Torqued: How Safe Is Your Safety Culture?

 - March 1, 2019, 8:21 AM

I’ve been thinking about safety cultures at aviation entities for a few reasons. For one, as I write, it’s the start of a new year and a good time for resolutions. One such resolution could be striving to improve the safety culture of your organization for the year 2019. I’ve been thinking about that for some of the organizations I consult with as a way of motivating what should be a regular review of a business’s safety culture. For those of you who don’t have the span of control to improve an entire organization’s safety culture—although, to any owners or chief executives who may be reading this, you do—but any manager or supervisor can influence the area they have control over. And I say influence; it’s ultimately the head of the organization who really controls the safety culture, but more about that in a minute.

Another reason for this particular topic is the partial shutdown of the U.S. government and accompanying furlough of FAA safety inspectors and NTSB accident investigators. (Shortly after this writing, the two sides reached an agreement to open temporarily, but the future was uncertain.) For inexplicable reasons, the FAA decided in a 2013 shutdown that the bulk of its safety inspectors would no longer be considered essential workers, as they were in previous shutdowns. It seems that the decision to consider safety inspectors non-essential has continued in this shutdown. According to an FAA statement on Twitter: “if we identify an issue, we recall inspectors and engineers to address it.” Who is identifying issues if inspectors aren’t out there inspecting or at least evaluating reports coming in from whistleblowers or the public? This situation highlights for me the importance of a strong safety culture so that you don’t need the fear of a government inspection to keep management or employees focused on doing the right thing.

Top-down Culture

Coincidentally, as I was getting ready to write about this topic, a friend of mine sent me a podcast interview with a management expert talking about issues that I believe are relevant to safety cultures. Titled “ Science of Leadership (with Adam Grant),” the podcast interviews Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, on a wide range of subjects related to leadership. 

Grant’s summary defining safety culture is a good one: “When I think about culture, I think about repeated patterns of behavior that reveal norms and values. I think one of the shorthand ways to capture [the essence of] “culture” is; what people do when no one is looking.” As I mentioned earlier, with the inspectors out on furlough, you hope for a safety culture that doesn’t depend on fear of an FAA inspection. Are the norms and values in your organization or your unit to do the right thing, or to take convenient shortcuts just to get the job done, even if the impact on safety is unknown or risky?

Grant highlights the importance of founders or leaders in creating cultures by what they reward and what they punish. But, importantly, they also do it by the people they promote. If people are promoted for their ability to perform individually but their impact on others is not considered, you can end up with a toxic person creating a toxic environment. I’ve seen that in organizations where I’ve worked. I've also seen it in organizations that I’ve reviewed after accidents have left them shaken as to how the breakdown in safety occurred. 

Most often, on the maintenance side, I’ve seen a failure to follow procedures become a norm that undermines safety. The company mantra is to get the job done, move planes. Someone in the company, maybe a new hire who tries to do work “by the book,” is criticized for slowing down the operation. He or she quickly learns the only way to keep their job or to get promotions is to take shortcuts; following the proper steps is not going to be rewarded if it means slowing down the operation. 

The same is true for cultures that push pilots to take risks with weather or aircraft performance that they themselves are hesitant to take. Or a culture exhibited by the pilots themselves, such as revealed by the NTSB investigation of the Gulfstream IV crash that took the lives of seven people, including David Katz, owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer. That accident revealed an astonishing failure by a senior pilot and copilot to perform a routine pre-takeoff flight-control check, resulting in their attempted takeoff with the gust lock engaged. One of the contributing factors found by the NTSB was the “habitual failure” to perform such a check on the preceding 175 flights by the same very experienced flight crew.

One of the observations Grant makes regards the toxic superstar. We all know the employee who is brilliant at their job but creates misery for those around them. Grant, who studies this type of situation, states: “If you look at the data, it’s pretty clear, one bad apple can spoil a barrel, but one good egg does not make a dozen.” While it’s possible to change some of those toxic behaviors, Grant’s conclusion is that “it’s much easier to change culture by removing people than it is to change those people’s behavior, especially if they are powerful people.”

In the end, I thought one of the most helpful parts of this interview was Grant’s view on how to avoid group think and encourage speaking truth to power. I can’t count the number of times after an accident that I’ve heard other employees say that so-and-so was an accident waiting to happen. Or, “We wanted to say something but the boss [or bosses] didn’t want to hear it.” 

One of the most meaningful strategies for me has to do with how individuals can raise issues, even with difficult bosses, and greatly increase their chances of being heard and their advice being acted upon.