Safety culture: how leaders make it or break it.

Culture. It is a big deal right now in businesses and organisations.

We talk about “cultural fit” in employment, we talk about “workplace culture” as either toxic or healthy, and we’ve heard a lot about some rather questionable ethical cultures within the banking industry.

The Adventist Church has its own unique cultural quirks that we often joke about – some are good, like haystacks; some not so good, like…well, maybe that’s a conversation for another time!

Something that doesn’t get spoken about so often is the Safety Culture of the Adventist Church. We’ve attempted to bring it to the forefront on occasion over the last few years through articles and expert speakers. Certainly our research and data indicate there are some risky attitudes and un-safe practices prevalent in parts of our organisation. However, we believe there is a ground-swell of interest in better risk and safety practice throughout the Adventist church organisation, and this is extremely encouraging.

Today we want to share with you 3 ways leadership can foster an outstanding safety culture within their unique organisations.

1. Lead with Safety

Anyone who has any interest in management will have heard the phrase “tone at the top”. It can be defined as “management’s leadership and commitment towards openness, honesty, integrity, and ethical behaviour.” Essentially, those in management and leadership set an example that “trickles down” to all levels within an organisation.

In a panel discussion with Marcus Hooke, Executive General Manager for Production and Logistics at News Corp, he explains why leading with safety is good business, “If you’re trying to build a culture or an environment in a workplace, you start with safety. Then you focus on your people. Then your efficiencies and your costs flow through,” he says. “I don’t do safety because I’m worried about the cost of a worker’s comp claim, or the cost of a potential fine against me. I do safety because it leads through every other aspect of the business, which delivers results.”1

Do we lead with safety, or do we, as a Church organisation, tack it onto an already busy program (or dare we say it, put it onto the backburner) and hope nothing bad happens? What if we could lead with safety, plan and strategise with the backing of a solid risk appetite statement and perhaps achieve better outcomes for the Church?

2. Speak Positively about Risk and Safety

Many of our readers will have read Dr Darren Morton’s book, “Live More Happy”. Dr Morton devotes a chapter to speaking positively in which he describes how much our words influence the way we feel about something. He explains that our limbic brain, “listens to our language” and that it is “highly impressionable”, so much so that when we speak negatively our limbic brain helps us to feel bad and likewise, when we speak positively, our limbic brain tells us to feel good.2

So how do we talk about risk and safety? Do we use positive words or negative words? And if those words come from leadership and management, what influence do those words have on an organisation, its employees and stakeholders?

Often, when we talk about safety and compliance we may use words that are negative which can result in safety and compliance being viewed and treated as a burden and an obligation. Sadly, this negative safety narrative can result in our organisation, missing the amazing opportunities that leadership in safety and risk management can bring. High profile safety scholar, Professor Sidney Dekker, often asks if compliance is something to fear or rather, something that we can utilise and embrace?

In the book, Setting the Tone from the Top: How director conversations shape culture, authors Muth and Selden (2018) argue, “Directors’ words have power. Director conversations in the boardroom and with management shape the behaviour and decisions, which influence not just shareholders, but employees, suppliers, creditors and the community.”3

If we believe in the influence of our Boards and management to shape behaviour, if we view safety as an opportunity, AND speak positively about it, the trickle-down effect will be that safety is valued within the organisation.

3. Talk to People: they’re humans.

We cannot overstate the importance of conversations. Conversations – whether face-to-face, over the phone, or over Skype – add so much more value than email. Of course, there are many ways to communicate a message, but “conversations” are a very specific form of communication where ‘listening to understand’ is key to its efficacy and mutual benefit. After all, if you’re willing to listen to them, they’ll be more willing to listen to you.

After our Safety and Risk Forum, which brought together 45 Adventist professionals from Australia and New Zealand, our team reflected on the event and the feedback we received. Overwhelmingly it was the opportunity to have “conversations”, to “network”, to “connect” that made the event so valuable. Sure, we could have live-streamed the presentations, but the opportunity to talk to each other would have been sadly missed. We learn so much about our colleagues, their challenges, their ideas and solutions when we listen to them and it feels fantastic to forge positive working relationships with each other.

During one of our Forum’s breakout workshops, the question was asked how can we influence or improve the safety culture in our organisation? One of our delegates responded, “Just talk to people. Find out what their challenges are for the week ahead. Ask what you can do to help.” It is a simple method with a profoundly positive effect – it sees your “human-ness”, it cares about you and what you’re going through, and it builds trust. Robert Levering, Co-Founder, Great Place to Work® believes that ‘trust’ is the cornerstone of a great workplace culture. Levering says, “A great place to work is one in which you trust the people you work for, have pride in what you do, and enjoy the people you work with.”4 That fundamentally embodies a safe workplace – knowing you can trust your leaders, managers and colleagues, and that in turn they can trust you.

In conclusion, while we work at different sites and locations – and that can feel isolating – it is important to recognise each other’s efforts, and that we are all working together to achieve a common goal. As board members, administrators, leaders and managers, we can accomplish that goal more effectively by leading with safety, speaking positively about risk and safety opportunities, and in the simple act of conversing with each other in a way that builds trust.

1. SafeWork Australia. Seminar “Why Big Business Needs to Lead Work Health and Safety”. (2017) Website accessed, 4 September 2018
2. Morton, D. (2017). Live more happy: Scientifically proven ways to lift your mood and your life. Warburton, Western Australia: Signs Publishing.
3. Muth, M and Seldon B. (2018). Setting the tone from the top: How director conversations shape culture. Sydney, N.S.W.: Australian Institute of Company Directors.
4. (2018). What is a Great Workplace? – Great Place to Work® Australia. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Sep. 2018].

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