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Challenging Paradigms of Culture and Safety

The most deadly offshore accident happened in July 1988 on the Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea.  Learning about this accident is a right-of-passage for many of those working offshore in the oil and gas industry.  The disaster costs the lives of 167 workers and billions of dollars in property damage.  In terms of environmental damage, the Deepwater Horizon platform operating in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 was the worst offshore environmental disaster of all time.  Eleven workers lost their lives.   Offshore work is technically challenging and dangerous.  But, what makes work most dangerous, offshore and onshore, in terms of health and safety is not the challenging engineering and technical requirements of daily operations, but the way safety culture is communicated and demonstrated through the decisions made from the more comfortable executive offices.  As management guru Peter Drucker aptly phrased it, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  The importance of culture to workplace safety cannot be understated.  There can be no safe workplace without a strong safety culture.

In a United Kingdom Trade Unions Congress (TUC) survey, workplace safety representatives rated the top health and safety hazards facing UK employees.  The five most frequently cited hazards in 2014 were stress, bullying or harassment, overwork, back-strains and slips, trips and falls on a level.  Workplace bullying can cause significant psychosocial risk to workers including stress, anxiety and sleep disorder and directly or indirectly impacts all of the top hazards listed.  TUC defines workplace bullying as offensive, intimidating, malicious, insulting or humiliating behavior, abuse of power or authority which attempts to undermine an individual or group of employees and which may cause them to suffer stress.  TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “We may sometimes joke about health and safety culture, but it’s no joke when you become the person lying awake at night from stress, made ill through long hours, a lack of control over your work or bullying in the office. Employers and managers need to do more to identify and reduce risks and to provide support to employees struggling to cope.”  Since workplace bullying is fundamentally a culture and management issue, how employers address workplace bullying would be a key factor in identifying and promoting a safe workplace.  Given the TUC survey findings, one would hope that organizations lauding their commitment to health and safety would see and act on these identified hazards and improve workplace culture.  Many workplaces are quick to sign-off on requisition orders for ergonomic chairs and steel-toed boots.  But, boots and chairs are not culture, they are but cultural ornaments.  When it comes to addressing a culture of bullying, the sad truth is that most often the response from organization management is much different.

Bullies are easily identifiable by some or most of the following characteristics: public humiliation, name-calling, gossiping, teasing, withholding information, ignoring someone, preventing access to opportunities, imposing impossible standards or deadlines, failure to give credit, repeated reminders of mistakes, manipulation, denial of wrongdoing, pitting folks against each other, arrogance and verbal abuse.  The literature about workplace bullying suggests that bullies are threatened by their targets in various ways.  Bullies seek out people who are vulnerable and to deal with the threat, bullies seek to control, contain, and eventually remove the threat, all the while getting off on the torment they are causing. The threat can actually be the target’s productivity, skills, talent, or their popularity.  The target inadvertently shows the bully’s inadequacies. Targets may have a strong conscience which all but drives them to speak and act truthfully because they cannot act in any other way. Therefore, the target must be put in their place.  The objective for most bullies is to force out the targeted employee, and the majority of the time they succeed.  They tend to be zero sum players who want to “beat” the target rather than find a win-win solution.  Bullies impede the targets opportunities progress within the bully’s domain. Targets of bullying are often very loyal to the company, but they want to be treated fairly with dignity and respect.  Targets can also be whistle-blowers raising health and safety concerns or those bringing corruption to light.

Targets often continue to be tormented even after they are forced out of their jobs.  Bullies, through their enablers in human resources, will manipulate work history and personnel records.  Top level executive vice-presidents and senior human resource managers will take time away from improving the enterprise and devote to damaging careers of targets.  It is not beneath them to forge and falsify employee records, as well as remove any of the targets complaints or disagreement with the management actions regarding health and safety or other issues.  Occupational health practitioner reports and recommendations addressing the targets general health and stress levels are ignored and removed, thereby presenting a cleansed “official” false narrative describing the true culture and events leading to the targets departure.   Such suspicious responses and actions to complaints sound more like those of top management wanting to hide a crime rather than improve organization health and safety.

