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How Do People Behave in A Safety Ownership Culture? - Part I

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

A year has passed since Tony Orlowski and I saw the publication of our book, Safety Beyond the Numbers. Over the year I have been asked one question more than any other. The question is usually phrased as follows:

What is the difference between how people behave in a safety ownership culture

versus the way people behave in a compliance-based culture?

Once I got past the thought that the person asking the question should “read the book,” I realized they were asking for examples beyond the obvious. The person asking the question was engaged in a genuine struggle to understand both the “specifics and nuances” of human behavior unique to ownership. After all, team members are often considered to be behaving “well enough” in a compliance-based culture (a low, but predictable behavioral bar). At the very least, they do as they are told. And as for all the other variations on compliance? Ditto! People behave well enough.

What follows is the answer to the question. This is not a complete list of the specifics and nuances of behavior in an ownership safety culture. It is, however, a good place to begin. As you will see, people think, talk, and behave differently in an ownership safety culture. Here is how:

• Team members are relaxed, focused, and intentional about meeting expectations.

• Team members think, talk, and move in a manner which projects pride in the work they do and the people they work with.

• Team members are comfortable talking about accomplishments or short comings with directness and honesty because they are in a friendly relationship with the facts.

• Team members welcome the giving and receiving of compliments, and expressions of appreciation for work planned or done.

• Team members are open to feedback and comfortable acknowledging mistakes because they are committed to excellence --- not perfection, which is unachievable.

• Team members embrace accountability by owning, correcting, and learning from mistakes --- and then allowing themselves and others to move on.

• Conversations are comfortable and tension free because team members have reason to trust the people they report to and work with.

• There is an openness to and curiosity about, new ideas, new experiences, and new possibilities.

• Identifying and solving problems does not feel like an indictment --- it feels normal.

• Feelings of anxiety or frustration do not overwhelm team members because they have the confidence and competence to accept, manage, and rise above frustration.

• Team members enjoy both the formal (team meetings) and informal (lunchtime & breaks) because they are treated with respect by everyone they encounter during the day.

• Team members are comfortable being assertive and passionate (not belligerent) and respect the same in others.

• Team members think, talk, and walk (behave) in a manner which makes it clear safe outcomes are a moral choice they have made.

• Team members welcome every set of eyes that watches out for them --- it is safe to keep each other safe.

• Team peer pressure will not accept trading safety for personal convenience (comfort) or approval (valuing being “liked” over safety).

• Because team members trust their work environment they perform at their best. They make a consistent, high-quality contribution to the profitability of the organization.

Notice that the themes of comfort, competence, confidence, and trust occur again and again. Comfort comes from the certainty of being treated with dignity and respect. Competence is the consequence of clear expectations, training, tools, and enough feedback to keep a team member between the guardrails. Confidence comes from knowing you have been set up to succeed. And trust is the natural by-product of an endless number of actions that tell a team member “we’ve got your back.”

By now you are probably thinking all this sounds both great and impossible. It is not. An ownership safety culture achieves this and more. An organization “gets there” because the leader leads the team there! This will be the topic of Part II as we explore “How people behave differently in a safety ownership culture.”

Ken Chapman

Co-Author of Safety Beyond the Numbers


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