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You Only Sustain What You Care About: 3 Keys to a Sustainable Safety Culture

Nov. 17, 2015
A vibrant and sustainable safety culture is one that resonates and connects with the values and vision of both employees and the organization.

It’s easy to start something, and it’s easy to stop something. What’s difficult is to sustain something once you’ve started. Why is that?

Each of us reacts strongly to start and stop moments. When you start or stop something new, you get a jolt of that “I’m going to change!” energy – even though the deeper meaning behind the starting and stopping is often not clear. The ability to sustain change is only possible when you combine meaning with action. Any change you make must resonate emotionally and intellectually.

Meaning is tied to what you value most and to a vision you have for your life. When what you want to start or stop is connected to your closely held values and vision, that initial burst of reactive energy will persist and transform into a commitment. This transition from simple reaction (starting or stopping something) to action is the key to sustainability.

Reaction + reflection + commitment = sustainability

During reflection, you test to see if what caused the reaction has meaning. Does it connect with your values and vision? It’s during reflection when the meaning – or why – becomes clear. Until you gain clarity of meaning, it is impossible to move to commitment. But once you pass this values and vision test, you are on your way to commitment and sustainability.

The process of committing to a change and sustaining it is the hard part. The why for the change must connect with your values and vision if you hope to consistently have the energy required for sustainability. To put it simply, you only sustain what you care about.

Positive safety cultures: three keys for sustainability

Sustainability matters in the workplace as well as in our personal and professional lives, especially when it comes to sustaining a positive safety culture.

A vibrant and sustainable safety culture is one that resonates and connects with the values and vision of both employees and the organization; a safety culture that doesn’t will wither and become unsustainable. Finding the intersection between basic human values and organizational values can only be discovered and kept alive through authentic and generative dialogue between management and employees. 

Here’s how to make sure your safety culture can stand the test of time:

1. There must be a meaningful why – a purpose.

Daniel Pink, author of the book “Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” identifies why or purpose as the third leg of motivation.

“The 'why' matters a lot – as does regular feedback,” he said. “As a leader, one of the most powerful things you can do is provide that context; instead of monitoring what, where, when and how, encourage people to consider why they’re in their roles – every day, and listen to what they have to say.”

At a very early age, humans start seeking answers to questions about life. Although adults go about the questioning differently, the intent is the same: We have a need to understand the purpose and meaning of why we are doing what we do. Our minds and hearts cannot commit to a course of action until we know the why. To sustain a positive safety culture, the why must speak directly to the hearts and minds of all employees.

2. A sustainable safety culture must be built upon core human values that positively intersect with organizational values.

The following is a composite “I want” statement that was the product of a series of employee dialogue sessions I held with a client company to explore the meaning of safety:

“I want to work in an environment that regards my personal safety as a top priority so I can fully engage in my work and return home to my family each night. I want to feel respected and cared for, and experience satisfaction in the work I perform.”

This statement clearly articulates what research by the Institute for Global Ethics has found, which is that people throughout the world hold these core values: honesty, responsibility, respect, fairness and compassion. It is imperative that organizational values and core human values are woven into the fabric of the safety culture for it to be effective and sustainable.

3. The operational structure of the culture must adhere to a behavioral model of motivation that encourages, develops and fosters intrinsic motivation.

A safety culture that relies upon extrinsic motivation eventually will find that its methods and incentives (command and control, and rewards and punishment) subdue and kill employee engagement, accountability and ownership. Extrinsic motivation creates perceptions and conditions that are contrary to the five core values listed above.

Sustainability requires a model based on the psychological needs of people, and is consistent in reinforcing core values and encouraging intrinsic motivation.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is such a model. SDT continuously develops intrinsic motivation by addressing three core psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness and competence.

Autonomy provides employees with the respect and trust to make and act on choices that are in the best interest of themselves, their coworkers and the organization. Relatedness is the experience of having satisfying and supportive relationships based upon the five core human values. Competence is a sense that one has the ability to influence important outcomes regarding their wellbeing and safety.

A lack of awareness about these three needs affects engagement and discretionary effort. One of my most vivid experiences of this happened during a presentation by an engineering team on a design to improve the efficiency of a piece of equipment. After the presentation, a maintenance worker raised his hand and asked if he was expected to be responsible for maintaining the new design. He was told yes. His response? “If that is the case then I suggest you go back to the drawing board, because there is no way I can access it safely.”

A model like SDT must be integrated as a philosophy and a practice that touches all aspects of an organization. It must be part of how managers and supervisors lead, and the basis for how safety initiatives are developed.

The heart of your mission

To sustain a positive safety culture, you must care deeply about it. It cannot be a goal or a strategic objective. It must touch and demonstrate what is in the heart of your company and employees.

Sustainability is resilience, which is the ability to learn from one’s mistakes, persist and overcome obstacles. What gives people, organizations and cultures resilience is a foundation of core values, a model of operations based on human needs as well as organizational needs, and a compelling reason or purpose to overcome challenges.

These three keys offer a road map to sustainability, but in the end you can only sustain what you deeply care about.

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