Spending More for Less Return? Time to revise your approach to safety culture

Spending More for Less Return? Time to Revise Your Approach to Safety Culture

True Case Study from Nuclear Industry 

A company is facing a very difficult mandate to transform the company’s safety culture. Regulators found safety violations that have to be corrected within a year or the facility will lose its license to operate. The latest audits indicate not enough progress is being made.

Most of the old leaders are gone. A new manager with a successful track record in transforming safety culture was brought in. Sure of himself, he took a command and control strategy to initiate the cultural transformation. Many technical experts were brought in that have pointed out all of the systems and hazards that must be corrected. It’s a daunting list that keeps getting longer. Everyone is exhausted from long hours and seemingly little progress. A consultant, who had not been on site for a year, commented that the employees looked older, disheveled, and without energy.

 Aside from technical experts, there have been psychologists, team builders, and educational programs to improve communication. The culture is implacable. There is no trust between management and union. The safety manager commented there is resistance to approaches aimed at team building and teaching managers how to create a climate of trust and open communication. They are too soft and cannot be measured.  “What are we getting for our money?” they ask. “The outcomes are simply too intangible.” “So we work on the tangible: audits, procedures, tracking systems, and compliance. The problem is that we feel like we’re drowning, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Intangible” is a perfect description for the factors that most impact organizational performance. Human emotions, thoughts, perceptions and experiences are intangible, yet they form the core data upon which humans make decisions. The intangible is exactly where a leader has to go to change culture, but it is not as esoteric or difficult as one may think. In fact, we have found that it is as concrete as teaching people how to have effective conversations

If you are a leader or member of a team tasked with designing or implementing a challenging culture change initiative, how do you choose where to invest your resources? The most acceptable and established strategy is to use audits, root cause analysis, upgraded SOP’s, and training. There is also acceptance for programs aimed at skill development in leadership and behavioral approaches to improving communication. This is the approach taken by our case study client. When the result is millions spent with not much movement, it is time to move from the concrete to the intangible.

This article will discuss three basic tools leaders can use to influence it. The first is the “culture iceberg.” The second is the “ladder of inference,” and the third is our program: Conversation at Work!

The Cultural Iceberg[1]

In 1976, Hall developed the iceberg analogy of culture. He reasoned that like the iceberg culture had some aspects visible, above the water, but there was a larger portion hidden beneath the surface. Edgar Schein adapted this model in 1980 to understand organizational cultures.[2] Most recently Schein has been applying his theory to help define “nuclear safety culture.” Both of these gentlemen maintained that it was the “intangible” aspects of culture, the thoughts and beliefs that drove human behavior. They also proposed that lack of knowledge regarding these invisible aspects or disregarding them was similar to walking through a minefield without the aid of a scanner.

What does the iceberg metaphor mean?

According to Hall, the external, or conscious, part of culture is what we can see. It is the tip of the iceberg and includes behaviors and some values. The internal, or subconscious, part of culture is below the surface of a society and includes some beliefs, assumptions, and thought patterns that underlie behavior.

There are major differences between the conscious and unconscious culture.

Internal                                versus                                            External

Implicitly Learned                                                                        Explicitly Learned

Unconscious                                                                                  Conscious

Difficult to Change                                                                        Easily Changed

Subjective Knowledge                                                                    Objective Knowledge

 Hall and Schein suggest that the only way to learn the internal culture of others is to actively participate in their culture. When one first enters a new culture, only the most overt behaviors are apparent. As one spends more time in that new culture, the underlying beliefs, values, and thought patterns that dictate that behavior will be uncovered.

Leaders, take note. What this model teaches us is that we cannot judge a new culture based only on what we see when we first enter it. We must take the time to get to know individuals from that culture and interact with them to gain their trust. Only by doing so can we uncover the values and beliefs that underlie the behavior of that society.

While there are some elements held in common by certain cultures, there is enough diversity that an individual site assessment is necessary. For example, all people from Mexico share certain values and thought patterns. However, depending on their personal family history there may be different interpretations individuals bring to the meaning of a behavior or belief. The same may be said of American union members. While they share many beliefs, critical experiences have made some more open to collaboration than others.

 Implications for Management Action

  1. Off-the-shelf programs or installing programs that worked elsewhere rarely work at the cultural level because you are using a product developed by people who have no experience with the culture where the program is applied. There is no shortcut to the trust building process that may require many interviews to get through the layers of unspoken beliefs and assumptions.
  2. The iceberg model makes it easy to see why managers prefer to focus on the tip of the iceberg. Managers are taught to and prefer working in the field of “objective knowledge” because it is concrete, easier to see and to change.  The Hawthorne experiments taught us that any change in the physical environment brought about change in production. However, it also showed that production returned to former levels after the effect of the change wore off. This means that a new senior manager may show temporary improvements, but the culture will return to “normal” in due time unless deeper changes are made.
  3. Leaders have to be willing to invest time and resources working at these deeper levels, but the challenge is how to do it systematically and cost-effectively.

