Fueling Cultural Change

Interested in significantly stepping up Safety culture and performance? Focused leaders frequently ask me two questions:

1. How long does it take to get cultural change?
2. What can we do to get to the next level of Safety culture?

Even though specific answers vary by organization (current Executives' interest, past patterns, what's been tried, size and geographical spread, etc.), generally there's help for moving up the 4 Cultural levels (see: http:// ohsonline.com/articles/2008/05/next-level-safetycultures. aspx). The "How long" question reminds me of a martial arts parable where a motivated young man asks a swordsmaster how long it would take to become an expert swordsman. "Ten years," the master replies. "But what if I practice ten hours a day?" asks the eager student. "Twenty years," replies the teacher. "And if I sleep with the sword, never separate from it?" The swordsmaster smiles. "Thirty years."

The master knows that while enthusiasm is certainly beneficial, you can't force skill development; ironically, trying to do some things too fast only slows you down. (Ever try to chew food extra quickly to speed through a meal?) Similarly, when you most want others' buy-in to cultural and behavioral change, running ahead often leaves them in the dust, and pressing can stimulate pushback.

"You can't get cultural change in less than ten years," I've heard said. This may be for total 180-degree movement from the lowest Forced to most lofty Integral/Leadership Culture. But I've seen marked shifts in cooperation and communication occur in six months -- within organizations whose previous norm was staunch resistance to anything new. And heard a company's self-proclaimed "miraculous" reductions to longstanding injury levels where risk exposures still remained constant.

So don't let seemingly interminable time to fruition stop you from starting the upward climb. Rather than attempting to leap to the top in one jump, focus on next level step-ups that can readily be done in six to 12 months. Here's what's needed to ignite the flame of change and then keep it burning:

A. Fuel. First, turn up the heat of commitment. Change is more likely to occur when there's both dissatisfaction with the current state and confidence that improvements are attainable (with reasonable effort). Show managers areas of opportunity where low-hanging fruit can be harvested. Communicate expectations that they'll see significant improvements without having to drop everything they're doing to solely focus on Safety culture. Challenge them to meet or best their competitors' performance. Develop a checklist of activities that will lead to next-level performance from which they only need select one or two. Offer scripts that are consistent (e.g., away from "Safety saves the company money" to "I'm concerned about your personal safety"). Catalog near-miss reports and below-the-surface hazards, those that affect people but have previously hidden below radar. Provide similar fuel for supervisors and workers.

B. Oxygen. Cultural change requires a supportive surround system. Organizationally, this means a supply of enough readiness for change from the top, a level of willingness from mid-managers and supervisors, and a breath of fresh ideas from workers, contractors, or those outside.

You likely know that green plants cycle carbon dioxide into oxygen; similarly, you can build an oxygen- rich atmosphere by eliciting perceived mixed messages from disaffected workers and then transform them into positive catalysts for change. It's not as hard as it sounds, as long as you really listen with judgment, are honest with them about what you can and can't do, and give them the training and skills to make a real difference with their peers. Seen this "magic" numerous times in companies worldwide. Senior managers can oxygenate culture by allocating tangible resources to effectively pilot new interventions, as well as scheduling small regular time periods to check in and get updated on leading returns.

C. Spark. Energy is necessary for ignition. This doesn't come from doing the same old things, making "correct" speeches, going through the motions, practicing "Do as I say, not as I do," only talking about preventing things from happening that no one believes will really happen to them, or from managers disinterestedly handing off the job of change agency.

But sparking can come from trying new and exciting things, retiring tired programs, seeing even budding successes, helping others' actions improve, and learning Safety methods that enable people to do better in personally important activities at work and at home. And from having leaders who truly realize the full range of benefits from higher Safety culture, well beyond costreductions.

The main key to sparking comes from energized involvement on all levels. Aim to engage everyone in some way. Igniting a starter flame requires that fuel, oxygen, and spark all be present. But a glowing ember's not enough. Feed a new flame, don't smother it with too many demands too quickly. Once the fire of Safety culture grows stronger, it will be as hard to extinguish as it was to first light. So to get sustaining results, continue to feed the flame and then bank it to a manageable level that provides background heat without burning out the company. Don't rest on laurels, but definitely continue to add fuel when needed.

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Robert Pater is Managing Director of Strategic Safety Associates and MoveSMART®. To contact him, email rpater@movesmart.com.

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