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If You Really Wanted to Change the Culture…

If You Really Wanted to Change the Culture

Case Study from Nuclear Industry 

A leadership team is facing a very difficult mandate to transform a nuclear facility’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 reputation for transforming safety culture was brought in. Sure of himself, he took a command and control strategy to initiate the changes. Many technical experts were brought in that pointed out all of the systems and hazards that needed correction. Everyone was exhausted from long hours. A consultant, who returned after not having 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. That is why we stick to 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 and safety 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.

The Cultural Iceberg[1]

In 1976, Hall developed the iceberg analogy of culture. 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?

Leaders, take note. What this model teaches us is that we cannot judge a 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 emotions, feelings and beliefs that underlie the behavior of that society.

While there are some elements held in common by all members of the organization there are many differences that have to be addressed.  While they may share many beliefs, critical experiences have made some more open to the planned changes 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. That means getting to know people, building a relationship.  The challenge is how to do it systematically and cost-effectively. We have evidence that spending time on relationship building up front results in time spent later because it is possible to cover so much more ground in a shorter period of time with someone you trust.

Conversation at Work! Program Description

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.

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.”


  1. Alistair on May 29, 2019 at 7:18 pm

    Hi Rosa
    The results of the program are impressive – though I do wonder whether injury rates are a true measure of safety performance and perhaps are not consistent with the overall message of the “intangibles”. The measure of the grievance processes will also be related to other intangibles such as leadership changes, industrial relations climate, wage bargaining etc – it really is never as simple as just one measure being an indicator of success of the program.
    Another area to explore in this area is what was has been described as “quiet safety” – the taken for granted and easily over-looked techniques that workers would share with newcomers to assist them in taking care of themselves. This was disclosed in a paper about ethnography – research conducted by IOSH in the H&S in a changing world program.

    • Rosa Carrillo on May 29, 2019 at 8:10 pm

      Hello Alistair,

      Thank you for your comment on my article. I didn’t realize I had published. I’ve been working on it. So yes, we are pressured for tangible measures and so we provide them. There is no separation between safety and leadership or operations. That is the reality so coming up with a specific measurement is not really helpful. I will take a lookout “quiet safety.” It sounds like it would go with “nudge” in change management. We are so used to starting everything with a splash and not persevering. It’s not easy.

      Thanks again for contacting me.


      • Alistair on May 29, 2019 at 11:42 pm

        Here is the link – it might save some time. This is the overall report – the concept was in a paper on short term ethnography.

        I have just completed a unit on research methods in the safety leadership course at Griffith University (Safety Innovation Lab) and see some real benefits in using ethnography more explicitly within organisations in relation to safety initiatives and their effectiveness or otherwise.
        I feel motivated to take this further – any ideas on research topics that could be done as a researcher within an organisation and the access to participants that it brings?

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