How To Shift Safety Culture Without Senior Management Support

Don't worry that senior management is not supporting your Safety Culture initiative. Truthfully, you don’t need their help.

safety culture without senior management kevin burns

Corporate Culture is the glue that holds your organization together - how you do things, how you hire, how you even handle meetings. Safety Culture is the way your people do safety. But as I wrote in an earlier Blog post, the Unspoken Code of peers is one of the largest contributors to Culture. Companies who attempt to shift Culture without taking into account The Code, run a real risk.

Who Influences Culture?

Employees don't quit a company - they quit their boss. That is where the Culture of the workplace exists - in the relationship between employee and manager/supervisor. What people think of their workplace is largely dependent on what they think of their immediate boss. That's where Culture gets created. That's where the Code gets formed.

Senior managers are responsible for the long-term vision of the company. Middle-managers are responsible for the day-to-day operation - where Culture exists.

Why Senior Management Resists Culture Change

Senior management, unless they witness a terrible upswing in safety incidents or see the company bleeding large amounts of money, will view Culture shift exercises as unnecessary. They simply don’t see a need. But the good news is that you don't need to have upper management on-board to shift Culture.

Culture itself is not changeable. Culture is not a program you launch or control. Culture is the result of the collective attitudes and values toward safety in the workplace. Senior management does not oversee Culture - that is done at the middle-management level - where carrying out processes, policies and procedures, communication and the management all live. Front-line workers have little interaction with senior management. That's why middle-managers and front-line supervisors have more impact on Culture than senior managers.

Culture is not changed all at once anyway. A safety culture is changed person by person, one behavior after another, slowly and methodically over a long period of time by middle-managers and front-line supervisors. Senior managers have little to do with it.

Getting Senior Management Buy-in

The job of a senior manager is to lead the company - whichever direction it may be headed. They will want to position themselves out in front of wherever the culture happens to be. So, if you can get the front-line workers to shift first, senior managers will follow - and position themselves at the front of the parade as though it was their idea all along. That's not to say senior managers are shallow - not at all. Simply, senior management never wants to be seen going in the opposite direction of the rest of the organization.

How you get senior managers to come on-board safety culture change, is to force them to catch up to the parade. This is the most expedient way to shift your corporate culture.

Where To Focus Your Efforts

To make a successful shift in safety culture, you must address the various levels in the workplace in the following order:

1Middle-managers and front-line supervisors first - convince your peers of the need for the change and get them to commit to join in. Then, find a way to ensure those same managers and supervisors have the proper management skills - not safety skills (you likely already have those) - and coaching skills. These tools will be required to support the front-line workers.

2Front-line personnel - if you are going to change Culture, you have to change the Code. Managers and supervisors must work with the front-line people day by day, behavior by behavior until all of the front-line is aligned. That’s when the code begins to change. Then slowly, one at a time, behavior by behavior, move the level of safety expectation up. Raise the bar. Expect them to reach a new level. Do regular performance reviews. Focus on fixing what is not going well and praise what is. Never miss on that second part.

3Senior managers - the final stage is to inform senior management during (not after - during) the changes. Eventually, you will be able to show them documented improved safety performance numbers. Prove that both front-line employees and managers/supervisors are committed to improving safety. Then, tell them that the train of safety culture is leaving the station and that the new Culture requires a leader. Offer them the seat at the front of the train. You will never regret including your senior management team in your Culture shift initiative and letting them think it was their idea all along. 

That’s how you change safety culture: not with money, not with incentives, not with perks and not with a huge investment in expensive safety training programs. You get better in safety in the same way professional athletes get better: day by day, coaching, mentoring, instruction, review, on-going communication, camaraderie, teamwork, focus and changing attitudes.

Money doesn’t change attitudes. Stop looking there. You shift a safety culture by simply getting better at managing employees. If you want to figure out where the gaps are in your management ability, download the free e-book below.

10 Crucial Questions for Safety Managers

(c) Can Stock Photo

Topics: safety promotion, safety culture, leadership, safety buy-in, safety manager