Culture is one of the most maligned words these days, in management speak in general, but in the safety world in particular, I think. When a word is mentioned so often, by so many people and especially as the problem or solution for almost everything, your buzzword radar should raise red flags all over and the wise thing is to adopt some healthy scepticism.
The other day, I read a new article from Safety Science by Sidney Dekker and Hugh Breakey about Just Culture. An interesting paper, about improving safety by achieving substantive, procedural and restorative justice. You should be able to download it from Science Direct (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ssci.2016.01.018).
A very interesting comment is ‘hidden’ in the footnotes of the paper (interesting comments often are - I know many people ignore them, but I tend to follow them up, because many worthwhile side-tracks are usually found in them):
“Whereas social science has gradually abandoned culture as a prime-moving mechanism of social life, safety science has embraced an almost nineteenth-century certainty about the importance of culture to the social and organizational order (Guldenmund, 2000; Myers et al., 2014). Safety science tends to follow the functionalist tradition of management science and organizational psychology, where culture is seen as something that an organization has – a modifiable or exchangeable possession or property which can be mapped with quantifiable data gathered through e.g., surveys.”
There are several interesting comments in this footnote. Let’s highlight some.
What struck me is that some sciences appear to have discarded the concept of culture as a driver, while in the safety world it has been embraced as a solid fact. Does this mean that culture is very much One Big Myth? Or at least that the influence of culture maybe isn’t as big as we tend to assume? Interesting, and worth exploring at a later point of time. For now I don’t want to leave the concept entirely, because it does have a strong appeal, and I really need more information than just a mention in a footnote. But at least this should be a hint to handle the term a bit more carefully.
Whether culture-as-a-mover is a Myth or not - even so there is more than enough Culturebabble going around. As the authors correctly observe, the predominant view on culture within safety is a functionalist, normative view. Culture is generally seen as something that can be measured and managed, like other aspects of business.
Just one random example picked from many possible options, is the summary of a safety student’s master thesis that I came across a month or two ago. The student had looked into the implementation of a Safety Program (note the capitals, of course there was a Bradley curve in the thesis, as well as a reference the corporate goal to reach a World Class Safety Level of Zero Accidents) in a chemical plant. The average score in a perception review had gone from 3,5 to 3,8. Without explaining what that meant and whatever the context was, this was seen as proof that safety culture had improved, thanks to the Program.
This is not a stand-alone example. Alas it is a rather common modus operandi in the safety world. And while I find this approach highly questionable, I do want to note that even these applications can have positive effects and drive forward some improvement. But also they also contain risks, because positive results from such a simple survey can lead to complacency or reduced sense of urgency, as well as eventually more severe direct consequences.
The functionalist view also reigns supremely outside of safety, by the way. Only a few weeks later, I was in a meeting where a high ranking HR Manager thought that it was possible (and perfectly alright) to draw conclusions about the organisational culture based on a year old employee satisfaction survey without any special additional work. She even suggested culture as a KPI and it boggles my head even today, thinking how this is would be defined or managed.
Just a closing thought. As Sidney and Hugh write in that footnote, in Safety, culture is often “seen as something that an organization has”. Interestingly, most people use the (heavily simplified) definition “Culture is how we DO things around here”. That one should rather fit to the Interpretive approach that sees culture as an emerging property in an organisation and rather as something the organisation does than something it has. This just goes to illustrate that most people really don’t know what they are talking about and are only culturebabbling something that sounds interesting, trendy and somewhat sciencey.
My recently published book on Safety Myths contains a relatively short chapter on (Safety) Culture, featuring eight Myths ranging from “We Have Been Doing This for 30 Years”, culture and compliance, positive mind-sets and top-down culture changes to the certification of culture, responsibility and the question whether toilets tell about culture. And of course there is plenty of attention for buzzwords throughout the book!
Find more information about the book, including an overview of its contents and how to order on:
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