Safety advancement often means instituting fundamental changes in organizational practices, thinking and even culture. In some organizations, employees respond to these changes readily. In others, the need for change meets ongoing resistance, sometimes to the point of failure.
Why some organizations easily adapt and others struggle draws in part on the qualities of the great safety leader we have outlined in earlier columns. Who the leader is and what leadership practices the leader follows strongly correlate to the safety climate and organizational culture that underpins performance. Understanding the qualities of a “change ready” culture — and how the leader shapes it — is the first step to lasting safety improvement.
Readiness for Change: Indicators
Change efforts do not occur in a vacuum. Organizational members usually have long histories with each other that tell them what is important to others in the organization, how they are likely to be treated in different circumstances and whether others are likely to do what they say they will do. Their experience congeals into a set of perceptions, beliefs and expectations about the way things are, which in turn influence how individuals behave, and define the organization's culture.
Research literature on organizational change points to a strong, inverse relationship between employee cynicism and the success of change initiatives. That is, the higher the level of mistrust in the organization's leaders, the lower the likelihood that changes will survive. While the literature suggests some of the cynicism is dispositional (residing within the employee), it also indicates that the most important indicators are situational. In other words, cynicism is directly linked to the environment that leaders create.
There are several culture dimensions critical to high performance in safety, and they can be grouped into team, safety-specific and organizational dimensions. Of these, the scales belonging to the organizational dimension are the most elemental to setting the stage for change. Employees' attitudes toward change depend in part on their perceptions of basic aspects of organizational life. For example, how they are treated by their supervisor. These variables also are situational and are directly influenced by leadership behavior:
Procedural Justice reflects the extent to which the employee perceives fairness in the supervisor's decision-making process. Leaders enhance perceptions of procedural justice when they make decisions characterized by consistency across persons and time, lack of bias, accuracy (decisions are based on good information and informed opinion), correctability (decisions can be appealed), respresentativeness (the procedure reflects the concerns, values and outlook of those affected) and ethicality.
Leader-Member Exchange reflects the relationship the employee has with his or her supervisor. In particular, this scale measures the employee's level of confidence that his supervisor will go to bat for him and look out for his interests. Leaders can enhance perceptions of leader-member exchange by developing positive working relationships with their reports and getting each person to see how achieving organizational goals can be fulfilling both to the leader and to the employee.
Management Credibility reflects the employee's perception that what management says is consistent with what management does. Leader behaviors that influence perceptions of trustworthiness include consistency, integrity (telling the truth, keeping promises), sharing control in decision-making and through delegation, communication and benevolence (demonstration of concern).
Perceived Organizational Support describes the perception of employees that the organization cares about them, values them and supports them. The extent to which employees believe the organization is concerned with their needs and interests strongly influences their likelihood that they will “go the extra mile.” Leaders can demonstrate organizational support by effecting and communicating efforts that go well beyond what is required.
These factors contribute to an environment that more readily accepts and promotes change. When an employee is treated with dignity and respect and offered support by his or her supervisor, the employee tends to reciprocate; job performance, extra-role behavior and loyalty tend to increase. On the other hand, the worker who feels demeaned or disrespected is much less likely to engage fully in the work.
Whether change comes easily or proves difficult to achieve depends in part on the atmosphere — the organizational culture and safety climate — that leadership creates. The four dimensions outlined here help leaders understand how ready the organization is to take on change and sustain it. In the next column, we will discuss the next step: What leaders can do to address these organizational variables and create a change-ready culture.
Psychologist Thomas Krause, Ph.D., is chairman of the board of BST, a global safety performance consulting firm. Krause has conducted research and interventions in the use of performance improvement methods for accident prevention, culture change, leadership development and other targeted applications. He has authored several books and articles on safety and leadership.