You Don’t Want a Compliance Culture

Originally posted on March 2, 2018 @ 12:58 PM

safety complianceI often get asked if I teach programs on compliance and I say no, I teach about learning cultures. The last thing organisations need is a compliance culture.

Compliance is most associated with adhering to standards or some regulatory requirement. Often compliance is associated with meeting minimal standards, doing what is required. However, there is a huge problem with seeking compliance. Laws and regulations are static, the human environment is not. Compliance standards are often based on history and can’t see forward to times of turbulence and change. Compliance to regulation shows that something has been learned historically but it doesn’t show what needs to be learned next. It is possible to comply with all standards and regulation and indeed be more unsafe.

Lets look at the following problem:

In my city in winter we experience the challenges of ‘black ice’ that is, ice on the road or surface that you cannot see but is treacherous. The speed limit in Canberra on the roads doesn’t vary because of weather conditions. In most parts the speed limit is 80-100 kms an hour. However, if there black ice is on the road, 50kph or less would be about right to drive safely. If drivers collectively slow down then visitors to our city tend to follow and so collectively we are kept safe. One could easily comply with 80kph and cause an accident. What is needed is much more than compliance. When we ask for people to drive to conditions we are going beyond compliance to human thinking, collective thinking and reflection on context. This is what is needed in a culture to enact safety. The maintenance of a thinking culture is much more effective than a compliance culture. Generally people learn by observing the ethos in a place and due to the social psychological pressure of belonging conform.

The greatest capability fallible humans have to tackling risk is adaptability. If a computer assisted car drove on the road with black ice and complied, it too would cause an accident. Goodness knows how a driverless car could ‘sense’ black ice.

A culture is best understood as ‘the collective unconscious’: what do humans do, think, believe, value and enact collectively without thinking? If a culture is made a compliance culture then non-thinking is encouraged. As long as one complies, one is safe. This is a false belief.

Human thinking is not the enemy of safety rather, critical thinking in context is a special human ability that makes situations safe. We don’t want to make cultures of unthinking people conditioned to blind obedience and compliance. Human sausages don’t make good meet. Sometimes we are much safer when we assess the situation and decide that breaking the rule is the safest option.

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