Hurdles lined up on a track

Twitter might be ‘a mile wide and only an inch deep’ but in amongst all that superficial noise it can be an invaluable source of ideas and useful information. I came across a tweet about an article by Tim Kuppler on organisational fear and immediately saw the link to fear and its effects on developing positive safety culture.

Fear is the ultimate killer of developing a safer culture, individuals must feel able to speak openly about safety: what is good and also what their concerns are, indeed they should be encouraged to do so.

It’s not always a major incident that thrusts the subject of fear and unacceptable behaviour into the limelight either. Endemic fear within the workforce slows the organisation down, causes hesitation, drives stress, and literally prevents individuals from reaching their potential in effectively supporting their organisations. Individuals are simply not fully engaged with the organisation.

Signs to look for in your organisation’s safety culture

  • Unsafe behaviours are not visibly confronted. Safety behaviour issues, if confronted at all, are done so behind closed doors and other members of the organisation have no idea whether any substantial corrective action is being taken. If behaviour doesn’t improve with the individual in question then some may assume the behaviour is considered an acceptable way to perform. Unsafe behaviour needs to be confronted clearly and respectfully when it occurs so there is no question surrounding what is acceptable behaviour.
  • Remuneration, incentives or promotions are based on results, not results AND behaviour. Results at any cost could become the norm if safe behaviour is not a foundation upon which performance is evaluated; feedback from others using a safety conversation technique like SUSA will help establish the place safety has within how the organisation functions and its safety culture. Just one leader showing unacceptable behaviour and ignoring key safety behaviours can have a severe and negative impact on many individuals, the behaviour the leader ignores will become the standard for the work team.
  • ‘Explosions’ are evident periodically from one or more senior leaders. This is not about a passionate call to action from a top leader; it is a negative, critical explosion that does not motivate unless it’s purely out of fear. We want people in the team to demonstrate safe behaviours because it is the right thing to do, not out of fear. Leaders work very hard to build trust but a negative explosion causes fear, closes down channels of communication and may raise doubts or second thoughts in people about taking action, for example challenging an unsafe practice or stopping the job leading to harm occurring.
  • Pre-meetings are the norm. This behaviour is often rampant in many large organisations. Safety presentations, proposals and new ideas must be reviewed with lower levels, senior managers or other groups before a meeting with a top leader. The focus can end up being on what a leader wants to hear versus what they need to hear, empowerment is a powerful weapon in developing teams and the business as a whole, not being willing to acknowledge the true situation and only being willing to hear the good news will eventually lead to a catastrophic outcome. In JOMC’s safety culture approach we’re clear with executives’ and senior managers that they will hear both the good and not so good. It’s about being open, honest and transparent after all, we encouraged these organisations to welcome the concerns of their employees.
  • Communication is poor or one-way. Leaders often underestimate the importance of communication or they neglect to design communication sessions to build trust and open two-way communication. The JOMC safety conversation approach allows a respectful and honest conversation to take place to establish what the real issues and concerns are and to enable real-time organisational learning.
  • Email is used to cover your back or non-proactively. It may be common to reply to all or copy in countless people to make sure everyone’s in the loop but being told and being understood are very different. Email is non-confrontational so it’s often used out of fear how the receiver will react, however leaders and others in the team need to be open to hearing reality as others see it if progress is to be made.
  • Unclear goal alignment. When people aren’t sure how their work or behaviour aligns with strategies, priorities, goals, measures and other supporting expected values it raises uncertainty, stress and fear. Individuals need to understand the place of safety in the value hierarchy of the organisation and how they contribute to that. This fear causes hesitation and holds back proactive action. A sign of an effective culture is that people act on what they know and feel supported and empowered in their actions instead of having second thoughts, hesitation, and fears about action.
  • Values and expected behaviours are not specifically defined and reinforced. Values may well be defined on the website or poster on the wall but they haven’t been translated to expected behaviours so they’re consistently open to interpretation. Key safe behaviours need to be established and communicated with clarity designed to specifically reinforce the values and expected safety behaviours.

Top leaders know the importance of culture, drive out fear and encourage a culture of openness, honesty and transparency and relentlessly reinforce the culture they desire or maintain.

Adapted from ‘The 8 Clear Signs of a Workplace Culture of Fear‘ by Tim Kuppler the founder of the Culture Change.