Safety culture

The change agenda

Embedding a particular mindset within an organisation’s workforce needs buy-in from everyone. To maintain safety standards it is essential, but how can this be achieved?

Change culture
© iStock/roberuto

Increasingly, “the way we do things around here” is becoming the preferred definition to describe an organisation’s culture. There is much to recommend it: the expression is simple, concise and unifying, appealing to a sense of togetherness that we like to feel about our lives and our work. But what does it tell us and is it helpful when considering “culture change”?

First, “the way we do things around here” suggests wide agreement and support; that an organisation’s culture is something uniform and consistent, a defining characteristic perhaps. Is this accurate?

Many would say of the culture in Victorian Britain that the people were ruled by a detailed code of manners and etiquette, that they prized propriety and reputation and that the lives of children were formal and lacked outward expressions of affection. Even if these traits were not universally true, they were true often enough, particularly among the middle class, to define the Victorian era.

Two Workers Collaborating from Dreamstime

Cultures vary from country to country and from region to region. In an organisation, culture can vary from site to site and from team to team. And it may even be true to say that the culture of a particular team can vary from time to time.

Culture can be far more complicated and nuanced than some definitions would have us believe. So, to define culture as if it were something uniform and constant (or that it could be) is neither accurate nor particularly helpful when deciding how to improve it.

For me, culture describes the prevailing personality, the feelings and beliefs of a group of people at a moment in time. It’s like a prevailing wind, which largely blows from a predominant direction but will occasionally blow from another direction. When you are thinking about influencing culture and achieving the one you aspire for your organisation, the goal should be to have the culture that you want, more present in more groups of people for more of the time.

You probably have the culture you want already, but it might not be present widely enough for it to be defining.

Second, “the way we do things around here” alludes to the things we do, which is contrary to how most people naturally think about culture.

The Miracle Question

Imagine this workplace conversation between a safety coach and their colleague.

Coach: “Suppose a miracle occurs tonight while you are sleeping. When you wake in the morning, all of the problems with your culture as it is today are gone. What would be the first clue do you think that the miracle has happened? And then what? What would be different? What would you see? What would be happening?”

Colleague: “Well, I’d probably first notice a difference in my team. It could be that one or two of them would be in earlier than normal, chirpier perhaps.”

Coach: “And then what?”

Colleague: “They’d be more enthusiastic perhaps. Eager to discuss their work.”

Coach: “What else?”

Colleague: “They’d probably want to discuss the problems they had and offer their own ideas about how to deal with them. They’d be keen to try out solutions and report back. There’d be a greater sense of ownership.”

Coach: “What else?”

Colleague: “There’d be a different atmosphere in the factory, more positive, people focused and more engaged with their work.”

Coach: “What else?”

Colleague: “We’d feel more like a team. People would be more supportive towards each other, wanting to help each other to resolve problems … like you would with a member of your family. There’d be a greater sense of community.”

Coach: “What else?”

Colleague: “Definitely more respectful. Everyone would feel valued for the role they have to perform. And we’d be consulted and feel that our opinions and ideas mattered too.”

And so on.

If you ask people to describe the culture in their organisation, most would say something like, “It’s a supportive culture,” or “It’s a collaborative culture,” or “It’s very authoritarian”. In giving answers like these, people are not thinking of the things people in that culture do; they are thinking about the way people are and what they see as the predominant characteristics of the environment in which they work.

This might seem like semantics because if we refer to a supportive culture we mean people are very supportive towards each other. In a collaborative culture we mean people behave collaboratively.

This is highly relevant, however, because the definition we accept influences the decisions we make. If we accept a definition of culture that alludes only to “the way we do things”, we are focused from the outset on practices and methodologies when, in fact, what we instinctively feel about culture is that it is to do with the way things are and the way we are, our principles and values.

Which might explain why an organisation that decides to improve its culture may subscribe to a new way of doing things. The introduction of a behavioural safety programme, for example, may be regarded as an intervention that can exert a positive influence. But ask yourself whether it will make the culture right. Or do you think that having the right culture is an important prerequisite for a successful behavioural safety implementation?

Many will think the latter is true: that if employees are to observe their colleagues’ behaviour, the organisation had better be sure that its culture can withstand such a practice and make it work. Many behavioural safety implementations do not work.

James Carville was campaign strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign against the incumbent, George H. W. Bush. In March 1991, soon after the ground invasion of Iraq, Bush polled a 90% popularity rating. Carville’s response was to hang a sign in Clinton’s campaign headquarters reading “The economy, stupid”. Although the sign was intended for local party workers only, the phrase became a de facto slogan for Clinton’s election campaign and, by August 1992, an opinion poll showed 64% of Americans disapproved of Bush’s performance.

The point is this: behavioural safety campaigns, Kaizen initiatives and 5S programmes may have much to recommend them, but if it is the culture of the organisation you want to improve, it is the culture you have to improve.

