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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Choose your culture

December 21, 2006
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We all face career choices. Perhaps you’re a young EHS pro entering the field, or a mid-career pro downsized out of a job. As always, there are options. Put aside starting your own EHS business or joining a consulting firm. If you want to stay in private industry, your career can take four paths.

Why four? Because there are basically four universal work environments, according to an article, “The Tools of Cooperation and Change,” written by Clayton M. Christensen, Matt Marx and Howard H. Stevenson, published in the October 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

These four cultures all revolve around degrees of consensus. Specifically, what organizations want to achieve, and how to get there. It’s easy to adapt the authors’ matrix to EHS circumstances.

1 — A unified culture

Behind door number one you find a workplace in agreement about its safety and health mission (use EHS performance to burnish the corporate image, for example), and the actions needed to accomplish the mission (perhaps enroll in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program).

Fortunate is the pro walking through door one. A positive, proactive consensus is difficult to find in the EHS field, where most companies are typically reactive to EHS issues.

(You could also find the opposite dual-consensus: agreement that safety is not important, and minimal spending is required. But it’s as easy to reject this environment, if you know the facts up-front, as it is to join the other.)

Tools: How do you make a difference in an already strong, pro-safety culture? The HBR authors suggest using “culture tools.” These include reinforcing traditions of excellence; folklore (employee testimonies about near-accidents; executive safety talks, etc.); rituals (safety celebrations); and democracy (allowing employees the freedom to steer their own safety committees and solve their own safety problems).

2 — The “Mapquest” culture

Open door number two and you find an employer who knows where he wants to go — what he wants to achieve in safety and health (zero incidents, staying out of OSHA’s cross-hairs, etc.). But he’s not sure how to get there. Should he invest more in training or management systems, for instance?

Many EHS pros walk into this situation. Most execs want to give their employees a safe and healthful workplace. They don’t want calls at night about someone seriously injured or killed on the job.

But how do you get there? Training is the most preferred safety intervention of chief financial officers surveyed by Liberty Mutual in a survey released in 2005, cited by 27 percent of CFOs. Better equipment and workspace was ranked first by only seven percent of CFOs.

A culture lacking direction can cause sleepless nights for EHS pros, caught between conflicting labor-management ideas about safety. Employees can argue that training represents a “blame-the-worker” mindset, and coffee and doughnuts in the classroom are a cheap substitute for engineering controls.

Tools: What to do? The HBR article authors recommend “leadership tools.” These include salesmanship, negotiating, role modeling, vision and charisma to set a course of direction, or reach agreement on an action plan. These abilities don’t come naturally to many technical EHS mavens (not that you can “learn” charisma), and could explain the surge in interest by many EHS pros in leadership books and workshops in recent years.

3 — The foggy culture

Many EHS career choices lead to door number three, which offers another familiar scenario. Here a pro’s marching orders — the level of safety and health necessary for the organization — are in dispute or vague. The organization doesn’t know exactly what it wants. Opinions perhaps range from “lower the comp costs” to “just stay out of trouble” to “be best-in-class.”

But in this case, there is a consensus on the minimal actions required for a basic health and safety program.

Tools: How do you bring a vision to this kind of clouded thinking about safety? The HBR authors recommend “management tools” to move the organization toward a consensus on goals. These are probably the most common levers worked by EHS pros: training, control systems, standard operating procedures, planning, and measurement systems. If you can reinforce existing buy-in about using these tools and achieve measurable successes, you can build cooperation and collaboration toward broader EHS goals.

4 — A culture in crisis

Behind door number four EHS pros face the biggest challenge. No consensus exists about the importance of health and safety. And no agreement exists on what needs to be done. This is a culture that is cracked, if not crumbling, or in a knee-jerking panic after a safety calamity.

Tools: Don’t take this job unless you’re given broad powers of authority, what the HBR authors call “power tools.” Back when EHS pros played OSHA compliance cop, these tools were in vogue. But if a culture is collapsing around you, or in a panic, they still can impose a semblance of order. Power tools include use of force (disciplinary action) and threat (monetary fines, community backlash, etc); role definition (who does what for safety in the organization); control systems (machine guards, ventilation, housekeeping, etc.); and hiring and promotion (staffing up the health and safety department).

Be prepared

Cultures bonded in consensus, or crashing in chaos. Organizations that can’t agree on worthwhile EHS outcomes, or what interventions are needed. In the course of a 30-40 year EHS career, you’ll likely cross paths with at least several of these work environments. Your success in each case will demand, among other things, a sound assessment of the type of culture you’re in, and choosing the right tools at the right time for the right culture. If you misread your organization’s degrees of consensus about safety and health, choose the wrong tools, or your timing is off for using them, you might be looking for an escape hatch.

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