Like many people I covered in the business world, I thought “culture” was simply fodder for human resources seminars. Companies, after all, are complex organisations made of individuals.
When we discuss corporate culture, we’re really talking about environment that encourages employees to take certain actions or discourages them from taking others.
A company’s culture is usually defined at the highest levels, yet top executives often fail to understand – or even monitor – how their messages are interpreted farther down in the company.
Workers are told to hold the handrails when going up the stairs, put lids on their coffee cups, admonished from talking on mobile phones when driving on company business and so forth.
I once attended a press conference in a hotel which began with a BP spokesman telling reporters where the exits were in case of a fire. In 26 years as a reporter, much of them spent covering energy companies, it was the only time I attended a press briefing that began with a “safety moment.”
Culture is difficult to change, especially in large, complex, multi-national companies. Employees often resist cultural changes because they find comfort in feeling they know how things are done at their company.
What’s more, if the change is preventive, workers may not feel the same urgency as they would if it’s done in response to an accident.
Many safety experts favor a behavior-based approach that recognizes employees who adopt or suggest proactive measures to improve safety.
Changing the culture means getting employees to consider potential safety issues in everything they do, and to step back and ask themselves how decisions they make could interact with the decisions to others. By thinking about consequences, and not just outcomes, workers can build a safety-centric culture from within.
These sorts of changes require corporate leaders to build an environment in which workers feel secure in voicing concerns and dissent.
Corporations, by their nature, are about collaboration and compliance.
But companies that can encourage openness in their workforce are more likely to reduce the behavior that can corrode their culture.
Loren Steffy is a former business columnist for the Houston Chronicle.