If You Want to Know About Culture, Don’t Ask Safety

imageThe last 4 books I have read from Safety branded as being about culture, were not about culture and not much about safety and risk. Such is safety code (https://safetyrisk.net/deciphering-safety-code/).

The four books were:

  • Busch (2021) The First Rule of Safety Culture.
  • Gilbert, Journe, Laroche and Bieder (eds.) (2018). Safety Cultures, Safety Models.
  • Cooper (2001) Improving Safety Culture.
  • Hopkins. (2019). Organising for Safety. How Structure Creates Culture.

There is so much missing from each of these books on the nature and understanding of culture that it is breathtaking.

What these books establish clearly is, if you want to know about culture, don’t ask Safety.

What is clear is that the moment one puts the adjective of ‘’safety before something, all critical thinking ceases. When the framing of thinking is set by safety, and sources of thinking are founded in safety, any sense of Transdisciplinarity in thinking disappears.

Let’s start with a few basics. Just because you don’t understand culture doesn’t mean that it is not understandable.

Indeed, all of these books that put culture in the too hard basket come from such a narrow ontology and epistemology, it says much more about the authors than the subject. Once again, when Safety wants to know something, it asks an engineer or seeks an engineering worldview.

Culture is NOT about: behaviours, organising, structure, systems or leadership. Culture transcends all of these and at best these are small sub-sets of culture.

Indeed, when one considers the many silences of Safety about culture (https://safetyrisk.net/category/safety-culture-silences/ ) it is mind-blowing that Safety keeps trotting out this stuff that is more about Scientism, Engineering and Behaviourism than it is about risk or culture.

So many of those who write about culture have no expertise in culture.

Then we have the classic reference point of anchoring books to those like Dekker, Reason, Heinrich etc who also have no expertise in culture. Indeed, in all of the literature on safety culture I have found none that have any background in Anthropology or Religion yet, these are foundational for an understanding of culture. Just pick up any book in Anthropological study of culture and show me where religion is NOT relevant! There is no inclusion of religion in any of the 4 books I read. Yet, safety is so profoundly religious it is scary (remember safety ‘saves lives’, zero perfection, Spirit of Zero etc).

So, let’s have a look at each book briefly.

In Busch’s book ‘the first rule of safety culture’ is not to talk about it (pp.178ff) apparently, because it’s all too hard and confusing. Then all Busch does is echo the Hopkins fallacy that ‘structure creates culture’. Nothing could be further from reality. What is the sense of writing about culture if the aim of the book is not to talk about it? The Indiana Jones of Safety apparently.

The book by Gilbert et.al., is framed by safety (sets the agenda) and so doesn’t define culture well, includes all the old nonsense of Heinrich and Reason. Has the same old stuff on curves, pyramids, dominoes and swiss cheese. It even has a chapter on metaphor that doesn’t understand metaphor (start with Lakhoff and Johnson) and a chapter on Visual safety’ with no mention of Semiotics, Semiosis or Visual thinking! The same chapter trots out all the tired old binary linear stuff (Heinrich, pyramids and swiss cheese) and confuses the meaning of model with culture. Indeed, the whole book does this.

One of the amazing things with this text is its use of the metaphor of ‘the cloud’ to discuss an apparent opaque understanding of culture. The book even calls this the ‘safety cloud’. Unfortunately, the only cloudy thinking about culture comes from this book. The opposite is the case. In SPoR we use the metaphor and semiotic of the cloud to explain culture, it is not a negative or deficit as this book asserts.

The best thing to do when you don’t understand culture or can’t control, it is to label it all ‘cloudy’, all too hard so let’s not talk about it.

One of the strange curios of all these engineers writing about culture is this strange rejection of paradox and ‘wickedity’ embedded in culture. And yet, this is probably why they are so attracted to it, because they want to control it. After all, there is no word more important to the safety sector than the word ‘control’.

The next cab off the rank is Cooper. Locked into both behaviourism and framed in safety, one would not be surprised that the book has no definition of culture. More so, we regress back to Heinrich, dominoes, organising, characteristics of ‘good safety culture’, auditing and endless material on systems and behaviours. The final chapter of the book is pure behaviourism.

Then we come to Hopkins. OMG, where would you start. Talk about write a book for a market. This is the message Safety wants to hear, next best message to zero. Unfortunately, for Hopkins, life, nature and the Universe is chaotic, random, wicked and unpredictable. Culture sometimes creates structure but structure does NOT create culture.

Of course, with such a mantra Safety now eagerly sets about fixing structures as a panacea to tackling the paradox of culture. How convenient, the answer to the challenges of culture is more systems, more structure.

Once again, when the problem is framed through the hammer of safety, the answer is a nail.

None of the books make any reference to the following that are foundational in understanding culture:

· Conceptual Metaphor

· Semiotics

· Semiosphere

· Collective Unconscious

· Safety as Archetype

· Meaning-Purpose

· Dialectic (Existentialist)

· Religious knowing, ritual, Semiosis

· Transcendence

· Ethics

· Politics

· Wickedity

· Phenomenology/Being

All of these are essential in beginning to tackle an understanding of culture. All of these are understood when a Transdisciplinary approach to learning is embraced.

When culture doesn’t fit an engineering worldview, no wonder it’s constructed as cloudy and confusing.

So, what Safety always returns to is ‘what we do around here’, the perfect foil to ensure that organisations do nothing about culture, risk and learning.

If you are interested in learning about culture, safety and risk, you can study here: https://cllr.com.au/product/culture-leadership-program-unit-15/

If you want to learn about culture and risk, the best way forward is NOT to frame such a challenge through the lens of safety.

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