The Ladder of Inference

Organizational redesign without interior redesign is out of alignment. Reorganizing does not change the way people do their work unless they also change the way they think about it and form new relationships. The notion that the changes we need to make are in our inner world is not new, but organizational practices have focused on external changes. So, how do we work in the inner realm?

Every leader should be introduced to the “ladder of inference.”[3] This model helps us understand the basis for misunderstanding and mistrust by showing us how human beings convert data into their own reality that can be many times removed from the truth.

This is important because a major obstacle in the way of recovery is usually lack of trust between employees and managers, departments, with unions and so on. In our case study the organization addressed this issue by training managers on various communication models such as “Difficult Conversations.” Why did the training meet resistance?

It is not easy to introduce the idea that our assumptions direct how we interpret what people tell us, and that what we think they mean may be incorrect. For example, Difficult Conversations uses the word of “story” to talk about how we observe an event or other’s behavior and then we formulate a story based on our own experience to explain what is happening as well as the intentions and inferences behind other’s words. In our case example people felt that they use of the word “story” meant they were being told that their experiences were untrue, and that “all you have to do is tell another story and everything is okay.”

There is research that has shown how gaining new information about an event, even years later, reconstructs a new reality in our minds. However, while psychologists see the use of story as a way to transform our experience, for a lot of clients, it is a loaded word. Story, for many, conjures up bedtime stories, and fiction. Instead, we need a process that offers new possibilities, but is grounded in the practical everyday work that needs to get done. We call this Conversation at Work!

 Conversation at Work!

Too many people have said the same things about effective relationships over the centuries for it to be a coincidence. These four consistently emerge. The first principle, love, is not a word often used in the workplace, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most potent forces.  The other three, mutual respect, shared understanding, and shared sense of purpose complete the foundation for rewarding, productive, creative, collaborative relationships.

We are able to establish relevance because prior to introducing these ideas there has been an extensive assessment process. There is also ample research and experience with this process to establish credibility. As you read the descriptions below, keep in mind that when we talk about these elements we do so in the context of people’s experience at work.

  1. Love
    1. Trust—Can I trust?
    2. Relatedness—I am constantly affecting and being affected
    3. Loss—I recognize the risk of caring
    4. Gain—The value of the potential outcome outweighs the risk
  2. Mutual respect
    1. Recognition—I see you, you exist
    2. Acceptance—I embrace your contributions and your flaws
    3. Responsibility—I keep my commitments and hold others accountable
  3. Shared understanding
    1. Common sense—I understand why and how
    2. Empathy—I listen and understand your perspective
    3. Self disclosure—I am willing to speak my truth and let you know what is important to me
    4. Meaning—I understand you as I listen, interact, and feel what you are feeling
  4. Shared sense of purpose
    1. Support—I am not alone
    2. Direction—I know where we are and where we are going
    3. Clarity—I have meaning

Conversation at Work! Program Summary

Conversation at Work! is a program designed to improve leadership skills in such areas as productivity, handling employee conflict, performance improvement, delegation, and overcoming resistance to change by teaching positive communication models that focus on self awareness and building relationships with others.  All skills are targeted for on-the-job application. Participants learn and practice skills that are demonstrated by experienced facilitators. To date thousands of managers and employees have been trained in a wide range of industries such as government, banking, insurance, and manufacturing.

Targeted for intact work groups Conversations at Work! involves six central components: 1) Content overview—The facilitator identifies the skills to be learned based on previous assessments and presents factual content about the topic; 2) Learners see the skills demonstrated by expert facilitators and strict rules of conduct are set to guide discussion or real work issues; 3) Skill practice—Learners practice using and applying skills in a group conversation that mirrors life at work; 4) Feedback—Participants receive feedback on how well they used the skills; 5) Application on the job—Learners select a skill or issue they will practice on before the next session; and 6) Regroup and evaluation—Learners report on what they learned and address new work issues.

Measurable Results

In one study, a major manufacturing firm assessed the effects of Conversation at Work! by evaluating employees’ lost-time accidents before and after their supervisors were trained. Lost-time accidents were reduced by 22 percent. Investigation of formal grievances and productivity were also evaluated. Formal grievances were reduced from an average of 7 per year to 1 per year. The plant exceeded productivity goals by $1,000,000.

After supervisors in a manufacturing plant received training communication competencies such as how to listen better and solicit feedback for better understanding, lost-time accidents were reduced by 50 percent, formal grievances were reduced from an average of 15 per year to 3 per year, and the plant exceeded productivity goals by $250,000 (Pesuric & Byham, 1996). In another manufacturing plant where supervisors received similar training, production increased 17 percent. There was no such increase in production for a group of matched supervisors who were not trained (Porras & Anderson, 1981).

Conversation at Work! develops emotional intelligence skills, which like technical skill, can be developed through a systematic and consistent approach. However, unlike technical skills, neuroscience shows that it takes work over a long period of time to bring about change.



[1] Hall, Edward T. 1976. Beyond Culture, Anchor Books, Double Day.

[2] McLean, Gary N. Organization Development: Principles, Processes, Performance. P. 7

[3] The ladder was developed by Chris Argyris. A full explanation may be downloaded from this site under resources in the article “Positive Safety Culture.”

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