Aligning a Complex Organizational Culture

There are a lot of organizations working hard to create an organizational culture including a safety culture that will help ensure a productive and safe workplace. The quest to build from scratch or transform your organizational culture will prove costly if the process stops at quantifying, qualifying and communicating desired results. The essential next step is to ensure alignment of all the elements of the organization that will produce the desired results. What is “Alignment”? Alignment is simply ensuring that every aspect of the organization (people, teams, surroundings, and systems) works together to create desired results.  We have previously introduced the concept of “local rationality”; i.e., people make decisions to perform in various ways as a result of the local context in which they find themselves. This context includes factors such as Self (motivation, ability, knowledge, habits, attention, emotion), Others (help, pressure, modeling), Surroundings (equipment, climate, layout) and Systems (rules, rewards/punishments, procedures). The person’s view of that context will impact how they act, which will impact the results that they get. Effective organizational leaders understand this and work to create a context (or “culture”) that increases the chances that their employees will decide to perform in ways that lead to accomplishment of the organizational mission. For example, when changing organizational policy on some issue like “incentive pay” (System), effective leaders will attempt to evaluate the impact of the policy on decision making at all organizational levels. If the policy provides incentive to produce at a higher rate, then it could lead to shortcuts in approved procedures and perhaps even create an incentive to cheat or perform in a less than safe manner. While increasing production, the policy would be “mis-aligned” with other desired results and thus become counter to overall organizational effectiveness.

Culture Alignment We have had the opportunity to help leaders evaluate this type of alignment on several occasions. We call our process “Culture Assessment & Diagnostics” and it involves three primary phases (Diagnosis, Design and Intervention).

Diagnosis If not already done, we have senior management articulate their desired “formal” organizational culture by defining the values and behaviors that they feel will support accomplishment of their mission. We then review Systems (policies and procedures) and Surroundings in light of their alignment with the desired culture. This is followed by interviewing a cross-section of employees at all organizational levels and segments to determine the real “informal” culture that exist. This information allows us to determine if “alignment” currently exists between people, systems and processes. We then deliver a report to senior management with our findings and recommendations.

Design The results of the Diagnostic Phase will provide the information needed to guide the design of any necessary change. Few organizations have perfect alignment and therefore most require some changes to achieve alignment. Management determines what changes are needed and then they design a plan to make those changes.

Intervention Every organization is different and thus needs different “interventions” to bring about the desired culture. Some organizations need training programs to impact employee knowledge and ability. Some need accountability systems to ensure consistent adherence to the desired cultural values and behaviors. Some need to change reporting structure. Once the plan has been determined, it is implemented and the appropriate changes will hopefully lead to greater alignment and thus greater effectiveness.

What’s the point? Whether you use a process like the one just described or not, continuous evaluation of alignment between formal and informal cultures is needed to remain or become an effective and safe organization. This is especially true if your organization is not currently getting the results that are expected.

The Safety Switch℠


As our world and workplaces grow in complexity, and as failures in these complex systems become increasingly calamitous, how do we take the insights that have been given us by so many dedicated and brilliant individuals, and make things better for the people who, whether we want to think about it or not, will suffer and die if we don’t adapt? It’s a heavy question, and one that’s been on our minds for a while.

You might not have known but, between blog posts and our day jobs, we’ve been writing a book.  In fact, we are now in the final phases of writing this book called, “The Safety Switch℠,”  which aims to tie together our research and the priceless contributions made by scholars and practitioners from a wide range of disciplines.

We thought it was about time to introduce the premise.

The Safety Switch℠ is a way of thinking about how we can adapt to a new world — one in which organizations are understood as complex systems, and the ever-increasing complexity of these systems presents new challenges.

The “Switch” happens at two levels.

