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July 23, 2020

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Safety Culture

Resetting your North Star for the new normal: What can we learn from start-ups to reset safety culture after COVID-19?

Tribe Culture Change’s Kevin Edwards asks if the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for a cultural reset and whether organisational start-ups provide any clues on how to achieve this.

north starWe’ve likely heard the phrases ‘new normal’, ‘next normal’, and even ‘COVID now, COVID next’ many times now. Leaders are being told to get back to the organisation’s purpose, its North Star, to help employees make sense of the shock caused by the crisis as well as shape and transition to a ‘new normal’. Does the unnatural pause created by the Coronavirus crisis present leaders and managers with an opportunity to reset their health and safety culture? If so, can we get an idea of what this might look by considering how leaders shape culture during organisational start-up.

How does culture ‘happen’?

A while back I had interim responsibility for leadership and organisation development for a company that grew from seven regional senior managers to 3,500 managers, supervisors and colleagues very quickly. In just 18 months, the organisation had in place the infrastructure, processes and people capable of delivering a service to its customers, 24/7, when an incident happened that made us realise that while we were doing all this, a culture had established itself. ‘When and how did that happen?’ we asked ourselves.

To help answer this question, I revisited the literature on how culture forms and came across this definition by Edgar Schein:

‘Organisational culture is the pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered, or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and that have worked well enough to be considered valid, and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.’

So, when groups have to solve their own problems, they come up with solutions that work well enough more than once, to soon become ‘the way we do things around here’. This explained a lot, since the workforce, supervisors and managers were presented with new and novel situations every day, as you’d expect during start-up (or when facing a seismic disruption to business such as the coronavirus crisis?).

Culture creator or reinforcer?

So how can leaders make a difference to those early forming stages of culture? Schein highlights the difference between culture creators and culture reinforcers. The creators are the primary mechanisms for creating culture:

  • What leaders pay attention to, measure and control on a regular basis;
  • How leaders react to critical incidents and organisational crises;
  • How leaders allocate resources;
  • Deliberate role modelling, teaching and coaching;
  • How leaders allocate rewards and status;
  • How leaders recruit, select, promote and excommunicate.

Whereas the reinforcers are the primary mechanisms for embedding culture:

  • Organisational design and structure;
  • Organisational system and procedures;
  • Rituals;
  • Design of physical workspace;
  • Stories about important events and people;
  • Formal statements of organisational philosophy and ideology (written mission, vision, beliefs and values).

For those first 18 months, we had consciously worked on the reinforcers but had been less systematic when it came to the creators – on reflection, we assumed that the culture would shape itself to the reinforcers in place.


5 things leaders must do to reset culture


Starting with a start-up

A few years later I was asked to support the General Manager of a large warehouse that was more-or-less still a shell; it had racking, and a few floor markings but no product. The soft launch was a month away, the management team and supervisors were in post and they were still recruiting team colleagues when they had their first LTI. I revisited some of those earlier lessons and Schein’s insightful definition, then we – the General Manager, his management team and I – re-grouped.

We spent time unpacking and understanding the mechanisms by which culture forms i.e. the culture creators, and their leadership role in this:

  • Leaders set out and impose their vision, goals, beliefs and values about how things should be done – if they can do this then it will gain early compliance, but it will not automatically produce the desired safety culture.
  • People will initially follow what is required of them, and if this leads to success and feeling good about their relationships with others then the leader’s beliefs and values are confirmed, reinforced and shared. Our leaders needed to ensure that positive relationships were formed within and between teams, and between line managers and their colleagues. Do this successfully, and these beliefs and values become shared through a sense of ‘community’.
  • People continue to act on these beliefs and values; if success continues then this is the ‘correct’ way to think, feel and act. The security of a vision, goals, beliefs and values that provides initial success has the effect of reducing the anxiety associated with uncertainty and ambiguity during start up.

Asking the right questions

We then set about answering three key questions implied by the above:

1. How can we set out and impose our vision, goals, beliefs and values about how things should be done?

I asked the management team ‘What have you already noticed that doesn’t meet your beliefs and values, including those you haven’t yet commented on?’ This enabled us to work backwards and agree what their shared beliefs and values were. We then moved forward with confidence to identify the key acts and behaviours they needed to pay attention to. For each one we articulated the safety message that they would state clearly whenever they were discussing it.

