Taking organisational safety to the next level

Emily Hutchinson reflects on her work improving safety in organisations, and reviews two relevant books.

Since my article on organisational safety was published in The Psychologist last year, I have been fortunate to connect with a few great psychologists who are also working and writing in the field. We are all trying to find ways to communicate the same message – the message that there is a real opportunity to take safety to the next level by understanding and focusing on psychology. Especially the messy part of human behaviour which is about how our varying states, emotions, biases, and social relationships drive behaviour.

Within safety critical organisations, there will always be a focus on good design and putting the right processes in place to try and mitigate risk, and of course this is important. There is a large focus on control – and a continuous search for the holy grail of ‘zero accidents’ and perfect safety records. However, the reality is that organisational systems in these industries are complex and messy. They are everchanging rather than static. As are, of course, the people who work within them.

The approach that I and my colleagues below adopt is to recognise and work with this complexity. Rather than looking for a single ‘root cause’, it’s about continually looking at and understanding the changing dynamics at work. It’s about giving leaders the skills to listen to their people and provide a continuous feedback loop. It’s about using the collective brain power to understand risks and work together to mitigate them. It’s about individuals monitoring their own health and feeling able to ask for help if they think it may affect their performance.

With this change of focus, there should be recognition that how people are and how they behave clearly goes beyond safety. There is a clear link to wellbeing and both link to individual and business performance. I ended my article last year with ‘we need to move from a focus on health and safety to being healthy and safe’. How people feel, both psychologically and physically, affects their behaviour, and hence affects safety outcomes. Focusing on what helps people to function at their best is therefore good for safety, for wellbeing and ultimately for business. 

The two books I review below approach this message from different perspectives. Dik Gregory and Paul Shanahan provide a very comprehensive explanation of influences on behaviour with numerous examples of implications within safety-critical environments. Rosa Antonia Carrillo focuses more strongly on how our relationships influence behaviour. Both try to take the reader from an understanding to application in practice. I would suggest that Dik and Paul’s book would be great for safety professionals, while Rosa’s would be one for leaders (safety or otherwise), but both could be relevant for both audiences.

'Being human in safety-critical organisations: How people create safety, what stops them and what to do about it' by Dik Gregory and Paul Shanahan (The Stationery Office, 2017) 

The authors of this book are experienced organisational psychologists who have worked extensively with safety critical industries (in particular shipping). This sets the tone for the book – it has a sound academic grounding but is peppered with practical and real-life examples (from a range of industries) which clearly demonstrate their practical knowledge. 

One of the problems with this field is the breadth of factors that influence human behaviour and hence the multiple factors that can combine together to result in an accident. The challenge of distilling that into a book in a way that it is understandable and clear for the non-psychologist reader is considerable. The authors do this exceedingly well, but I wonder if they are a little too ambitious in their comprehensive coverage (they reference Hollnagel’s efficiency-thoroughness trade-off in decision making – for me they may have focused too much on thoroughness). However, it is thorough, and they do a great job of dismantling widely held beliefs in the safety field that may actually reduce the efficacy of investigations (e.g. the notion of a root cause).

The SUGAR model that is presented is an attempt to create some order in this messy field, and it stands up as a concept. It could do with a great graphic to make it more memorable and perhaps more signposting to keep the reader connected to the framework.

There is also an accompanying small summary booklet which I like, aimed at the individual safety critical worker – a handy reminder of the concepts in a more digestible form than the content-heavy main book (the ‘technical manual’). It would be great to have a similar short and succinct guide for event investigators, and one for leaders.

I enjoyed the book and I would recommend it for safety professionals, event investigators and leaders within safety critical organisations to read and refer to. It would also benefit students who are studying human factors, to help them to integrate all the separate areas of psychology when applying them to real life scenarios.

'The relationship factor in safety leadership: Achieving success through employee engagement' by Rosa Antonia Carrillo (Routledge, 2020)

Rosa Carrillo has focused on the way that relationships impact on safety for many years. In her new book, she discusses why relationships matter, how conversations form them, and how leaders can change them. Although this book is specifically about safety, it also includes the concepts of inclusivity and psychological safety (as they are key to relationships), and the lessons equally apply to improving wellbeing and performance outcomes. 

Rosa lists eight core beliefs that leaders need to hold about people in order to build good relationships in their organisations (and to build trust), for example, that people will speak up if it is in their interest to do so. These beliefs influence emotions, which then influence decisions and behaviour. Through these beliefs she introduces a number of important concepts which provide an understanding and explanation for what ‘really’ happens within organisations. One concept that I found particularly interesting was ‘drift’ – that we will naturally look for ways to short-cut, improve, or change things as we become familiar with them, and how this can be both helpful (it helps us to be adaptive) and dangerous (it can lead to work arounds). As this is an inevitable natural tendency, Rosa suggests that we reframe it as positive rather than negative, and look at the opportunities it presents for learning. 

Rosa writes beautifully and combines her extensive practical experience with her knowledge base to communicate her ideas. She gives practical advice and suggestions towards the end of the book around how to build relationships which engender trust with some guidance on exercises.

This book is specifically aimed at managers and leaders – anyone with responsibility for people who work within a safety critical environment. There is more recognition recently of the importance of culture at a team level in terms of the influence on the individuals – and there is an opportunity here for every team leader to create a better environment for safety within their team. 

- Emily Hutchinson is Associate Editor Books and Director EJH Consulting Ltd.

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