In the UK construction industry it was brought to light that companies cooperated to blacklist employees from any future employment within their trade often for bringing up health and safety concerns.  One might think that the knowledge of the poor culture of a competitor could be an advantage.  But, competitors are not working together to solve the most significant health and safety issues, but rather cooperating to silence workers trying to improve the safety culture within their organization and trade sector.  In such a climate there is no possibility of attaining a true safety culture.  Organizations cannot support bullying and at the same time proclaim to have a safety culture.  The two cannot exist together.  It is also a daunting task for targets to challenge organizations who protect and even promote bully behavior.  The salaries and savings of most workers are miniscule compared to multimillion dollar projects.  Daily rates of large construction projects, offshore vessels and platforms are hundreds of thousands of dollars a day.  The cost of abandoning values and policy, and even losing high performing workers, seems minimal to the bullies and the top executives in the organization who support them.  Of course, it is beneficial to the bullies personally when they do not take responsibility for the toxic cultures that they create and enable.  Often these bad decisions catch-up with organizations later through declining revenues, reduced productivity, and lower quality of goods and services.

Most certified management systems, such as OHSAS 18001, place a very high responsibility of success of such initiatives on top management.  System outcome is predominantly the result of how the system is designed and managed.  How work is completed and by whom, what processes and equipment is used, evaluated, and maintained are under the domain of top management.  In fact, top management defines the business culture.  Quality management guru W. Edward Deming many years ago demonstrated to organizations and workers the relative significance of the system over the individual worker in producing outcomes.  The empirical results time after time from his famous Red Bead Experiment demonstrated that workers are responsible for less than 15% of the outcome (including mistakes) and the system design and management over 85%.  However, in the real world of management there is a tendency to scapegoat and attribute mistakes and problems to individual workers.  Deming believed that the common practice of annual performance appraisals were one of the deadly diseases inflicting damage on enterprises and encumbering success.  Bullying tends to be counter cultural behavior focused on an individual or groups.  Organizations that allow bullying are creating entropic systems where outcomes are very unpredictable impacting communication and operational processes and outcomes.

It is always the top level executives that herald reckless counter culture behavior by ignoring company values.  Top management make the key cultural decisions that empower bullies and punish those who actually follow and promote the company values and policies.   Potent counter culture behavior can be delivered through a small catheter from the bully’s executive silo spreading cowardice, mistrust, deception, and manipulation – the qualities of a bully’s true character – throughout and beyond the organization.  It is the behavior and decisions formed at the top of organizations that defines the company culture.  Workplace culture is the foundation for enterprise strategy.  At its base, workplace culture is the clear sense of purpose and shared core values that guide all the organization decision making.  Once toxic behaviors are allowed into the stream of decision making, outcomes become uncertain.   Destructive management operates above the organization values, policies, rules, and protocols allowing eddies of counter culture behavior into the decision making stream.  In research from Australia bullying is correlated with corruption and other criminal behavior.  Human Resources who usually publish and disseminate the official company values and policies are not worth a nickel within organizations where top management support bullying.  In fact, Human Resources generally will not confront top management and willingly support the counter culture even when it contradicts their own articulated values and policy.  Sound decision making is dependent on the flow of knowledge. Values, policy, and the best processes and methods need to be communicated throughout the organization.  Decision makers depend on timely high-fidelity information.  If the basis of decision making, which is what core values and policies are supposed to be, is corrupted by strong counter culture eddies this makes all decisions less certain and higher risk. The impact of ignoring, or even worse enabling, small sized work group silos of counter cultural behaviors can be significant.

