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Trends reveal a dynamic safety culture landscape

Most organisations are aware that good news travels to the top, while frustration and bad news are prevented from escalating. That is why leaders must understand the changing dynamics of safety culture

Analysis identifies eight trends that show a shifting safety environment. Leadership behaviours and the duty of oversight are paramount

THE ability to recognise the ‘new normal’ in a changing world and adapt to it has become an imperative for businesses.

The years of the pandemic with its lockdowns and travel restrictions, changed some of the ways we work, although, as the world returns to a semblance of pre-pandemic normality, we need to understand whether any lessons were learnt in those two disruptive years.

Last year brought more problems as the situation in Ukraine, with its effects on political stability, energy prices, and inflation has added to the uncertainty for businesses. It is not surprising that such a volatile background would demand that companies should develop a need for new organisational cultures as they come to terms with changing fortunes and societal demands while still retaining a focus on safety.

Major research papers written by consulting firms including EY and PwC, or academic institutions such as Duke University, conclude that the focus on organisational culture is on the rise. In fact, it is already recognised as a top priority in many large corporations around the world, even above strategy.

Work conducted by Oslo-headquartered safety culture specialists SAYFR during the pandemic on assessing organisational culture has also looked at people’s perception of their changing workplace situations. The results were clear: For many people, a substantial change in mindset has taken place. This adds to the other trends that have emerged irrespective of the pandemic.

In order to understand the changing safety landscape, the group has released the findings of a report into eight trends that impact on the risk of scandals and disasters (as opposed to failures, that is to say: Anomalies from what is expected.) 

These trends are increased expectations regarding the duty of oversight; less speaking up about sensitive topics; disintegration of the old safety toolbox; building a common culture for managing failures; addressing cognitive biases for safety; empowering the workforce; use of leadership behaviours; and the transformation of transformations themselves.

The report takes each trend in turn and examines where the changes are occurring and what they imply for organisations. Understanding the implications of each of these trends and their combined impact is important because, taken together, they drive a shift in how to manage the risks in ways that can mean the difference between failure or success.

Regarding leadership behaviours, SAYFR notes that culture and leadership are two sides of the same coin: It is leadership that creates culture and vice versa.

“While management is about having control through planning, organising, and co-ordination (often to prevent failures), leadership is about using social interaction to lead a group of people or an organisation towards a common goal,” the study says.

It is observed that most of the accident investigation taxonomies were developed in the 1970s and 1980s. Safety culture became a topic during the 1990s and 2000s.

“Hence, the tools we use to learn from incidents are often outdated and miss some of the most important learnings.”

Elsewhere, SAYFR comments on the inadvisability of not speaking up when safety issues are known.

“The data shows that this trend [quietness] causes dramatic changes in how much people speak up. We are not talking about a few percentages difference, but rather an extremely low culture for speaking up. And when problems and concerns are not brought to daylight and sorted out, they grow and get worse until everything surfaces suddenly.”

Management commitment is the cultural factor with the highest correlation with actual safety performance. A challenge experienced by most organisations is that good news travels to the top, while frustration and bad news are prevented from escalating.

That is why leaders must understand the changing dynamics of safety culture.

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