Culture Silences in Safety – What Culture Isn’t

safety cultureThe word ‘culture’ in the risk and safety industry is used to mean many things and most often it doesn’t refer to culture. The most common misconceptions about culture in the safety industry reveal more about the presenter and a worldview, than a discussion of culture. If one really wants to understand what culture is, one has to step outside this industry and the way it interprets what culture is.

If you want to know about culture, don’t ask an engineer.

The three most common misconceptions about culture equate culture to:

  • Systems
  • Behaviours and
  • Leadership

Such representations are a clear indicator that what is being presented is not about culture. Such is the code of safety (https://safetyrisk.net/deciphering-safety-code/).

If one wants to understand culture then one has to step outside the mono-disciplinary industry of safety and welcome a Transdisciplinary approach (https://safetyrisk.net/transdisciplinary-thinking-in-risk-and-safety/). This means one has to stop reading and listening to Safety and start embracing the wisdom of Anthropology, Cultural Theory, Cultural Studies, Ethnography, Archaeology, Semiotics, Linguistics, Indigenous Studies etc.

Unfortunately, the fixation and psychosis of measurement and controls dominates the safety worldview. When one embraces learning about culture one has to leave all the nonsense talk of quantitative measures behind and be prepared to embrace uncertainty, qualitative thinking and tolerance. The symbol of intolerance in safety is zero.

One thing is for sure, if you are looking for a mature understanding of culture the AIHS BoK will be of no help.

Some of the best work on culture is by Hofstede and Hofstede (https://www.hofstede-insights.com/ ). Mary Douglas is also very good.

But there is so much out there, it can be confusing. Much better to just be simplistic and fall back on ‘culture is what we do around here’. No! Such a definition is dangerous and leads to dangerous outcomes (https://safetyrisk.net/culture-is-not-what-we-do-around-here/). This useless definition may suit the brutalism of BBS but behaviours only have a minor place in any notion of culture. Culture is no behaviours. Similarly, culture is not leadership or systems. These too are only a minor aspect of culture.

Even when one seeks a definition of culture (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture) it reflects a drive for definition and control, and culture is way beyond a quantitative definition. Going to a dictionary for a definition of culture is like reading a text to understand semiotics. One needs to understand cultural methodologies culturally in order to understand culture.

Culture is best learned by being immersed in it; this is what Anthropologists do. Indeed, one of the reasons why Safety will never understand culture is the silly idea that subjectivity must be avoided and that objectivity exists. In Cultural Studies one acknowledges subjectivity, shuns control, throws away measurement and enters into the culture of the ‘other’ and lives and feels it. Felt Intuitive knowing is how one best learns culture.

If one reads anything in the safety industry on culture just look for all that is excluded (https://safetyrisk.net/category/safety-culture-silences/). Two of the most profound cultural silences in safety are religion and semiotics, foundational to any understanding of culture. This is one of the reasons why Safety has no cognizance of its own religiosity (rituals, rites, discourse etc) and soteriology (salvation theory). If ever there was a god of Safety its Zero (https://safetyrisk.net/making-safety-religious/).

Or course, one of the reasons why leadership is not culture is because culture is experienced ‘from below’, not ‘from above’. Similarly in a study of History. If one wants to learn about History, one doesn’t start with Kings, Queens, heroes and Presidents (https://safetyrisk.net/history-and-safety/). History is not about the chronicling of events and dates. Most of the executives and CEOs I have spoken to tell me they are frustrated because they have no power to influence culture. Indeed, high one crawls up the career ladder, the more one becomes out of touch with the culture of work.

Culture is in the air between us, not in the policies and systems of leaders.

Indeed, when one looks at the history of revolutions one learns quickly about the influence of power from below.

Then when leaders espouse safety mythology about ‘influencing behaviours’ you know they don’t understand culture. Again, this is why Safety loves its definitions and measures that give the illusion of control. A nice fiction to keep one entertained and a delusion to ensure nothing changes.

This is why in SPoR we use a semiotic to explain culture. The idea of a culture cloud (https://safetyrisk.net/culture-cloud/; https://safetyrisk.net/safety-and-risk-culture-cloud/ ). Using a semiotic enables an understanding that cannot be given by text, measurement or definition, such is the invisibility, uncontrollable and unconscious nature of culture. It is delusional to think one can ‘control’ something that is beyond ‘control’.

Most of the marketing and propaganda in safety about culture is about promising certainty when there is none, promising control where there is none and selling culture as a product and ‘property’ when culture is neither. Culture is not an object even when Safety tells you so. Such is how Safety loves objects.

If you want to take a broader understanding of culture then we offer a program here: https://cllr.com.au/product/culture-leadership-program-unit-15/

Dr Rob Long
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long

PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA
Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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