Fueling Cultural Change
- By Robert Pater
- Dec 01, 2009
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://
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
"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
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.
Robert Pater is Managing Director of Strategic Safety Associates and MoveSMART®. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.