Changing the Safety Culture of an Industry

By Steve Lemon

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The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Event Safety Alliance.

Managing change in an organization’s culture is outside many people’s comfort zone. It was certainly outside mine when I started to study change strategies. After some research, I learned there are several “easier said than done steps to affect any change in an organization. Getting started is one of the most difficult steps.

There are many good resources on change management, some are referenced in this article. As with most things we do, the likelihood of achieving successful change is tied to advance preparation and planning and that was the genesis for this article. My goal is to introduce the reader to ‘change management’ and inspire them to research what will work for their organization so they can get start or restart their own safety program.

Boiled down, here is the most basic process for cultural change: begin the process, build on that beginning, manage the process by continuing to update and maintain the process. Simple!

Except, it’s not simple. It is a struggle for even the most experienced change managers because no two organizations or change strategies are the same. Every change strategy must be tailored to each organization based on the circumstances at hand.

If you feel you don’t even know where to begin or your process is stalled, you are not alone. This article will introduce you to steps you can take so you can create a process or help you dislodge your stalled safety program. Be aware that managing change can take a lot of time. To expedite results, everyone in the organization must be willing to accept and buy into the program. More on buy-in later.

We work in ahere today, gone later today industry. We want to see results now, not in five or ten years. I think most of us agree that in ten years, our industry’s safety culture should improve significantly. I would add that our work will likely need to continue indefinitely. Based on comparisons to others in similar circumstances, I will suggest if history can teach us anything, it is that in ten years and beyond we will still be having many of the same fundamental conversations about event safety we are now.

Regardless of evidence supporting the importance safety in our industry, there will always be factors that influence people to disregard what they know is right and place themselves and others in harm’s way. These influences often come in the form of requests from leadership or pressure from peers, and for many can be very hard to push back on. Many good, experienced people do unwise things out of fear of retaliation, such as not being hired again.

In the term “safety culture”, the word “culture” is used as a noun, as in, “the behaviors and belief characteristics of a particular social, ethnic, or age group”. I propose we also consider using the word “culture” as a verb, as in, “to maintain an organism in conditions suitable for growth”.

We need to “culture our safety culture”.

Safety cultures consist of shared beliefs, practices, and attitudes that exist in an organization. Culture is the atmosphere created by those beliefs, attitudes, etc. which shape our behavior. An organization’s safety culture is the result of several factors, such as:

  • Management and employee norms, assumptions and beliefs

  • Management and employee attitudes

  • Values, myths, stories

  • Policies and procedures

  • Supervisor priorities, responsibilities and accountability

  • Production and bottom line pressures vs. quality issues

  • Actions or lack of action to correct unsafe behaviors

  • Employee training and motivation, and

  • Employee involvement or "buy-in"

(USDOL, 1970)

Culturing Our Safety Culture

A major challenge to changing safety culture for many organizations in the live event industry is you can’t change something that doesn’t exist. The below may partially explain why we are resistant to change.

Organizational culture frequently echoes the prevailing management style. Since managers tend to hire people just like themselves, the established organizational culture is reinforced by new hires. Organizational culture grows over time. People are comfortable with the current culture. For people to consider culture change, usually a significant event must occur. An event that rocks their world such as flirting with bankruptcy, a significant loss of sales and customers, or losing a million dollars, might get peoples' attention. (Heathfield, How to Change your Company Culture, 2016)

One lesson to be learned from successful cases is the change process goes through a series of phases that usually require a considerable length of time. A second lesson is, critical mistakes in any of those phases can have a negative impact on the mission, slowing momentum and negating hard-won gains. Most people have relatively little experience purposely affecting change. Even very capable people often make at least one big error. So, as you begin or restart your organization’s safety campaign, accept the fact you are probably going to fail at some aspect of this and emotionally prepare for it.


To get started, we must understand that organizational leadership is often focused on the business of the business and if times are good the status quo is often viewed as acceptable. To get their attention, an individual or group often facilitates a frank discussion with management of potentially unpleasant facts that will be experienced if change does not occur. Since there is an almost universal human tendency to shoot the bearer of bad news, especially if the head of the organization is resistant to change, outsiders are often hired and relied upon to prepare and deliver the bad news.

