"Culture" is a widely-used term in the safety profession these days. Even a cursory glance through a year's worth of Professional Safety issues will reveal many articles either focusing on the impact of culture on safety, or identifying culture as an important factor in preventing incidents and injuries.

But "culture" can easily become a buzz-word, a vague and non-descriptive term that doesn't help practical people achieve practical goals. The purpose of this paper is take the important idea of "culture" out of the realm of jargon and mystique; to define it and explain it with sufficient clarity so that it can become a useful conceptual tool to help safety professionals improve safety performance.

Defining Organizational Culture

Here's an interesting experiment you can conduct: take a group of people and tell them you're going to give them a timed task that will last two minutes. Ask them to take a piece of paper and write down as many responses as they can to a question you will show them. Then put the following question in front of the group, on a flip chart or as a projected slide: "What is in the room right now?" After two minutes, ask them to stop writing. Then let them feedback verbally what they wrote down, without repeating anything said by someone else.

With most groups, you'll find the vast majority of people will list visible items in the room, such as furniture, clothing, books, or light fixtures. A small number of people might list invisible things like air or sounds. No one or only a few will write down abstractions pertaining to people, such as "emotions," "thoughts," "personalities," or "ideas." And usually no one will think to list abstractions that pertain to more than one person, such as "relationships," "shared history," or "culture."

Of course, everything noted above is "in the room." But we have a bias towards visual perception. Under a little bit of time pressure or perceived competition, we tend to focus our awareness on what we can see, and pay less attention to the ideas we have about an environment. This tendency gets amplified among those of us who are passionate about safety. Incidents and injuries usually take place in the visible world. The people who are most likely to get hurt at work are usually people who spend their lives dealing with physical things, not ideas. In other words, most safety professionals and the people they are trying to protect have a built-in tilt towards more concrete, less abstract ways of dealing with the world. No wonder people get mystified by an idea as abstract as "culture."

The concept of culture originated in the field of Anthropology and was first applied to explain differences between various ethnic and national groups. Anyone who has traveled outside of his or her region quickly realizes that people in different places do things differently.

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