I then asked, ‘What would be the simple and powerful question, one for each act or behaviour, that they could repeatedly ask colleagues?’. We also explored how to genuinely and emotionally react in-the-moment when they saw someone exhibit the desired act or behaviour, or when someone violated one of these beliefs and values.

The Marmite effect

North StarImagine spreading Marmite very thinly on your toast at breakfast – it’s not long before the taste has gone from your mouth. Spread it thickly and you get an intense Marmite experience and the taste stays in your mouth much longer – even when you can no longer physically taste it, you can still recall it. This is the Marmite effect. Can you create an intense Marmite experience when you interact with your team so they still think about and carry out the correct, safe act when you are not physically with them?

We then created a specific plan of how and when they would systematically notice, ask, comment and reinforce these core acts/behaviours.

2. How can we ensure early success?

I wanted to avoid the management response to this question e.g. to set clear goals, and make sure we focused on culture, so we revisited Schein’s definition. This got everyone thinking about the ‘problems’ the supervisors and colleagues were having to ‘cope with’ for which their solutions were already forming the building blocks of the emerging culture. Inevitably, this discussion looped back to the acts and behaviours they had already noticed and why these were manifesting. However, the specific problems were simply a vehicle for the more meaningful learning that emerged from the discussion, namely the leader’s role is to:

  • Know the problems their teams face;
  • Help shape the solutions ensuring people know how these align to the leader’s vision, beliefs and values;
  • Manage everyone’s perceptions of the outcome i.e. what constitutes success and failure and the reasons (attributions) for; this again done in a way that positively reinforces the values, beliefs and values.

3. How can we ensure people feel good about their relationships with others?

We focused on the following areas:

  • The importance of introducing a common language that helps people talk about things they are trying to make sense of or that they aren’t yet aware of. This was ‘the language of Health and Safety’ and we discussed how to introduce this into everyday discussion and dialogue now, rather than through the mechanistic introduction of systems and procedures later.
  • Establishing an organisational group identity – I asked them to describe what sort of person they wanted working for them and how that person’s approach to safety is distinct from other similar organisations. I was surprised that the management team hadn’t discussed this yet, recruitment was very much led by their HR function. We then discussed when and how they could talk about the ideal colleague ‘identity’ in a way that instilled a sense of pride working for the company.
  • Establishing positive peer relationships – we discussed the importance of developing and maintaining a sense of community. This took us beyond the safe-unsafe acts and behaviours and into a discussion on the desired team culture and team health and safety culture. By immersing myself in their working environment for two days, I saw first-hand there were a few simple, practical things to consider; i.e. when and how people come together, and the quality of the dialogue when this happens. We talked about the start-of-shift managers’ briefings, for example, where it was clear that at least half of the 30 to 40 people couldn’t hear or didn’t want to listen. Managers and supervisors were very hands-on during the shift, but I noted that they were demonstrating a ‘tell’ style. And there was no end-of-shift ritual which would have been another opportunity for supervisors and colleagues to engage meaningfully with each other. To me, there seemed few opportunities to raise problems and come up with solutions in ways that also made people feel good about their relationship with others.

A shock opportunity

Coronavirus has created novel, uncertain and uncontrollable challenges. If the crisis created a cultural shock for your organisation, then perhaps this is also an opportunity to reset certain aspects of your culture. If so, knowing how culture forms during start-up may provide some clues how to achieve this.


Kevin EdwardsKevin Edwards has over 25 years of leadership and organisation development experience, he has an MSc. in Organisational Behaviour from Birkbeck College, University of London. He is a trained facilitator and has consulted and coached internationally across a range of sectors. Kevin seeks to support his clients at every stage of their cultural journey, and ultimately help them realise the benefits of their change programme.

Sleep and Fatigue: Director’s Briefing

Fatigue is common amongst the population, but particularly among those working abnormal hours, and can arise from excessive working time or poorly designed shift patterns. It is also related to workload, in that workers are more easily fatigued if their work is machine-paced, complex or monotonous.

This free director’s briefing contains:

  • Key points;
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  • Case law;
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Barbour EHS

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