If a client came to us saying, “We know we have some leadership and culture issues: upward communication is poor, skill level of supervisors and managers in inconsistent, our people don’t understand system thinking, and behavioral reliability is sketchy. We want to develop a high performance culture. How should we approach it?”
Our answer would likely be, “Why not start with safety?”
It is a worthwhile issue in itself: safety saves lives and lowers costs. Plus, the indirect effects are also powerful: to the extent that you develop real excellence in safety, you will also create a high performance culture—which will improve your effectiveness and efficiency in general.
Over the years, we have observed that organizations that are great at safety tend to be good at everything they do. That might seem obvious today, but it hasn’t always been. Remember that when OSHA began monitoring and holding U.S. organizations accountable for their safety performance in 1970, the new legislation was seen as a burden. Safety programs were initially treated as a cost of doing business and measured in terms of lower insurance claims and reduced workers’ compensation premiums, but all of that is different today. Today, the best safety programs are evaluated in terms of their impact on organizational performance.
One of the biggest reasons that organizations that focus on safety end up experiencing these other benefits is the fact that safety initiatives are unifying endeavors. They bring people together.
When we talk about safety, we are talking about safety in every sense, including personal safety, process safety, product safety, patient safety, security, and health. Safety represents a basic human need. Nobody is against safety, and everyone has a stake.
In the early days of behavior-based safety, clients used to ask us whether union organizations had different outcomes compared to non-union organizations. The prevailing belief at the time was that adversarial relationships between managers and workers in unionized companies would dampen the benefits of a safety initiative that depended on employee engagement. Yet in a study comparing the improvement in safety performance between 77 union and 75 non-union sites, the results showed no difference. To be sure, we certainly did observe strained relationships between managers and workers in some of these organizations, but safety was important enough that they found ways to work together.
Indeed, safety brings people together across all levels and functions to contribute to a common goal. Each person in an organization is responsible for safety, and every individual is uniquely positioned to identify, create, and mitigate exposure for himself and others. When people start looking out for one another’s safety, it brings them together in other ways. They start talking to each other, communicating more, and identifying and resolving problems together. Dealing with common safety issues provides opportunities to interact, influence, and participate that might not otherwise occur within an organization.