How do cultures develop?

Humans by nature form into groups that share common needs, understandings, languages and ways of doing things. People see themselves as belonging together and societies and communities form accordingly.

If, as many entrepreneurs are, we are present at the beginning and in a position to influence, we can create the culture we want for our new organisation. But for most of us, a culture has evolved in our organisation, not through the creative imagination of an entrepreneur or the conscious design of a leadership team, but by default. For most of us, the prevailing culture we have is a result of the experiences, the attitudes, the aspirations, beliefs and values of the people who are present in the organisation and, occasionally, of people who are long gone.

But before we can begin the process of building our improved culture in reality, it has to be imagined. We have to decide what we want.

How does Paddy do it?

Coach: “What’s going on here that allows this to exist when it does?”

Colleague: “The team has defined its purpose very clearly and each member of the team has a clear job role that is aligned to the team’s purpose.”

Coach: “What else?”

Colleague: “Paddy ensures the team has the resources to fulfil their role and they continually review their performance with reference to the team’s objectives.”

Coach: “What else?”

Colleague: “Paddy provides the support they need and he trusts them implicitly. He doesn’t micro-manage, he leaves them to get on with it. He trusts them to let him know when something significant changes. When it does, they stop and the whole team considers the implications.”

In many organisations, the usual mechanism is to gather information about the problem before dealing with it. Some organisations use diagnostic techniques, such as fault-tree analysis or “five whys” analysis, to dissect the problem and develop detailed pictures of cause and effect that become increasingly intricate and complex.

Such techniques are suited to some problems, but when the challenge concerns your prevailing culture do you want to become so deeply embroiled in all that is wrong at that time? Or, would you choose another approach if it can avoid sensitivities and pre-empt risks?

Psychotherapist Insoo Kim Berg pioneered a solution-focused approach to therapy. The technique focuses not on problem solving, but solution building, which sounds like a play on words but is in fact a profoundly different model.

The solution-focused approach dispenses with gathering information about the problem and seeks to learn as much as possible about the solution. The easiest way to do this is to imagine that the problem has been overcome and the solution is in place.

This change in perspective can be achieved through the Miracle Question (see box above).

The answers are merely illustrative, and it would be reasonable to expect that they vary between workplaces and colleagues. The work of Kim Berg, however, suggests otherwise. First, she found that when you ask a person about a problem you receive one description. But when you ask only about the solution the description is entirely different and mostly unrelated to any problem. More than that, the description of the solution is very similar regardless of whose it is.

Avoiding a dissection of the current state of affairs allows a solution to be imagined in a way that is unencumbered by our experiences, good or bad. When we are free to imagine in this way, it seems we all want a similar outcome. Unsurprisingly, how we are treated, the value we perceive in our work and our relationships with those around us, particularly our immediate leaders, are just some of the issues that matter to all of us.

The conversations we have, how we engage and communicate with each other are important.

Green shoots of renewal

When we talk about the solution only, we imagine a culture in which our work has meaning and our contribution is valued. We emphasise the importance of dialogue and consultation and imagine ourselves as a community in which our relationships are productive and collaborative and the conversations we have are positive and respectful. No management system will give you this.

BS ISO 45001:2018 outlines the requirements of a management system for occupational safety and health. Its stated objectives are to help an organisation to manage safety and health risks, improve its safety and health performance and fulfil its legal obligations. Interestingly, top management is required to develop a culture that supports these intended outcomes, but such a culture is not itself an intended outcome of the system.

The conversations we have, how we engage and communicate with each other are important


The culture you want will not materialise by simply changing your management system. If you want to improve your culture, you have to build it, not from scratch but upon the foundations of what is working already.

By asking the Miracle Question we learn what good looks like and what good looks like is strikingly similar from one person to the next so it is reasonable to expect to achieve a consensus to which everyone feels they have contributed.

But that is only the beginning. When everyone knows what good looks like, the chance that we can recognise examples of it however small and have already experienced it however fleeting, are significantly increased because the fact is, rarely are all things always bad.

Imagine this workplace conversation between the safety coach and their colleague.

iStock-905698270“When or where are these things even a little bit present in the organisation already?”

“Well my team is hardly ever like that. I’ve never really been able to get them engaged like that at all. But Paddy’s team … they are more energised and positive, some of the time at least. I don’t know how he does it!”

In the solution-building world, Paddy’s team, as one that is more energised and engaged even for short periods, is a dormant resource, an indication that we already have the culture we want, but it is not present enough often enough for it to be defining. Dormant resources are the green shoots of renewal, the foundations upon which the ultimate goal, our improved culture, is built.

Culture building is an incremental process of small steps forward, each one being the realisation of a small goal. Ultimately the goal is a better culture, but this depends on achieving many smaller goals.

Referring back to our workplace conversation above, what is standing between us and the culture we want is not the fact that our team is not as engaged and energised as Paddy’s team sometimes is, but that we do not know how Paddy does it. However, we can find out (see box above).

