Leading Your Safety Culture with Care

An organization’s culture can sometimes be the difference between life and death. More than 4,500 job-related fatalities occurred in the US (OSHA) in the 2013-14 calendar year. This means that, on an average day, twelve people went to work but did not return home to their families at the end of the day.

In our experience, the underlying culture of a business is a significant causal factor in employee safety. Culture, in this sense, is “the way we do things around here”—“the way we approach our work and treat each other.”1

Our organization, Ephektiv, has been primarily focused on Culture for the last 15 years. In addition to studying the overall improvement of organizational performance, we have focused specifically on safety culture as it pertains to the safe operation of nuclear power plants, the personal safety of the people who work there, and the safety of physical workers in utilities. (Physical workers are those whose work requires physical exertion to perform tasks, similar to construction workers.)

A few years ago, we partnered with an industry-sponsored organization to explore the relationship between culture and the safe operation of nuclear power plants. We looked at long-term high-performers, middle-performers, and lower-performers across the nuclear industry. (It should be noted that all nuclear plants are subject to meeting or exceeding an ever-increasing set of standards for safe operation.)

We found a striking correlation: How leaders treated employees played into long-term top safety performance almost across the board.

Martin and David expand on the importance of leadership to safety performance in this clip from the Ultimate Culture Conference. If you have not already done so, sign up and join our Ultimate Culture Community to view the full video.

This led us to do some similar work in the electric utility industry, where mistakes or accidents can have fatal or debilitating consequences to employees. We engaged in root cause analysis of fatalities and cases of severe injury to employees. In all of these cases, the underlying culture played a significant role in informing the choices of the victim, his or her peers, and his or her leaders.

What’s the problem?/

There is a common theme in all of these cases that relates to a strong “machismo” culture at play among the workers. Having a culture where your “manliness” is called into play, or a culture where you must “prove themselves” through overexertion or risk-taking can be deadly. No amount of procedures, training, observation, or rewards will overcome this underlying force.

The Differentiating Factor

But there is a flip side.

As we conducted assessments of the low-performing organizations relative to safety, we continued to come across work crews that had been together for well over 15 years without any type of safety-related incident. How was this possible? What was different about these crews? They had access to the same procedures, training, and safety programs as others in their organizations, and yet they had stellar safety records.

Were they just lucky?

Actually, luck was not the differentiating factor. What we consistently found within these crews was a high level of sincere caring for each other. They simply cared for each other so much that they would not let each other get hurt, and they created a safe haven for their members to perform their best work. Interestingly enough, they went so far as to reject or eject crew members who did not demonstrate this same level of care toward their fellow crew members.

We began to think that the level of caring must somehow be a significant differentiating factor.

Data Support It

We considered the results from the benchmarking of top quartile safety organizations where many of our clients benchmarked the safest organizations in their industries to better understand what top performers do in order to uncover what they, in turn, can do to improve safety. Yet they often returned confused about what they have found. The benchmarked organizations were found to have no better training, procedures, tools, or safety programs than the poor performers, and in some cases their programs were not as strong. However, the benchmarked organizations did have one thing in common: They were early adopters of tools that made work easier and safer.

The conclusion? This adoption of new tools happens because there is already a high level of caring in place at the top performers. The employees and management at these organizations genuinely care for each other and want to do everything they can to ensure a safe, effective working environment. The tools are just an expression of this. Caring can be seen in behaviors and felt, but is hard to quantify and fit into a technical review of safety.

Appreciative Inquiry Findings

To validate our findings and thinking, we orchestrated an Appreciative Inquiry process with more than 450 physical workers, exploring what factors were in place when they worked at their safest level. When we combined the output from this process we discovered something special: “Caring” emerged as the overwhelming number-one factor that contributed to safe work.2

As we examined the data more closely and continued to interview employees, we concluded that “caring” is a primary causal factor in workplace safety and results in greater use of human performance tools along with other positive behaviors such as teamwork and peer-to-peer coaching.3

This word cloud represents the frequency of responses to the Appreciative Inquiry process.


It’s About Respect

As stated earlier, we found a strong correlation between how leaders were expected to treat employees and long-term safety excellence at the nuclear power plants we worked with. The attributes that reflected how leaders treated employees can be summed up as a high level of caring and respect for the employees. These leaders treated their employees as the most important part of the organization and in no way discounted the importance of safe operation of the asset.