Our industry does not have to reinvent the wheel - we can and are learning from others. Let’s look at the lessons learned by our sibling, the film and television industry. Here is some background courtesy of Julia Smith’s 2014 article “Hollywood's Health and Safety Nightmare”:

The public became truly aware of the dangers in the film industry after the Twilight Zone incident in 1982 that killed actor Vic Morrow and two children aged six and seven. Ironically, Morrow’s line in that scene was to be: “I’ll keep you safe, kids. I promise. Nothing will hurt you. I swear to God.”

In the aftermath, numerous new safety codes were implemented. No doubt the public’s focus on this horrific incident, raised awareness about the film industry and its safety record. This in turn had an impact on the direction of Health and Safety in that industry.

Today the film and television industry has an aggressive safety passport program administered by the Contract Services Administration Trust Fund (CSATF). Signatory producers fund the organization by making contributions to the CSATF based on hours worked by employees covered by collective bargaining agreements. Even with this program, the film and television industry suffers a significant number of injury incidents yearly. Many of these injury incidents are the result of the pressure freelancers place on themselves, they feel if they don’t take certain risks- someone else is willing to and they will be out of a job. (Smith, 2014)

There are obvious similarities we share with the film and television industry and we would be wise to consider the lessons learned during that industry’s transition as it closely mirrors our own.

Measuring Success

You may have seen ESA Vice President Steven Adelman, speak at a conference or training session. One of Steve’s key points of advice is that you should be able to present something that your attorney can hold up in court that validates you have established and continue to improve your safety policies and practices over time.

For now, at least in the US, our industry has little recorded data on reportable injuries and damage incidents. Without hard data to analyze, we cannot properly measure the impact improved safety efforts are having on the industry. While we cannot measure until we have the data, we can measure the changes in our actions themselves. Meaning, we need to record the changes we make in our individual safety programs. We use the markers identified in those records to measure and determine our progress, including our successes and failures.

Some questions you may be asking yourself:

Q1: Is it extra work?

Q2: Is it easy?
Not really, no.

Q3: Is it cheap?
It’s cheaper than the alternative. If you prefer, there are companies who specialize in maintaining records on your behalf.

Q4: Will it help protect our organization in litigation?

Q5: You have my attention. If I agree, what do I do next?
Read on my friend.

The Nitty Gritty

The materials referenced below are a sampling of information from a handful of expert sources. As I stated earlier, your organization’s unique circumstances should determine your path to making change. Whether you are restarting a dormant safety program or starting a new one, begin with the basics.

Five Tips for Creating Sustainable Change (Johansson, 2017)

Consider the Individuals You Are Dealing With

    • Narrow your focus to a granular level and engage the team individually or in small groups.

    • It’s not the change that’s difficult for most people, it’s sustaining that change.

Make the Right Hiring/Firing Decisions

  • Eliminate toxic employees and hire the right talent.

  • Meet with problem employees to allow them a chance to modify their behaviors. This helps you decide who has to be fired.

  • When firing, be sure you can replace the person with a better replacement whose mindset aligns with your values.

  • “Go overboard with the onboarding process.”

Set Short-Term Goals

    • If you want to see steady, consistent change you need to implement short-term goals.

    • Set timetables for achieving all goals.

Give Employees a Chance to be Heard

    • We tend to think we know our employees, but unless we ask them we don’t really know how they are feeling.

    • There is a natural gap between upper management and employees, it’s unrealistic to assume everyone is on the same page. For more clarification watch an episode of “Undercover Boss”®.

    • Engage employees during the development of the change system. It will allow them to be heard and give them an emotional attachment to the system.

Follow Through With Promises (Good and Bad)

    • Set boundaries, make and keep promises.

    • Whether your feedback is positive or negative, it’s important to identify and cite the reason for that feedback.

    • When a policy threatens docking of pay if the policy is broken, you must follow through with the policy regardless of the person’s position.

    • Reward high performing employees.

    • Closely monitor reporting and incentive programs. The issue with rewards and incentives for safety is, it opens the door for non-reporting in order to receive rewards and incentives.

