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Thought Leadership

Closing the Gap: How to Transform Safety Culture into Safety Performance

Quote from UNC professor Dave Hofmann: “At the end of the day, if safety is successful, then nothing happens.”

For many organizations operating in high-risk environments, safety is mission-critical. However, because of scarce resources, our dynamic business environment, and strong competitive pressures, there will be inevitable tension points among competing priorities. The realities of our own psychology can play a role in how we navigate these tension points and the degree to which safety stays top of mind.

On a recent episode of The Safety Guru podcast, host Eric Michrowski interviewed UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School professor and Senior Associate Dean of UNC Executive Development Dave Hofmann about leadership strategies for improving safety culture within organizations. We have selected and edited a few highlights from their conversation below. 

Eric Michrowski: We have touched on the topic of safety culture in the past on the podcast. I would love to hear some of your perspective around what you call the multi-level aspects of culture.
Dave Hofmann: The way I think about culture is that organizations have the “espoused culture” that is comprised of that organization’s core values, key assumptions, metrics, etc. These things all come from the top of the organization.

On the other hand, you have “enacted culture,” which comes from what the organization values, expects, rewards, and supports in practice day in and day out.

So, you have espoused culture, which comes from the top of the organization, and enacted culture, which comes from below. And the end result is that gaps appear in the middle of the organization where espoused culture and enacted culture meet.

My colleague Dov Zohar and I have written about the micro decisions and competing priorities that frontline and middle managers face every day. These managers have some degree of discretion in terms of how they resolve these competing priorities. Over time, employees watch how these micro decisions get made and how strongly safety is prioritized over others concerns.

Quote from UNC professor Dave Hofmann: “Research shows that if you construe a work context as psychologically distant, you view safety as less of an ethical and moral obligation.”


For organizations, the question then becomes: Are you really recognizing safety, or are you just saying, “These employees performed the job and were not injured,” but meanwhile the organization has no idea of what actually happened and how the work was performed?
It is the absence of an outcome that gets recognized, as opposed to the presence of proactive behaviors. There is a notion that the absence of something means the organization must have done something well. However, it might be that the absence of a negative outcome just means that the organization got lucky. I don’t think people make that distinction very often.

Is there something there, as well, in terms of the psychological distance between the decision and the outcome?
In social psychology, there is a whole body of research on “construal level theory.” This theory addresses how psychologically distant something is. For example, if I’m in a command center in Houston monitoring drilling operations 400 miles away, that drilling is a very psychologically distant event. On the other hand, If I am working directly on the rig, it would be very psychologically close.

The research shows that when things are psychologically close, we conceptualize them in concrete terms. However, when events are off in the distance, we construe them much more abstractly. To that end, we have a research paper where we show that if individuals construe a work context as psychologically distant, then they view safety as less of an ethical and moral obligation.

What are some strategies organizations can drive to address that?
First, managers need to continually remind themselves of what the work being performed really looks like on the front lines. And I don’t mean that they need to remind themselves what it was like when they performed that type of work 15 years ago. Instead, they need to get exposure to how it is done right now in today’s much more dynamic and competitive-cost-pressure environment.

The notion is to constantly remind yourself that the decisions that you make have downstream consequences. Anything you can do to make sure that abstract notions always become salient, particularly around the potential for harm, will be beneficial.

In terms of middle managers making trade-offs in the area of safety, what are some strategies to mitigate this?
Unfortunately, I think that’s a common story, because the likelihood that something bad is going to happen seems abstract and therefore easy to discount versus the more concrete metrics, like budgets or delivering a product, that middle managers are held accountable for every quarter.

Research by my friend Dov Zohar and one of his colleagues shows that if you have a really strong safety culture at the top of an organization, this reduces the amount of discretion that middle managers can enact with respect to safety. So, safety becomes non-negotiable. A manager will then be less likely to, for example, cut funds from the safety budget and allocate that money elsewhere.

To learn more tips for leading as a safety-conscious manager, listen to Eric Michrowski’s full interview with UNC’s Dave Hofmann.


Dave Hofmann is Senior Associate Dean of UNC Executive Development and Hugh L. McColl, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.