In his extensive research over the past two decades, Jim Spigener has discovered three universal truths.
- Culture is the ultimate predictor of safety performance.
- Senior leaders make or break the culture of the company.
- “Very few leaders are born great leaders. They make themselves great leaders.”
At EHS Today’s 2014 Safety Leadership Conference in Indianapolis, Spigener urged EHS leaders to rethink their notion of “culture.” Spigener, a senior vice president at the Ojai, Calif.-based consulting firm BST Solutions, asserted that companies need to create cultures that place a premium on managing risk exposure rather than on avoiding injuries.
“How do you know when you’re succeeding in safety? People don’t get hurt,” Spigener said. “I’m not going to disagree with that. The trouble is, that mindset works against us.”
In his analysis of 1,700 workplace fatalities and his interviews with thousands of injured workers, Spigener has found that none of the workers expected to get hurt. However, all of them were aware that they were exposing themselves to risk levels that exceeded their employers’ standards.
“We have rules and policies and procedures and regulations and standards and best practices that tell us what the acceptable level of exposure is,” Spigener said. “Any time you let the exposure rise above what the organization has systematically put in place to protect you, you’ve lost control of the outcome. You’re gambling.
“So the culture that I’m talking about is a culture where you can get people to begin to value [managing risk exposure] and not the injury that might occur as a result of that [exposure].”
Seven Leadership Best Practices
About 15 years ago, Spigener commissioned a longitudinal study of safety performance at 175 companies, looking for some insight into what distinguishes world-class EHS programs from the also-rans. His team of graduate students found no correlation between EHS performance and factors such as workforce demographics, industry sectors and risk levels.
However, the researchers quickly discovered that their informal assessments of each company’s safety culture – based on interviews with senior leaders, supervisors and hourly workers – enabled them to predict where a company would land on the EHS performance scale, with 100 percent accuracy.
“They were telling me that the culture is a predictor,” Spigener said. “And that shocked me.”
I believe the owner of the culture is the leadership of the company. If you start blaming the hourly guys for the culture, you need to go somewhere else, because you created the culture.
— Jim Spigener
After cross-referencing 2,400 peer-reviewed studies on organizational culture, Spigener then concluded that “what gives you excellent safety culture also gives you good profitability, productivity and reliability.”
The “what” turned out to be leadership.
“I believe the owner of the culture is the leadership of the company,” Spigener said. “If you start blaming the hourly guys for the culture, you need to go somewhere else, because you created the culture – you’re getting the exact culture you asked for.”
Spigener’s research team examined the behavior of leaders at companies that excelled in safety as well as at companies that struggled in safety. He and his team distilled the results into seven leadership best practices:
- Vision – How do you convey your vision of safety? “Not your company’s vision – that’s meaningless,” Spigener added. “I’ve learned that if it’s written on the wall, it ain’t true.”
- Credibility – Are your actions consistent with your words? Do you treat all employees with dignity and respect?
- Action orientation – Are you engaged in safety? “Can people see that you actually have skin in the game?” Spigener asked. “If you don’t put any skin in the game, they don’t believe it’s real to you.”
- Safety communication – When you talk about safety, do you talk about “what’s real to you and what’s real to them, or do you just talk about numbers and costs and uptime?”
- Collaboration – Do you work with people? Do you seek your team members’ input?
- Feedback and recognition – How often do you talk to employees about the contributions that they make to safety? “It doesn’t matter if it’s an individual behavior or an activity that a supervisor did. Are you actually connecting the feedback and recognition that you give to the thing that we say is most important to us?”
- Accountability – “Are you holding people accountable, and are you requiring that they hold themselves accountable for doing the right thing when it comes to safety?” Spigener asked.
A Model for Creating a Safety Culture
Citing former MIT professor and organizational-culture guru Edgar Schein, Spigener asserted that leaders manage and measure the “climate,” not the culture.
“If you manage it well enough and long enough, it turns into the culture,” Spigener said. “Climate changes quickly, and culture changes slowly.”
With that in mind, Spigener presented a model illustrating how a leader’s behavior shapes a culture. It looks like this:
- If a leader behaves differently, it affects the climate.
- The climate affects follower behavior.
- Follower behavior affects follower beliefs.
- Follower beliefs create the culture.
To create a safety culture, leaders must behave differently. To do that, Spigener believes that leaders need to “get connected to their value for safety.”
“The problem is, when I ask leaders what safety means to them personally, the No. 1 answer is, ‘People get to go home the way they came in,’” Spigener said. “That’s an outcome. When I ask what safety means to you, what does it mean to the makeup of you? When you look in the mirror, what does safety really mean to you?”
Spigener added: “I believe safety is about the sanctity of human life.”
“Safety is not some abstract thing,” he said. “It’s not about numbers. It really is about your connection to the sanctity of human life. Because that is the most important thing that we own as a human race – nothing else comes close to it.”