First, it is a micro-level, personal, in-the-moment switch between two mental Modes.  Our default setting, Mode 1, is powered by mental shortcuts (called “heuristics”) and distortions (called “biases”) and often leads us to fix upon human error as the cause of safety problems.  While we may be “wired” to stay in this default mode, we can deliberately switch to a second Mode.  When in this Mode 2, we take a rigorous, effortful, sometimes counterintuitive, and often winding path to understand and address persistent safety challenges.

Second, there is a macro-level, organizational switch.  It involves activating within the organizational system an inherently dynamic layer of protection — it’s people — positioning humans as a unique and requisite response to growing complexity.

But here’s the catch: You can’t flip the second switch until you flip the first.

We have to learn when and how to switch from Mode 1 to Mode 2 in the moment and on the fly if we are going to generate the capacity to flip the second switch, and energize within our organizations this vital, dynamic and fully integrated layer of protection — the people.

Protecting Young Workers from Themselves


Looking back at your younger self, did you ever do something that now seems foolish and excessively risky? We have talked about the phenomenon of “local rationality” several times in the past, which is how our reasoning and decisions are heavily influenced by our immediate context. We are all subject to its impact, including yours truly (see “A Personal Perspective on Context and Risk Taking”), but perhaps even more so when we are young, especially between the ages of 15 and 24. The data are clear.  Adolescents and young adults are more likely to engage in risky behaviors than are adults (especially older adults) and workplace incidents are more frequent among this age group.

So is it because young workers are less experienced, poorer decision makers or inherently more risk tolerant? The answer is likely “yes” to all of these questions, but it is more complicated than that. Understanding why young workers do risky things requires an understanding of the neural mechanisms that are at play in these types of situations. While it's a heady topic (forgive the pun), understanding neural development can be of extreme importance when attempting to protect our younger workers.

It has been suggested that the adolescent brain's (cortical) structures - those  involved in logical reasoning and decision making - aren't completely developed, which contributes to risky decisions and behaviors. While it is true that the frontal cortex continues development into young adulthood, research demonstrates that, by age 15, logical reasoning abilities have already development equal to those of adults. In fact, 15-year olds are equal to adults at perceiving risk and estimating their vulnerability to that risk (Reyna & Farley, 2006).

In light of this type of evidence, Steinberg (2004; 2007) has proposed that risk taking is the interaction of both logical (cognitive) reasoning and psychosocial factors such as peer pressure. Unlike the logical reasoning abilities that have developed by age 15, the psychosocial capacities that impact logical reasoning have not developed until the mid-twenties and therefore interfere with real-world decision making and risk aversion. In other words, the mature decision making processes of adolescents and young adults my be interfered with by the immature psychosocial processes of this group, and reasoning only shows maturity when these psychosocial factors are minimized...for example, when there are no peers around to pressure them.

Additionally, the limbic system, which is integral to socioemotional processing and also the center for experiencing pleasure, is less developed and highly sensitive in adolescence.  Because of this, they will put themselves in high risk situations in the hope of experiencing the “high” that comes from a dopamine rush. Even though the frontal cortex (executive function) is more advanced, the “thrill” that comes from the risk can overpower the logical functions of the brain and lead to risk taking, especially when under stress or fatigue. In other words, at this age, the attraction to rewards causes young adults to do exciting and perhaps risky things while their poor self-control makes it hard for them to slow down and think before acting, even when they know that the risk is present.

So what does this mean for protecting this age group. According to Steinberg (2004), attempts to reduce risk taking in this group by improving their knowledge, attitudes or beliefs have generally failed. Changes to their decision making contexts, by removing peers from the team and having older adults observe them, have had a much greater impact on reducing risk taking behaviors.  Rearranging teams, so that young workers are not with their peers, minimizes the impact of negative psychosocial factors on their decisions and is a first step in protecting young workers from their own developing brains.  Additionally, teaming young workers with older workers, who have been trained to observe and effectively intervene in their younger counterparts' unsafe performance, will also reduce incidents among this age group. It is, however, very important that mutual respect be nurtured so that coaching does not trigger defensiveness.  Creating contexts that minimize the impact of negative psychosocial factors on logical decision making is one way to protect young workers from themselves.

