This is a subject dear to the hearts of politicians as they near the end of their careers; witness Tony Blair. Poor Tony wants his legacy to be peace in Northern Ireland but we’ve already got Ian Paisley, Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams, Bill Clinton queuing up for this popular accolade. Sadly, Tony will have to make do with the Iraq War. “When, oh when, will people realise that we had to do it” he frets as he flies across the now much more peaceful Middle East.

The point I’m making is that you make one little mistake and you carry that legacy almost forever and this is true of working life as well as political life.
The Millenium Dome in London
Some of you are no doubt aware of JOMC’s reputation for delivering the Rolls Royce of culture assessments for clients. This involves a questionnaire in keeping with many approaches, but also crucially features an interview process so we can establish why people feel the way they do.

Sometime ago I was carrying out a culture assessment for a client and the responses of one particular group of four employees were very interesting. The assessment itself covers 16 different aspects of safety culture and to almost every factor under discussion this group responded in the negative (in many cases as negatively as the process would accommodate).

This situation wouldn’t be remarkable if the responses of this group weren’t wildly out of kilter with the majority of opinions, which were much more positive by and large. But their opinions were in isolation. So this leads us to consider the reasons why people feel this way:

  1. Their opinions reflect actual reality (not just their reality) and the rest of the population are simply mistaken in their views. I’m not buying this, but I’m under no illusions, their opinions count.
  2. They are a bunch of negative people and they were born like it or their upbringing made them this way. Could be, but nope – not buying this either (all four participants?!)
  3. Something happened to them in the past at this organisation which coloured their opinions ever since. Aha! A more likely scenario

Option three was very much in keeping with opinions of others in the organisation in so far as the general culture (even excluding safety) had improved over the last several years.

I’m speculating, but perhaps these individuals had been subject to unjustified blame for incidents or infringements? Maybe they’d experienced bullying leadership in the past – who knows? But now there is a legacy of resentment and distrust to deal with.

So here’s how to avoid such a legacy in the future:

  • Choose engagement and involvement over an autocratic leadership style because this may store up trouble for the future
  • Acknowledge that individuals alone are rarely to blame for incidents, it’s more like a row of dominoes that lead up to an unfortunate event
  • Focus on safety rather than output to change people’s attitudes about what you value most at your organisation
  • Give people (like those in my group of four) special consideration when you involve them in the culture change process
  • Think very carefully before you act because people look to you as a role model about how to behave, and even single misjudgements can be remembered for a long time

Remember that the process of culture improvement is a long road, not an overnight fix – it involves dealing with real people, their emotions and ingrained attitudes formed from past experience.