    • Keep accurate records of reportable incidents, recognitions for good safety practices, and disciplinary actions for poor safety behaviors. These records will be important one day, e.g. litigation or insurance policy renewal time.

Anyone who has ever had to justify the safety section of a budget knows that safety is not free. Those line items have been omitted from so many event budgets for so long leadership and clients are unfamiliar with seeing it and they default to thinking safety should be covered somewhere else ‘by others’.

You will hear “Why am I paying for that?”, or “That shouldn’t be in our budget”, or “That should be in your cost of doing business…” and depending on the circumstances they may be correct. Regardless, the requirements for protecting our staff and maintaining a safe site need to be funded and that money has to come from somewhere.

Developing a Change Strategy

Which finally brings us to developing a change strategy. Below is a compilation of points most cultural change experts agree on, modified in places to add relevance.

Leadership and Buy-In

  • Leadership and management must be fully committed because safety and health is a hard cost and will compete against profitability. If safety and health issues are affecting profit margins, it is an easy sell. In our business, some may risk safety for higher profit margins, while others simply “don’t know what they don’t know” and unwittingly expose themselves (and others) to risk. Whatever the situation is, it is unreasonable for any event or service provider to not have a safety program.

  • Due to the time required to establish and maintain a safety program, management may choose to hire a safety director and create a safety and health committee from existing staff to report to them.

  • Management has to get behind and back the change process because they will need to approve the costs for the provision of resources to enable the program to operate.  

  • You will also need to get buy-in from staff, employees, unions, independent contractors, subcontractors and all others on the front line. They are generally in higher risk working environments than management and are more likely to experience a reportable injury or damage incident.

  • It’s easier to obtain buy-in from those on the front line for improving worker safety and health, than it is to get buy-in for improving quality or increasing profitability.

  • Take time to determine which means of engaging your team will be successful. When it comes to staff turnover, some organizations are more stable, like venues, event agencies, some equipment and service contractors and so on. Meanwhile at-will employees, freelancers and project staff may work with a team for a day, a week, a month, a tour or longer and one day all or part of the team moves on. Consider the type of people you are working with and use appropriate messaging.

  • Align the organization by establishing a shared vision of safety and health goals and objectives. Upper management must be willing to support by providing resources (time) and holding managers and supervisors accountable for doing the same. The entire management and supervisory staff need to set the example and lead the change. It's more about leadership than management. (USDOL, 1970)

  • How do we convince management to commit to such a change?

    • Typically, organizational leadership is business minded, they are charged with watching the bottom line must often be compelled to approve the additional costs associated with a safety program. Do everything in writing, this is the beginning of your safety policy record keeping.

  • Expect pushback from those who do not understand the need for health and safety initiatives. Prepare for thorny conversations by doing your homework in advance.

  • Establish a Sense of Urgency: Prove the status quo is more dangerous than launching into the unknown. The urgency rate is high enough when about 75% of leadership is honestly convinced that business as usual is no longer acceptable. (Kotter, 1995)

  • If possible, demonstrate how the bottom line is suffering from on-the-job injury and damage costs, work stoppages or slow-downs, production and delivery delays, and other direct and indirect costs of accidents.

  • If applicable, explain how the organization may be suffering from workers affected by fear, lack of trust, feeling of being used, and so on.

  • Point out insurance costs can reduce and back it up if possible with documentation from your insurance broker. While the organization may not receive an immediate savings on their insurance premiums, there may be significant long-term savings once your program is up and running.

  • A company with a strong safety culture typically experiences fewer at-risk behaviors. Consequently, they also experience lower accident rates, lower turn-over, lower absenteeism, and higher productivity. They are usually companies who are extremely successful by excelling in all aspects of business and excellence in general. (USDOL, 1970) They understand risk management of safety and health issues is a way to improve the performance of the organization.

  • Will an incident or decision, pass the newspaper test? When faced with push-back, ask the following question: “How would we feel if the front page of the newspaper tomorrow says (state headline of worst case scenario)”, then add as the newspaper’s tagline “What were they thinking?!”

  • It’s the law. The OSHA Act of 1970 General Duty Clause (USDOL, 1970) clearly states “each employer shall furnish to each of his employees, employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees”. (USDOL, 1970) It also states that each employer shall comply with the standards presented in the act, and, “Each employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to this Act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct”. (USDOL, 1970) This law also covers required training for all staff to perform their job in the conditions and environment in which they will be working.

