place on the priority list, at best.  As long as the cultural issues underlying safety are treated in isolation from the cultural issues that drive the bottom-line, the work of safety professionals can continue to fall easy prey to these realities.  If these concerns hold their water, what are some alternatives?

Unfortunately, there aren’t many studies that tell us whether other models and tools could do better; nor how different approaches could be combined to provide complementary perspectives and varying levels of “zoom.”  At Denison, our research has begun to address this issue by examining the interrelationships between culture, safety, and $$-financial performance.  The results of five recent studies [presented in this morning’s panel] point to a number of common cultural elements underlying the safety AND financial performance of high hazard companies.  A focus on learning, the capacity for change, team orientation, and employee empowerment all correlated positively with firms’ ROA and sales growth, while also correlating negatively with accident and injury rates.  And the effects are big enough to have big practical utility for organizations hoping to build these cultural attributes.

These findings lay the groundwork for a cultural perspective and practical approach that is designed to improve long-term organizational effectiveness, for which both safety and profitability is required.  Whether such a perspective should replace or simply augment a narrower focus on safety culture awaits further research comparing the predictive validity and impact of the two approaches.  While we wait on those findings, I’ll conclude for now by paraphrasing some sage advice passed along by Ed Schein recently while attending a safety conference in Switzerland… safety is about good management.

Levi Nieminen, Ph.D., is Director of Research and Development at Denison Consulting.  To contact Levi, email: LNieminen@denisonculture.com

* Interested readers can also check out related works by Nieminen, L., and Bruyere, U. and by E. Schein in Safety Management in Context: Cross-industry Learning for Industry and Practice, a white book by Swiss Re (2013; Eds. G. Grote & J. Carroll).

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