Research cited in a Harvard Business Review study found that among doctors only 15% of decisions were evidence-based.  It is believed that it is less than this for company managers.  More often, high level decisions are made based on vanity and self-interests and not guided by core values and what decisions are best for the company shareholders, employees, and customers in the long run.  Decisions are not determined through the analysis of relevant data.  A management system establishes the policies, processes and procedures to form decisions and reach the outcome objectives within the constraints of the organizations core values.  It also produces relevant data.  Management of the system is predominantly responsible for enterprise performance.  Those with business acumen understand the importance of workplace culture to the bottom-line.  When a company that I worked for reorganized out from bankruptcy part of the renewed-success plan was for that company to establish and practice “core values.”  The economic transformation was initiated through the CEO at the time and top-level people communicating their commitment to these core values to every office and vessel.  The key is that top management must walk-the-walk, which is the true workplace culture.  Unfortunately, this counters a common and easily accepted management paradigm that it is okay for companies to simply project their safety propaganda through printed policy manuals, brochures and quarterly presentations of objectives and values without effectively addressing the real safety issues.  They may record episodes where individual employees were not wearing protective clothing or following written procedures properly.  Workplaces do not always investigate “why” or “what” impacted the employee’s decision.  Real safety culture is embedded within the daily communications and interactions throughout the organization.  Ignoring “isolated incidences” of workplace bullying, as they were referred to during the Deepwater Horizon investigation, is tantamount to ignoring a doctor’s warnings of isolated occurrences of cancer.  Workplace bullying is indicative of a weak and embattled culture.  This toxic behavior can pollute an entire organization.   Workplace bullying is destructive counter-culture behavior focused on targeted individuals and groups where there is a disproportionate power dynamic in play.  Workplace bullying was a contributing factor to the Piper Alpha and Deepwater Horizon disasters, some say a significant one.  Workplace bullying has also been at the base of corporate financial disasters such as Enron.

The outcry from the public regarding the construction sector blacklisting has led to targeted workers and citizens requesting that organizations that participated in the blacklisting be barred from working on future public projects.  Perhaps the leadership that approved and implemented the blacklisting would be a better target of scrutiny and outrage.  Punishing the company’s would punish already compromised workers even more.  But, there is a valid point to withholding business from organizations engaged in unethical or counter culture behavior.  Such organizations are simply higher risk to do business with from a commercial and operational standpoint.  They are less likely to deliver positive high quality, safety and environment outcomes.  There really is a reason that organizations seek certified management systems.  It serves their customers best interests who want stable processes and predictable outcomes.  But, they have to be practiced and not documented systems.  Bullies are often zero-sum negotiators whose objective is a self-interested win-lose short term outcome.  They are not win-win negotiators by nature.  In the modern era of complex projects involving a variety of expertise and often even different companies working together, sales and contracts need to deliver cooperative win-win solutions.  Zero-sum negotiation is more associated with the shady used-car salesman trying to unload the lemon from the car lot.  They are not thinking about the potential loss of future business that is likely the long term fall-out of such a transaction.  There is always a deception when doing business with toxic organizations.  Organizations are aware enough not to publish the counter-culture values and state that they stifle innovation by isolating and mistreating employees who make our insecure managers feel uncomfortable with new ideas; when employees make complaints about our safety or production processes we torment them until and after they leave; and our top managers ignore ethical core values that do serve their own self-interests.

Business is fundamentally built on trusting relationships.  Cooperation and team building is also established on trust.  The challenge for companies involved with complex projects is not only to create and maintain strong values and culture within their own organization, but that the same core values extend to contractors and other key stakeholders.  Strong central values committed to knowledge flow and cooperation aimed toward continual improvement will enable operators to have confidence in the decisions being made offshore amongst all agencies involved, and also enable better decision making from onshore.  When managers are provided with knowledge that is correct and not based the way things should be, but on the way that they are, better subsequent decisions are made.  This can only occur in an environment where strong values and trust cooperate to reach the best operational and commercial outcomes.  Pretending that the organization abides by core values when they do not cannot create a strong and ethical organization with all its intrinsic benefits.  Not acknowledging weakness in the company such as bullying is unethical and dangerous.  Even if the courts can be fooled the company culture cannot.  Leaders must understand this, because it really cannot be about them when lives and the environment are at stake.  Perhaps a better indicator of strong company culture for reference by customers and shareholders is evidence of how companies respond to isolated incidences of bullying and harassment.  Unfortunately, sometimes the greatest danger is simply telling top managers that things could and should be better.