Generative HSE
Safety beliefs, standards, leadership & performance


Insights from the BoK - Can Culture be Changed?

As you know, we're working our way through the key questions raised in the Safety Culture Debate in the OHS Body of Knowledge (BoK). In this edition, we're taking a look at the question 'Can culture be changed?'. In answering the question we need to be clear on what cultural level/identity of change we are considering?

Schein (2010) argues that there are four cultural identities or distinct levels:

  1. Macro-culture - Nations, industry, ethnic, religious groups and global occupations
  2. Organisational culture - Private, public, non-profit organisations
  3. Sub-culture - Occupational group or functional division
  4. Micro-culture - Work team and/or groups

So in the context of the discussion we need to determine first are we talking about organisational wide or work group culture change?

The other consideration is how you see cultural change being occurring about at the organisation wide level? There are two schools of thought and no surprises they sit at opposite ends of the spectrum. 

The Functionalist Approach argues 'culture is something an organisation has, while the Interpretive Approach views 'culture as something the organisation is'. So in order to answer the question can culture change you need to work out where you fit?

So try this Quick Quiz - for each statement below choose an answer that best fits and tally your score as you go.

1. Strongly Disagree
2. Disagree
3. Agree
4. Strongly Agree

Q1. Culture is made up of concrete things you can observe.
Q2. Culture is not subjective, it can be identified, studied and measured using a scientific approach.
Q3. Social change can be achieved through top down leadership, its something that can be engineered.
Q4. Culture is not an emergent property that is created through individuals and their complex interactions
Q5. Culture resides in the attitudes and cognitions of individuals.

If you score between 14 to 20 you tend towards a Functionalist Approach.

If you scored between 4 to 8 you tend towards an Interpretive Approach.

If you are somewhere between 9 to 13 the jury is still out for you.

The BoK attempts to answer this seemingly contentious question by suggesting that focusing solely on changing values is likely to be ineffective. Rather, efforts are better placed in changing collective organisational practices through the process of cognitive dissonance, and this is more likely to result in cultural change. Culture is seen to change as a result of the tension felt by people when their behaviour within the organisation is out of alignment with their values.

The BoK offers Antonsen's cultural approach to changing organisational culture, where change processes should:

1) Focus on changing practices
2) Have moderate goals that relate to everyday realities
3) Accept that there are no quick fixes
4) Combine aspects of ‘push’ and ‘pull'
5) Are sensitive to organisational symbolism
6) Are sensitive to what makes sense locally
7) Aim for creation of a common language rather than organisation-wide consensus
8) Consider the need for change and set realistic goals.

In line with recent discussions, the BOK considered it easier to change climate than culture. In part, this was seen as climate residing at the outer layer of the 'cultural onion', making it more accessible and malleable.

So where you and your organisations sits in this debate is important, as it will influence the decisions you and others make in trying to improve your organisation's safety performance and that of your work teams.