Culture or Behavior: Which Comes First? (Core Practices)

By Dr. Thatcher, James J. | Occupational Hazards, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Culture or Behavior: Which Comes First? (Core Practices)


Dr. Thatcher, James J., Occupational Hazards


A leading safety authority describes the process for establishing a company culture where behavior-based safety finds fertile ground.

There is a real and distinct difference between changing behavior to attain safety goals and establishing a safety culture first, then using the behavior approach as one of the management tools to achieve the goal of safe operations.

The long-term plan should be to establish a culture of employee-driven safety expectations and programs. However, our efforts must be management-led and management-supported. If we concentrate only on the behavior-based equation (bottom-up safety), we sacrifice the ability to lead the efforts, as well as direct appropriate resources to the proper pressure points.

Nor can our approach be totally management-driven (top-down), at the exclusion of employee involvement or participation. We've tried it that way for years, and know the top-down approach only gets us so far in our safety efforts.

We have always stated (and rightly so) that:

* Safety is a management function;

* Safety must be an integral part of the way we manage and conduct our business;

* The accident record is a reflection of the management skill of an organization;

* Safety must be accomplished through improvement of the management system, and

* Management is responsible and accountable for the safety of the workers.

This will not change.

Our challenge is to do it in ways that involve the employee, and motivate the employee to stay involved. Our challenge is also to train, motivate and hold accountable every level of management within the organization in ways that clearly demonstrate the company's core safety values.

Assessing the Culture

Each time we introduce the employee involvement concept, we must be fully aware of our responsibilities to establish the "culture" that fosters this kind of approach before we attempt to change behavior. Without the proper culture, our efforts will be in vain.

We must assess the current culture at each work location, then determine what needs to be done to attain a culture that fosters trust, peer care and involvement. We must build that culture based on a true foundation of confidence that the right things are being done for the right reasons. We must establish a belief system where management and employees trust each other, and the trust is centered on a system of communication that allows both top-down delivery systems as well as bottom-up feedback mechanisms.

Behavior-based approaches do not work when there is: distrust between management and the work force; a history of top-down superior-subordinate relationships (i.e. classical management systems); adversarial employee-management relationships; the perception by employees that the behavior-based approach is a way to make the employee accountable; and management abdication of its responsibilities for safety.

There are many questions that must be honestly answered prior to initiating a behavior-based process.

Here are a few:

* Have we in management really demonstrated that safety is a core value?

* Have we implanted a system that ensures management/supervisory daily activities in safety?

* Have we built into our system a way to measure every level of management involvement in the safety process?

* Have we built the safety sub-systems that ensure everyone knows exactly what to do when things go wrong?

* Have we really been willing to share information with the work force?

* Are we willing to share decision-making relative to safety with the work force?

If we can't answer these questions to our satisfaction, we must assess each level of management and begin changing the safety culture a level at a time. All management personnel, from the president to the senior vice presidents, vice presidents, general managers, and directors, managers, foremen and supervisors, need to share the same core values about where safety fits within the organization, and how they are expected to lead, manage and administer the culture change process at the employee level. …

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