Peer Influence: Don’t Change Safety Culture Without It!

Influencing Safety BehaviorsWe talk about building a safety culture, or a culture of safety.  We are pretty clear on what safety is, but what is this thing called culture?  The most widely accepted definition, usually attributed to Warner Burke from Columbia University back in the ‘80s is “the way we do things around here.”  So, culture is behavior, and if you want to change a culture, you need to look at changing the behaviors that will bring it closer to a safety culture. [content_protector password=”influence” identifier=”influence”]

Sounds pretty straightforward, but think of the track record of individuals you know, perhaps yourself, who have tried to change behaviors, such as smoking, or exercising, or dieting. It’s hard, and the reason is that there are things called contingencies that, to a large part, affect our behavior and the ease with which we can change it. Contingencies are rewards or punishments connected to behaviors. As most of us prefer rewards to punishments, we tend to do those things that will bring us pleasure or help us to avoid pain.

In organizational culture, the most powerful contingencies exist in the informal organization.  These are enforced by the norms, rules, and accepted or proscribed ways of doing things or conducting day-to-day business.  These aren’t written down anywhere; they have evolved over time.

The way a newcomer to the organization discovers these is usually through transgression.  He or she does something, and an old-timer puts an arm around his or her shoulder and says “that’s not the way we do it around here.”  Or after some action, the newcomer senses that he or she has said or done something wrong, and searches out a confidant who will let him or her in on what is acceptable and why what was done was not.

So, maybe a more useful definition of culture would be “Why we do things the way we do around here.”  I say useful because that gives us insight into what would need to be addressed when trying to change to a safety culture: those things that are maintaining the current behaviors and/or may resist taking on the new ones.

So, how to start?

FCTC OnlineFirst, identify the behaviors that you want to change.  Then ask yourself the key question: Why?  Why is this current behavior occurring?  What reward or punishment is attached to it?

Then ask the next question: Who?  Who would apply the reward or punishment?  Usually these are highly influential members in the informal organization.  You can recognize them by paying attention in group settings.  Who do the rest look to when a topic is up for discussion in a tailgate session or safety briefing?  Who is the one to signal the end of break by standing up? Who do others defer to? Notice whom the others follow.

These are your change targets, and it is critical to get them on your side whenever you’re introducing something new or different.  Once you have them demonstrating the new way of doing things, those behaviors will quickly become “the way we do things around here.”

That’s it for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS.  Until next time.

~Gene Drumm



About the Author

safetyBUILT-IN is the safety-leadership learning and development division of SCInc. We believe sustainable safety performance is best achieved through a core-values based safety culture, and that culture must be driven by leadership. Our safety-leadership programs are competency-based, and focused on performance outcomes. We believe in building capability and ownership into our client organizations—as well as sustainability into our programs—so that our clients can continue running those programs long after we’re out of the picture. Our emphasis is on building better leadership presence, better leadership communication and better leadership coaching by first building relationships of trust with people and learning how to engage them on the level of their core values and beliefs.