12 Aug 2016
Creating a Safety Culture: What It Is and How To Get There
Safety culture can be distilled into nine characteristics predictive of safety outcomes. By tracking performance across these characteristics, companies can measure their performance against the world’s most successful safety organizations, both within the industry and without. More importantly, they can identify gaps in their culture and breakdowns in their safety performance, thereby establishing clear goals to overcoming them and achieving safety objectives. To improve safety performance and create lasting change in organizational culture, leaders can focus on developing 10 safety-specific leadership capabilities.
A strong safety culture means more than just better injury rates. Organizations good at safety have been shown to do better across all performance areas. With improvements in safety comes greater employee commitment to company goals, more discretionary effort, better team functioning, and a healthier bottom line.
A high-functioning safety culture is defined by a clear vision from leadership that articulates actionable steps and specific behaviors leading to the desired state. When people know the goal and what is required of them to achieve it, they will not get lost in vague mandates that fail to motivate or that fall short of galvanizing individuals around safety improvement.
Culture change requires a leadership team that is committed to the vision and capable of guiding the organization through obstacles and the inevitable pushback that occurs with any initiative. Leaders can learn skills and develop capabilities that will move the organization in the desired direction and build performance across the nine culture characteristics indicative of world-class safety performance. With visible commitment to safety, leaders will gain credibility with the workforce and engage people in the process.
Culture Characteristics Predictive of Safety Outcomes
Procedural Justice. This characteristic reflects the extent to which the individual perceives fairness in the supervisor’s decision-making process. Leaders enhance perceptions of procedural justice when they make decisions characterized by consistency across people and time, lack of bias, accuracy (decisions are based on good information and informed opinion), correctability (decisions can be appealed), representativeness (the procedure reflects the concerns, values, and outlook of those affected), and ethicality.
Leader/Member Exchange. This dimension reflects the relationship the employee has with his or her supervisor. In particular, this scale measures the employee’s level of confidence that his or her supervisor will look out for his or her interests. Leaders can enhance perceptions of leader/member exchange by developing positive working relationships with their reports and getting each person to see how achieving organizational goals can be fulfilling both to the leader and to the employee.
Transformational leadership exerts influence principally through relationships with employees. In a work group, the supervisor develops relationships with each of the workers. The leader exerts influence by getting each person to see how his or her objectives support the larger objectives of the organization.
Management Credibility. Management credibility reflects the perception of the employee that what management says is consistent with what management does. Leader behaviors that influence perceptions of trustworthiness include consistency, integrity (telling the truth and keeping promises), sharing control in decision making and through delegation, communication, and benevolence (demonstration of concern).
Perceptions that a manager is competent seem to be a necessary but not sufficient basis for development of trust. That is, workers are unlikely to trust a manager who is seen as incompetent, but competence alone does not necessarily lead to trustworthiness.
Perceived Organizational Support. This characteristic describes the perception of employees that the organization cares about them, values them, and supports them. The extent to which employees believe the organization is concerned with their needs and interests strongly influences the likelihood that they will “go the extra mile.” Leaders can demonstrate organizational support by engaging in and communicating efforts that go well beyond what is required.
Perceived organization support is not the same as job satisfaction, although the two are often related. Employees who believe the organization cares about them are more likely to be satisfied. Perceived organizational support is an overall perception by employees of organizational commitment to them, whereas job satisfaction is an affective (positive/negative) response to specific aspects of the work situation (e.g., pay, physical working conditions, work schedules).
Teamwork. Teamwork measures the perceived effectiveness of work groups to function as an effective team. Group process affects whether people will talk to one another about safety, and it is directly related to safety outcomes such as level of at-risk behavior and injury reporting. It also influences perceptions of communication around safety and of organizational value for safety.
Work-Group Relations. The work-group-relations characteristic reflects the degree to which coworkers treat each other with respect, listen to each other’s ideas, help each other out, and follow through on commitments made. Work-group relations are related to supervisor fairness as well as to worker/supervisor relationships. These beliefs influence whether employees will speak up to one another about safety issues and raise safety concerns with the supervisor.
Work-group relations are affected by the leader of the group. Supportive and trustworthy behavior by the leader is likely to lead to trust among members of the group.
Organizational Value for Safety. This dimension relates to perceptions of the extent to which the organization values safety as represented by the prioritization of safety compared to other concerns; how informed management is about safety issues; and the willingness of management to invest time, energy, or money in addressing safety issues. The higher the perceived value for safety, the more likely it is that workers will raise safety issues, work safely, and not cover up incidents and injuries.
Upward Communication. This characteristic addresses perceptions of the quality and quantity of upward communication about safety, the extent to which people feel encouraged to bring up safety concerns, and the level of comfort in discussing safety-related issues with the supervisor. The climate around communication influences the willingness of workers to speak up to one another about safety, the level of at-risk behavior, and the number of reported injuries.
Approaching Others. The approaching-others component addresses beliefs about the likelihood that workers will speak up to a coworker who they think is at risk for injury, pass along information about safety, or step up to help a coworker do a job more safely. The more likely workers are to speak up with each other, the higher the level of safe behaviors in a work group.
Approaching others is related to both leader/member exchange and the commitment of the team leader (supervisor) to safety. The quality of the relationship with the supervisor is related to the willingness of team members to speak up. If the leader values safety, the subordinate can reciprocate high-quality leader/member exchange by speaking to others about safety.
What Sets High-Performers Apart?
Experience working with companies around the world in some of the most demanding environments has led to the identification of key practices and organizational capabilities that set organizations that excel at safety apart from others. Among these practices, great safety organizations define a clear vision for safety; create a comprehensive network of communication and education across departments, levels, and sites; and gain the buy-in and commitment of employees.
Organizations that perform high in safety are created at the top by leaders who are serious about culture change, know the role they play in creating culture, and who work with their teams on a daily basis to cultivate the culture they want to see. These leaders set the tone for the entire organization, back up what they promise, and talk about safety improvement in terms of exposure reduction rather than injury. A previously published article identified 10 characteristics that distinguish great safety organizations. They are
- Understand the real safety objectives of the organization’s leadership.
- Understand what motivates safety leaders generally.
- Learn how the organization is demotivating safety leaders and develop new strategies.
- Understand the safety perspective of each level of employee.
- Get top leadership to develop a vision for safety.
- Assess safety leadership skill level across the organization.
- Assess the organizational culture and safety climate of the organization.
- Teach the core elements of organizational safety to the leaders.
- Design interventions that address top leadership, middle managers, and front-line employees.
- Continually reassess and improve all of the above.
It is possible to identify, track, and measure the characteristics that make up great safety organizations. Because of this, in turn, it is possible to create a discernible and actionable path toward safety improvement across a host of cultural scales. There is no silver bullet in safety, and culture cannot be changed overnight. But, with leadership commitment starting at the executive level and extending to line leaders, a climate of change can be created that supports and sustains a truly great safety organization.