Peer Pressure, Conformity and Your Safety Culture


We are social creatures. We desire and attempt to maintain relationships wherever we are. In other words, we try to fit in with other people. This is true whether we are talking about family, work or just out in public with people we don’t know. The research is pretty clear….our decisions and actions are impacted by the people around us. Take the classic research of Solomon Asch (1955; 1956) which demonstrates the power of groups (normative influence) on our decision making. The experimental task was simple….select which one of three comparison lines match the standard where one line was obviously longer and one obviously shorter. The catch was that the experimental subject was grouped with varying numbers of confederates who would select an obviously wrong answer. The results were consistent….participants were likely to go along with the group even when the answers were obviously wrong and this conformity increased as group size increased. Additional research by Asch demonstrated that conformity decreases by approximately 25% with just one dissenter, suggesting that people want to make the correct decision and they don’t need a lot of support from group members to do so. The implication is that people tend to conform to group norms if everyone agrees, but are willing to dissent if there is any sort of disagreement among group members. The reason people are willing to go along with a group even when the decision is obviously wrong is because of fear of rejection and research provides ample evidence that rejection is a very common result of dissension with group decisions (see Tata, et al, 1996). There is a second reason that people go along with the group in addition to the desire to be liked and to fit in (normative influence). Research demonstrates that we go along with the group on many occasions because we think the group knows more about the correct decision than we do (informational influence). Two types of situations produce informational influence: (1) ambiguous situations in which a decision is difficult, and (2) crisis situations in which people don’t have time to really think for themselves. While (2) is pretty uncommon, (1) is very common in the workplace, especially with new hires. Less experienced employees don’t want to be rejected by the group, but additionally don’t have the experience to make thoughtful decisions when faced with situations that they have not encountered before. This is especially true when they are observing more experienced employees who don’t view the situation as ambiguous at all and don’t seem to hesitate when making a decision, even when the decision leads to an unsafe action. These types of decisions become automatic….just the way we do it around here. While peer pressure can be a bad thing if it leads to undesired behavior, it can also be a “good” thing if it leads to positive, safe, desired behavior. Understanding the power of peer pressure and the accepted, automatic nature of responding within an organization can help you create a safety culture where peer pressure leads to safe performance and a decrease in undesired behaviors and resulting incidents.

Human Factors: Not Just Your Fathers Ergonomics Anymore


It was the mid-1940’s, the world was at war and regular, poorly trained people were required to operate new complex weapon systems, fly new complex airplanes, etc, but there was a serious problem.  People were misfiring the weapons, missing targets, hitting the wrong targets, crashing the planes and not only destroying property, but dying in the process.  Thus the birth of Human Factors…..understanding the human-system interface and designing systems and machines that were easier and safer for humans to operate.  Not only was it necessary for people to be able to physically operate within the system, but they had to be able to understand the system and make decisions that led to success and avoided catastrophe.  Thus came the merger of Engineering, Cognitive Psychology, Social Psychology and Physiology into what became known as Ergonomics (aka Human Factors). Behavioral psychology was not equipped, because of it’s external, outside the person stimulus-response focus to help engineers understand the thought processes required to make split second decisions while firing a new, complicated weapon system or flying an airplane in a dog-fight.  It was this understanding that was needed so that systems could be designed to minimize “human error”.  It was the job of Cognitive and Social Psychologists to examine how people understood systems, made decisions, processed information, responded to stress, maintained attention, changed bad habits, formed good habits, stored knowledge, maintained motivation, etc. so that the systems could be designed for successful performance.  It was the job of the engineers to design systems (airplane cockpits, automobiles, manufacturing facilities, etc.) that capitalized on the strengths of people and minimized their short-comings.