It is through the process of asking the Miracle Question and follow up questions that we can build the culture. We are not problem solving. We are not preoccupied dissecting our own team, troubling ourselves with all that is wrong.

We have found an example of what we agree we want, and we are exploring what it is that allows it to exist and thrive in Paddy’s team.

The next question to ask is – “What do we have to do to extend this beyond Paddy’s team?”

Steps forward

1. Invest in your coaching capacity

High-performing organisations not only say they regard their people as their most important asset, they invest in the skills that are required to access this resource for the benefit of the organisation.

Coaches can tap into people’s knowledge and experience, and the understanding they have of what is happening and what can be achieved.

Invest in your coaching capacity. Build your team. Support them to develop their skills through, for example, coaching-the-coach initiatives, and lead them. They are an influential force in the culture change journey.

2. Talk to your people

We want to feel like a team. We want to feel like a community and that we are all in it together. We are the culture, so it is our discussions and conversations that drive that culture. Do we need consultants to run focus groups? Do we need software to conduct a culture climate survey?

Discuss work with colleagues in an open and collaborative spirit. Tap into the personal resources they have: their knowledge of how things work, their experiences and their understanding of what is happening and what is possible. These are resources that would otherwise remain dormant.

3. Ask the Miracle Question

Imagine the culture you want by asking the Miracle Question. Ask everyone and record what they say. Create a culture statement using the words that your people have used so they can see that they have contributed and share it because it is an expression of the experience your team aspires to have at work.

4. Breathe life into your green shoots

Find your green shoots of renewal, the examples of the culture you want, however small, however fleeting.

Explore how they have developed and what needs to be done for them to thrive elsewhere.

5. Live the culture you want

We are the culture, so live the culture you aspire to have. Be a learning organisation. Review and learn. Review and learn.

However, it doesn’t end with his team. By asking the Miracle Question of everyone, we learn what good looks like. From our shared understanding of this, we can build a detailed picture, a culture statement, comprising all the characteristics of the culture we want. For each characteristic we can explore where and when and in what circumstances these things already exist, even for a short time, even a little bit, and we can discover what allows them to exist and what is needed to help them to take root and flourish elsewhere.

By doing these things, we can breathe life into our green shoots so that they percolate through the organisation and gradually the culture we want is built.

Earthworms of culture change

Earthworms are extremely valuable to the natural world. Their digestive system breaks down organic matter, such as leaves and grass, and the castings they leave behind are rich in nutrients essential for plants. Their tunnels help with drainage and provide favourable conditions for root development. In the workplace, coaches are the earthworms of culture change.

Many organisations say their people are their most valuable resource, but only the enlightened few invest in the skills that are necessary for those resources to thrive. Coaching skills are what organisations require.

Coaches are person-centred. Their skills help people to access their own personal resources, their knowledge, experience and understanding of what is happening and what is possible, with a view to help them make their own, better decisions about how to move forward. Because, through this collaborative process, they have to come to their own conclusions about what to do, they feel empowered and confident and assume a greater responsibility for seeing things through.

Coaches are active listeners and we all know the profound effect that being listened to properly can have, partly because it is such a rare event. A coach who listens is driven with a view to understanding and supporting people to access their own personal resources that can help them to overcome obstacles and perform better.

Coaches are also solution-focused. They avoid dissecting problems and being preoccupied with all of the reasons why things are not the way we would prefer them to be. 

It is these skills and attributes that make coaches such a valuable resource in the workplace, helping their colleagues and clients to explore options, solve problems, achieve goals, learn and develop.

It is said that leaders get the culture they want through the example they set, but cultures are rarely changed by a single person or event. Important though Queen Victoria’s example was, 19th century culture developed as it did not because of this alone but because of other forces at work, not least the rapid rise of the middle class and the influence on society of a more evangelical brand of Christianity.

The example that leaders set is important, but creating the movement that is required to change a culture requires several steps (see box above). 


Michael Emery
Michael Emery is director of Securus Health and Safety
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  • That is one of the best

    Permalink Submitted by Steve Butler on 1 August 2019 - 12:16 pm

    That is one of the best articles on safety culture I've ever read, and I've read a lot. The reference to building a culture from existing foundations of success is so true. Some excellent pointers in the article that I know I'll refer to for future use. I really like the Miracle Question concept and can see it working well, if communicated properly, in any organisation.

    • Hello Steve, Many thanks

      Permalink Submitted by Michael Emery on 23 August 2019 - 07:05 am

      Hello Steve, Many thanks for that generous feedback. If you'd like a full un-edited version of the article, please do let me know. Best regards, Michael

  • Very interesting concept

    Permalink Submitted by SAMSON ERHEYOVWE OBIKU on 19 August 2019 - 10:40 pm

    Very interesting concept about how we do thing around here.
    Thanks for more insight


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