PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: How cultures can influence safety

November 1, 2006

This past September I enjoyed my fourth business trip to Australia, appreciating another opportunity to teach Aussies the principles and procedures of People-Based Safety (PBS). I’ve written previously in this column (February 2003) about the country’s safety–related environmental and policy factors, from its comprehensive approach to driver training to special signaling and monitoring devices at intersections.

This time I want to focus on some interpersonal differences between Americans and Australians, which I gleaned from a 1991 book by George W. Renwick, “A Fair Go For All: Australian/American Interactions,” (London Intercultural Press Inc.). This book was given to me by an Aussie colleague to help me understand culture distinctions between the U.S. and Australia, and improve my presentations down under.

These are impressions from one scholar, often supported by my own observations. They reflect sweeping generalizations with room for many individual exceptions. Still, it is intriguing and perhaps thought-provoking to consider these cultural factors as potential determinants of social influence and the impact of a PBS process. In fact, I’m more convinced the interpersonal factors discussed here influence the impact of PBS than I am that they validly differentiate the average American from the average Australian.

Developing relationships

Social psychologists claim it is human nature to want others to like us, and we are attracted by interpersonal similarities. The first part of this sentence is probably true, but not necessarily the second part. While Americans are more likely to be interested in people who agree with them, Renwick claims Australians like disagreement. While Americans often view disagreement as rejection, Australians do not.

Renwick believes Americans determine interpersonal attraction rather quickly, whereas Australians are not so readily influenced by initial impressions. They take time to evaluate a person’s character. Americans develop favorable perceptions from immediately available variables such as one’s education, social status, material wealth, and recent achievements.

When people judge liking on the basis of surface phenomena, their interpersonal relationships change expeditiously. Renwick assumes Americans do this more often than Australians. He claims Australians take a longer time to establish friendship. Such relationships are long-lasting and meaningful, and include a strong sense of obligation. This relates directly to the principle of reciprocity.

Showing gratitude

Thirty years ago, reciprocity was identified as a social norm. Behavioral research led social psychologists to presume people feel a sense of obligation to return personal favors — even if the recipient of the returned favor was not the source of the initial favor. This social-influence principle implies people who actively care for the safety and health of others motivate more active caring between people. This can lead to the potential development of an actively caring work culture.

But more recently our behavioral research suggests reciprocity may be waning in the U.S. For example, in a study, we gave students $10 and ten “actively caring thank-you cards” to use to recognize the desirable behavior of others. But these students did not deliver more cards than a control group that only got the ten cards. When we rewarded students with $1 per card delivery, we indeed increased the number of “thank-you’s” distributed campus-wide.

Americans commonly say “no problem” after receiving a “thank-you” for doing someone a favor. This stifles the reciprocity cycle. They would support reciprocity if they said instead, “You’re welcome, but you’d do the same for me.”

Indeed, I must admit a reluctance to play the “reciprocity card.” I say to myself, “I don’t want to be obligated.” Is this perceptual bias influenced by an “individualistic, I’ll-do-it-myself” culture?

Seeing the big picture

Collectivism is analogous to systems thinking. It implies mutual interpersonal ownership of a problem or solution, as opposed to individualism, which gives precedence to individual initiative and choice over interests of the group. Policies in Australia, from gun control to traffic monitoring, imply a collectivistic perspective. The individualistic viewpoint is manifested in America.

Laying down the law

Renwick asserts Australians see themselves as inner-directed more than other-directed. So they are less apt to be rule-governed than Americans. For example, the country-wide doctrine for industrial safety in Australia is “duty of care.” This reflects an overarching need to actively care for safety and health. But specific rules for doing this are notably absent in Australia, in stark contrast to the plethora of safety rules, regulations, and standards in the U.S.

Americans react vociferously against any attempt to intrude on their privacy, even for a societal benefit, yet are content with the imposition of lists of laws to follow. In contrast, Australians do not consider themselves controlled by outside directives, but rather by their inside character to do the right thing. This suggests cultural differences with regard to the principle of authority.

Respecting authority

Social psychologists have shown people comply with the mandates of others in authority positions, even when the command is counter to sound judgment or common sense. While our surveys show that neither Americans nor Australians admit to being influenced by this authority principle, my personal observations suggest Aussies are more verbally resistant to authority control than Americans.

George Renwick agrees, and claims Americans respect authority, whereas “Australians tend to denigrate authority because it acts as an external guide to making decisions and taking actions, and Australians are not comfortable with external controls” (p. 43).

Accepting feedback

Given the cultural differences reviewed here, the acceptance of corrective feedback regarding one’s behavior should be greater among Australians than Americans. Why? First, Australians like disagreement, and unlike Americans, do not connect personal rejection with controversy or a difference of opinion. More importantly, Aussies do not judge people by their actions, but place more value on inner qualities. In contrast, Americans consider accomplishments from behavior a key measure of a person’s merit.

Thus, it is easier for Australians to separate the outward and inward characteristics of an individual, and to deliver and accept corrective feedback as only behavioral advice independent of one’s character or self-worth.

This final distinction between Australians and Americans is the most relevant for PBS. The prior cultural differences set the stage for this differentiation, which was not specifically studied in our survey research nor mentioned in Renwick’s book. At any rate, since the success of behavior-based coaching is contingent on the delivery and acceptance of corrective feedback, this critical component of PBS should go over better in Australia than in the U.S.

Bottom line

It is certainly risky to conclude from a few sweeping generalizations about two cultures that corrective feedback, a critical component of PBS, will work better in Australia than the U.S. I’d have substantial confidence in this prediction if these cultural distinctions were valid and reflected characteristics of a majority of the individuals targeted with a PBS process. In other words, the interpersonal factors in this discussion of cultural differences are more likely related to PBS impact than the culture presumed to reflect them.

To conclude: Individuals are more likely to accept behavior-based corrective feedback and react appropriately when they a) accept and appreciate disagreement; b) base relationships more on inner character than observable behavior; c) accept and honor obligations to return favors; d) adopt a collectivistic mindset regarding industrial safety; and e) see themselves as more inner-directed than other-directed.