In recent years Organizational Ergonomics (the optimization of organizational structures, processes and policies) has taken life and helped us focus on the impact of the total context in which individuals work.  That context includes the individual (including physical, cognitive, emotional functioning), other people (including the help and pressure provided by others), surroundings (including the resources, physical layout and climate) and the organizational systems (including organizational structures, policies and processes as determined by organizational leadership).  When first envisioned, Human Factors/Ergonomics was limited to the study of the interaction of people and machines, but now this field of research and application has been broadened significantly and includes a much larger context than initially conceived.  Understanding the total context and the impact that it has on the individuals capacity to process information and make decisions is the key to unlocking human potential, improving safety and creating maximum human performance.

Why Does Context Matter?


If you’ve been reading our blogs for some time you know that we center our approach to human performance around the idea of “context”.  Context is at the heart of the science of Human Factors, also referred to as “ergonomics”.  Human Factors involves understanding and integrating humans with the systems that they must use to succeed and context is central to that understanding.  To say that we are a product of our environment is accurate, but far too simplistic for those attempting to be more intentional in changing performance.  A practical way to look at context is to think of the world around us as composed of pieces of information that we must process in order to successfully interact with our environment.  These pieces of information include the other people, physical surroundings, weather, rules, laws, timing, and on and on and on. The breakdown in this process is when it comes time for us to crunch that data and react to it.  Our brains, at the time of this writing, still have the edge on computers in that we can intentionally take in data rather than passively waiting for something else to give us the data, and we can then decide how we behave with respect to that data where a computer is programmed to behave in predictable ways.  However, at times, that unpredictability could also be a weakness for humans.

The two most glaring weaknesses in processing the data are topics that we have written about just recently (Hardwired Blog and Cognitive Bias Blog).  The first of these can be explained by staying with our computer analogy.  For those of you that understand computer hardware, you would never spend your money on a new computer that has a single core processor, which means it can only process one job at a time.  While our brains aren’t exactly single core processors, they are close.  We can actually do two jobs at a time, just not very well and we bounce back and forth between these jobs more than we actually process them simultaneously.  Due to this, our brains like to automate as many jobs as possible in order to free itself up to process when the time comes.  This automatic (System 1) processing impedes our more in-depth System 2 processing and while necessary for speedy success, it can also lead to errors due to failure to include relevant data.  In other words, while living most of our lives in System I is critical to our survival, it is also a weakness as there are times that we don’t shift into System II when we should, we stay in automation.  Unfortunately we are also susceptible to cognitive biases, or distortions in the way we interact with the reality of our context.  You can read more about these biases (here) but just know that our brains have a filter in how we intake the data of our context and those distortions can actually change the way our brains work.

So what are some examples of how context has shaped behavior and performance?

- Countries that have round-a-bouts (or traffic circles) have lower vehicle mortality rates because the accidents that occur at intersections are side swipes rather than t-bones.

- People that live in rural areas tend to be more politically conservative and those in urban areas tend to be more politically liberal. The reason is that those living in smaller population densities tend to be more self-reliant and those living in higher population densities rely on others, in particularly, government services.

- People who work in creative fields, (artists, writers, musicians, etc.) are more creative when they frequently change the environment where they do their work. The new location stimulates the executive center of the brain.

- Painting the holding facilities of people arrested under the influence of alcohol a particular shade of pink has proven to lower violent outbursts. *Read the book “Drunk Tank Pink”, it’s genius.

- A person that collapses due to acute illness in a street is less likely to be provided aid by other people if that street has heavy foot traffic. The fewer people that are around the more likely one of those people will provide aid.

- As a hiring manager, I’m more likely to hire a person whose name is common and which matches my age expectation.

- School yard fights increase during the spring time when the wind blows harder causing the children to become irritable.

These are all examples of how the context around us can change our behaviors and performance.  If we can start looking at our context in more intentional ways and engineering it to be more conducive to high performance, we will ultimately be better at everything we do, at work and home.