And safety is just part of it. We also found other interesting correlations between the degree of caring for employees and teamwork, productivity, sharing of knowledge, and innovation.4

It should come as no surprise that creating a culture of caring results in excellent safety and a significant contribution to the bottom line. And yet, we continuously encounter leaders who are surprised and wonder out loud if it is really that simple. Well, it is that simple, if caring for others is one of your primary personal values. And it is almost impossible if caring is not a primary value.

Luckily, leaders can engage in an authentic examination of their values and make this shift with concerted effort. From a place of authentic caring, a senior leader can then launch an effort to shift the culture across the organization. With strong sponsorship and resolve, we have seen this type of leader successfully lead a shift to a caring culture that results in excellent safety performance and improved organizational performance.

When creating a culture of workplace safety, the question for leaders and front-line workers alike becomes: “Do you care enough?”

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In a follow-up response to a participant’s question at the Ultimate Culture Conference, David Bonenberger responds here: Can a culture change program work if it only addresses the sub-culture level, i.e., a department within an organization?

To restate this question slightly, “Can a sub-unit or department achieve a shift in culture?” Our experience would say “yes.” However, it is contingent upon how geographically dispersed the organization is and the strength, restrictiveness, or level of freedom granted to the sub-unit by the overall organization.

Our utility covers a large geographic area and our services are delivered through remote service centers. When we began our culture change effort, the Organizational Culture Inventory showed a consistent cultural pattern of passive-aggressive behavior that’s typical of mature, regulated utilities like ours. However, the true nature of this culture became clearer as we progressed with our efforts to shift our culture. We found a low level of agreement across the organization, which translated into a wide-ranging set of acceptable behaviors and a significant feeling of independence among the service centers. A good many believed they could make a choice simply to not engage in the culture change effort, believing that this too would pass like most previous initiatives had or that this leadership team would soon be changed out.

We began our efforts focused on the overall culture, but soon realized that the passive-aggressive behaviors and independent nature of the service centers was thwarting a true shift in culture, especially at the front line.

We did find a few service centers that were early adopters of our desired culture. Two factors contributed to this. One was the nature of the cultures within the given service centers as we began our efforts. The early adopters were clearly closer to the desired culture than the laggards. The second factor was the alignment and passion of the leaders at these early-adopting service centers. The cultural independence granted to the service centers allowed these leaders the freedom to make changes and progress quickly toward the desired culture.

Armed with a better understanding of our culture, as it existed at the time, we adjusted our approach. We continued the overall organizational change efforts, but added assessments and activities tailored to each service center, putting in place strategies designed to break down the undesirable qualities of the culture. We also ensured there was alignment with the leaders responsible for the service centers up through the senior leadership, with expectations and messaging that was consistent across the entire organization.

Our added focus on the service center level resulted in positive changes in all of the service centers, and several of them are now exceeding the targets we set for the organization’s culture. Overall performance is on the rise, especially in terms of safety, one of our key measures of success.

So, in conclusion, our experience has shown us that, with the right conditions in the current operating culture and strong sponsorship from the top, it is possible to achieve a shift in culture within sub-units. We were able to take advantage of the independent nature of our remote service centers to engage them in shifting the cultures within their locations. At the same time, we worked with them to become more accepting of standardized approaches and more open to the inclusion of other department’s needs, inputs, and collaboration going forward. We now have a culture that supports greater teamwork and collaboration, resulting in improved safety, productivity, and employee engagement.


1 Murphy, S., & Babbitt, M. (2016, January 13). The Role Social Leaders Play in the Optimistic Workplace. Retrieved from https://www.humansynergistics.com/resources/content/2017/07/18/the-role-social-leaders-play-in-the-optimistic-workplace

2 Wikipedia. (2015, September 13). Appreciative Inquiry. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appreciative_inquiry

3 Bowman, D. (2015, August 10). Human Performance and a Rat Trap. Incident Prevention Magazine. Retrieved from http://incident-prevention.com/ip-articles/human-performance-and-a-rat-trap

4 Raines, D. (2015, February 16). Voice of Experience: The Importance of Job Briefings. Incident Prevention Magazine.. Retrieved from http://incident-prevention.com/ip-articles/voice-of-experience-the-importance-of-job-briefings