two men wearing PPE and promoting a learning culture

Promoting a Learning Culture in Challenging Environments

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

Creating and sustaining a “learning culture” is critical for optimal safety culture and performance. Unfortunately, this can be challenging with organizations that have a history of “old school” cultures. In other cases, new leaders may legitimately need to establish a baseline of accountability to clean up messes created by overly lenient past practices. Overly lenient cultures often result in “looking the other way” and increased risk-taking behavior.

However, emphasizing only compliance and regulation leads to safety performance plateaus. Promoting an open “learning culture” and infusing more positive recognition is needed to advance safety culture beyond current levels and reduce the potential for serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs). Creating a more open and positive safety culture promotes discretionary effort beyond basic compliance.

Leading-edge organizations maintain accountability while still promoting a learning culture. For some companies, this will take time. This is especially true if there are perceptions of a “gotcha” culture or if there are corporate beliefs that punishment drives down injury numbers. This may occur in the short term, but the reality is that excessive punitive measures drive reporting underground where only the most severe incidents are reported. As one employee noted in a recent assessment, “It’s better to shut up than get fired.”

This damages safety culture and discourages open reporting and discussions with close calls, safety concerns, and minor incidents. These issues need to be openly discussed and addressed or more serious incidents may occur. As an example, the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 people and injured 17 more occurred the day after corporate representatives presented the rig an award for low injury numbers. In reality, there were a number of unreported hazards and error precursors that were ignored and hidden prior to the catastrophic event.

Encouraging employees to report minor injuries, safety suggestions, safety concerns, close calls, and best practices minimizes the normalized deviation of risk (complacency) and lowers the probability of serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs). Some organizations actually incentivize these leading indicators to prevent more serious events. They welcome increased reports of first aids and close calls as signs of more open reporting. This won’t happen when people actively resist reporting anything that they can hide.

Steps to improve learning culture include:

• Reinforcing leadership coaching over catching people working at-risk.
• Ensuring incident analyses are system-focused with an emphasis on future prevention more than blame.
• Reserving punishment for willful, negligent, and serious violations.
• Recognizing and appreciating employees for reporting close calls, minor injuries, and safety suggestions.
• Showing more appreciation for safe work practices and participation in safety efforts.
• Encouraging more employee participation in safety.
• Better explaining the “why” behind organizational changes and getting more upfront field input with change efforts.
• Focusing on the quality of conversations with observations more than quantity or quotas.

Leaders are often tasked with increasing accountability and responsibility for safe work practices. The next evolution is to maintain this accountability but focus on more positive means to motivate performance. This includes developing a learning culture where people are encouraged and reinforced for speaking up. Adapting this learning environment will accelerate safety culture maturity and decrease the probability of SIFs.

At Propulo, we help leaders create and maintain an active learning environment to improve safety culture and prevent SIFs.


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