Yesmanship – the biggest threat to safety culture

The recent release of a new book on Operation Mincemeat has again raised the term “yesmanship” in  the media.  Online definitions explain the term as

“An atmosphere in which people claim to agree with leadership for political reasons, even when they don’t actually agree with leadership” .

The significance of the term in relation to the current trend of “safety culture” should not be underestimated.  Below are some definitions of safety culture that illustrate the similarities to or risk from yesmanship.

“The product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies, and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organization’s health and safety management”U.K. Health and Safety Commission 1993

“The shared beliefs and values of staff working in an organisation that determine the commitment to and quality of an organisation’s health and safety management” – Dianne Parker of University of Manchester

“…assembly of characteristics and attitudes in organisations and individuals which establishes that as an over-riding priority … safety issues receive the attention warranted by their significance.” – IAEA as quoted in Hopkins 2002

    ‘The way we do things around here.’ (Confederation of British Industry (CBI), 1990),

    A set of attitudes, beliefs or norms. (Turner, 1989),

    A constructed system of meaning through which the hazards of the world are understood. (Pidgeon, 1998),

    A safety ethic. (Wert, 1986).” – All quoted by UK HSE

Safety professionals and regulators strive to introduce or improve safety culture into organisations and the public in general but even if cultural change can be taught, it may take generations for it to be practiced and this is the frustration that many safety professionals feel – their life’s work may have little benefit until after they are gone.

Some are trying to push change beyond the capacity of the cultural participants, often by advocating leadership as a shortcut to achieving a safety culture.  The trap in this strategy is similar to that faced by Red Riding Hood – a wolf, in this case “yesmanship”.  Some are confusing leadership with marketing and are impeding the cultural change.

Those advocating a change in safety culture need to be constantly reminded of yesmanship or else the change achieved will only be a veneer.  One may achieve a safety culture that everyone in an organisation understands and follows but reality will show to be false or misguided often through a tragedy..

Perhaps safety professionals need to realise that a safety culture is not going to be achieved in their lifetimes and that, just perhaps, there is a more satisfying goal in ensuring that the progress has an integrity that will allow to change to develop strongly and counter the occasional criticism of “nanny state” or other ill-founded hyperbole.

If I was discussing safety culture with an audience, perhaps, at a conference and asked for those who believed that their organisations have established a safety culture to put up their hands, I would learn more about safety culture from those with their hands down.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories book, business, consultation, culture, Leadership, OHS, safety, safety culture, UncategorizedTags , ,

One thought on “Yesmanship – the biggest threat to safety culture”

  1. We all say yes to safety, go to any conference, workshop, seminar, training day and we all say yes to safety.
    So why hasn\’t all those \”yeses\” turned into a huge reduction in workplace injuries or workplace deaths?
    The answer is simple.
    We say it but we don\’t mean it.

    We say yes to the removal of any workplace practice that puts in jeopardy the life or limb of ourselves or a workmate.
    We say yes to stopping workplace bullying or harassment.
    We say yes to the removal of excessive overtime.
    We even say yes to smoking bans in the workplace.
    We say yes, we just don\’t mean it.

    I am just as guilty as the next person of pushing myself at work, so that by the end of the week it is all I can do to drive home after long hours.
    I am just as guilty as the next for running up or down the stairs taking two steps at a time to save myself the minute wait for the elevator but risking slipping on the stairs and causing grievous injuries to myself or to others who are also rushing on the stairs.
    I am just as guilty as the next for carrying a load that should be done in two trips, but due to shortness of time it is done in one trip.
    I could go on.
    I say yes to safety, then in my own haste set it to one side in order to get through a very tight schedule.

    I am not alone, I know that, but that does not make it right that I expect others to ensure that the workplace is safe for me if I am not ensuring that the workplace is safe for me as well as everyone else I work with.

    I attend every conference, workshop, seminar, training day possible, I read every safety article I can.
    I know what is expected of me and I know what I expect of others.
    I already carry an injury that shattered my life, so you would think that I would know not to cut the corners that I cut in order to save 15 0r 60 seconds.

    We say it, but we don\’t mean it because after all we do know that accidents don\’t happen to us, they happen to other people who should know better.

    We say it, we need to learn to mean it.

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