Beyond ‘What We Do Around Here’: Why a Deeper Look at Organisational Culture is Crucial for Risk and Safety.
By Andrew Thornhill – first published here
In risk and safety, culture is often defined as ‘what we do around here’.
In this blog we examine the origin of this definition, how it omits critical elements of culture, how other disciplines take a more holistic view, and why this is important for your risk and safety programs.
How ‘What We Do Around Here’ Became a Dominant Theory in Safety
There is uncertainty about the origin of the definition.
Edgar Schein, a leading writer on organisational culture, used the phrase. He also expressed unease with how this definition fails to capture the complexity of culture (see: Organisational Culture and Leadership, 2010, Wiley and Sons).
To understand why this definition is so popular in risk and safety, we need to dig deeper.
Every industry is underpinned by different worldviews.
Behavioural-based safety (BBS) is the dominant worldview in safety management. BBS seeks to evaluate and sustain safe behaviours and ‘correct’ unsafe behaviours.
BBS is based on behaviourism, a psychological theory that emphasizes the importance of observable behaviours over internal mental processes.
The definition of culture as ‘what we do around here’ fits nicely with this worldview: manage behaviours (what we do) and we are managing culture.
At this point, you might be starting to sense why Schein expressed unease with this definition.
Is culture just behaviours?
Or are there other elements of culture that influence behaviour?
What the Definition Omits
The Culture Cloud, developed by Dr Rob Long, provides a visual representation of different elements of culture.
(c) Dr Rob Long
Other elements of culture could be added: power, discourse, social norms, collective identity, goals.
All of these elements influence why people do what they do. Their values, attitudes, decisions and actions in the workplace.
Limiting our view of culture to ‘what we do around here’ omits key elements of culture.
It’s a bit like defining your front door as your house.
It also has implications for workplace risk and safety programs which we discuss below.
Before we do, we have a brief look at how other disciplines approach culture.
There is much we can learn.
Helping Us See – How Other Disciplines Approach Culture
Anthropologists study culture.
In his book, ‘The Art of Being Human’, Dr Michael Wesch describes steps an anthropologist takesto understand culture: stepping outside your own cultural lens; seeing big; seeing small; seeing it all.
Chapter 2.1, ‘The Art of Seeing’ describes his time immersed in a village in the highlands of Papua New Guinea (https://anth101.com/the-art-of-seeing/).
Have a read of the Chapter.
It’s not a workplace safety textbook, but it has much to offer if you want to better understand (see) culture:
- To understand (see) why certain beliefs and practices make total sense to the villagers (most notably, witchcraft) he needs to move beyond his own cultural lens/ worldview.
- He goes well beyond observable behaviours. He engages, listens and participates to better understand their symbols, myths, beliefs, traditions, norms etc – key elements of culture.
- Culture is experienced and felt. It takes time. He is not measuring anything.
What Can We Learn?
What can we learn from how other disciplines approach culture?
Understanding culture takes time.
It requires us to go beyond observable behaviours.
Listening and engagement are key skills to help “see” what is not immediately observable.
If we can see outside our own cultural lens/ worldview, we can better understand why certain behaviours or work practices make sense to others (e.g. a workgroup).
If we can see why it makes sense to others, we are better placed to manage risk.
Why It Matters in Your Risk and Safety Program
A definition of culture as ‘what we do around here’ misrepresents culture.
It can lead to substantial investment in safety programs that don’t address underlying causes of behaviour.
Culture “change” programs that don’t change the culture.
Safety systems that become unmanageable as we add more procedures, controls, requirements, policing and punishment.
Further polarisation of subcultures within the organisation from what we are trying to achieve under our safety programs.
Repeat and intractable issues (e.g. under reporting of incidents, not wearing PPE, cutting corners to get the job done etc).
At some point, we start to realise we may get better outcomes if we dig a little deeper to understand underlying cultural influences.
A Practical Example
You are on a site walk. Someone is not wearing their PPE.
How do you approach this issue?
Seek to correct the behaviour?
Or dig a little deeper to see why it makes sense to them?
There is no single correct approach for every single issue.
Additionally, both types of responses have trade-offs.
And clearly, there are times when a behavioural response is needed (e.g. wilfully ignoring controls in a high-risk work task – e.g. confined space entry).
However, if we only ever take a behavioural response (raise a corrective action report, give them a warning, report them to the manager etc), what might the trade-offs be?
- An unwilling and short-term response (i.e. wearing PPE when one of the safety team is around).
- Underlying cultural issues remain unaddressed.
- The workgroup no longer reports incidents or psychological (distraction, bullying, fatigue, time pressures etc) or cultural influences (pressure, change, overconfidence, complex communication, rushing etc) impacting site operations.
In this kind of example, the trade-offs can be more damaging than the issue we were trying to address.
Developing Your Understanding of Cultural Influences on Safety
We advocate a balanced approach to risk. Systems are a foundational building block – the red part of the risk maturity matrix (Figure 2 below).
(c) Dr Rob Long
Leaders and managers also need to spend time understanding and managing psychological and cultural influences on risk – the orange and green parts of the risk maturity matrix.
Our Safety Observations and Conversations course is specifically designed to build advanced skills in engagement, observation, listening, conversing and surface psychological and cultural influences on work practices. (https://clarityenabled.com/training/).
Rob Long says
Thanks Andrew, a very thorough investigation of the problem. A shame that Safety is so happy with the myth of ‘what we do around here’ and then complain that systems are excessive and don’t work. What a shame that Safety similarly doesn’t want to learn beyond what it knows. The industry of complaining that does nothing about it.
One thing Safety knows for sure is that it is not worth exploring SPoR or looking beyond simplistic ideas that don’t work.