Note: You may ask, “What is the difference between a reportable serious injury and a non-reportable minor injury?” A non-reportable minor injury is “an injury requiring first aid only” (USDOL, 1970) so it stands to reason that anything not matching that description should be reported and classified a ‘serious injury’.

Continue Building "Buy-in"

    • Build an alliance or partnership between management, the union (if one exists), employees and others on your site.

    • As new subcontractors and staff arrive on site, they will require proper onboarding.

    • A compelling reason for the change must be spelled out to everyone. People must understand why they are being asked to change what they normally do and what it will look like if they are successful. If people hear through the rumor mill that something is “going down” and haven't formally been told anything, they naturally tend to resist and opt out.

(USDOL, 1970)

Safety Must Be Viewed as an Investment, Not an Expense

    • A safety program is an investment in your team and your company because employing safety procedures has proven to improve quality of work, employee retention, emotional buy-in for seeing the company succeed.

    • When management demonstrates care for their employees, it builds employee trust in the company’s management.

    • Safety and health must be considered during an event’s budget development process and funded accordingly.

    • An often overlooked expense is staff training. Be sure to budget the funding, time and resources required to properly train staff in all company policies and procedures, especially safety.

    • Perform an initial training of management and supervisory staff, union leadership (if present), safety and health committee members, and a representative number of senior employees. This should include both safety and health training and any needed management, team building, hazard recognition, or communication training, etc. This gives you a group of senior people to draw upon as resources and gets key personnel on board with needed changes. (USDOL, 1970)

    • Establish a steering committee comprised of management, employees, union (if one exists), and safety staff. The purpose of this group is to facilitate, support, and direct the change process. This will provide overall guidance and direction and avoid duplication of efforts. To be effective, the group must have the authority to get things done. (USDOL, 1970)

  • Clients usually assume health and safety programs are in place. Also, cybersecurity requirements are rapidly moving into our industry. These are all protections many clients now expect of us and generally have them in their contracts.

  • Regardless of whether we are an individual or an organization, much of our work is project to project. Our industry is also very competitive.

    • Here is the rub, increased health, safety and security costs means increased overhead. Because you are doing things right, your costs may be higher than a competitor’s who may not have a safety program. The client may assume both companies have comparable safety policies and based on price, the client may go with the lower bid. The company with an active healthy safety policy may lose the job because they are doing things right. This is when leadership’s commitment to the program will be tested.

    • To level the playing field, the prospective client should be made aware you have a safety program, and how they benefit from that program.

    • Depending on the client, consider including in your RFP response, a basic packet that includes key bullet points about your safety policy and state that your policy compares favorably against others. Ask them to  verify the responses are apples to apples and how yours may include more protections for the client. This influences the client to ask the next question “Where is the other company’s safety policy?”

    • By providing answers to questions the client didn’t know to ask, you can inspire them to ask some tough questions of your competitors.


“Never mistake a clear view as a short distance.” Unknown…

  • Here are some preliminary questions to get you thinking:

    • Where are you now?

    • Where do you want to go?

    • How will you get there?

    • When do you want to get there? (Johansson, 2017)

  • If you have not done so, write down your organization’s current standards. Even if it is a very short list or even a blank page, it is a starting point.

  • Then create a vision statement setting some goals:

    • What are your top five goals?

    • How will you achieve those goals?

    • What are your top five bad behaviors you want to modify?

    • How will you modify those behaviors?

    • What are the penalties for continued bad behavior?

    • What is the reward for those who exceed expectations?

    • How will you start the program?

    • How will you manage it?

    • When will you roll out the program?

  • Set deadlines and stick to them. Hold yourself accountable for achieving the goals in the time stated in the vision’s timeline.

Ongoing Corrections and Enhancements to the Safety and Health Program

    • Ongoing participation by leadership, management and staff is key to the ongoing vitality of your safety program. If the rank and file see that leadership has lost interest, so will they.

    • Address physical hazards and develop safety recognition programs, create safety committees, and start incentive programs.

    • Develop policies for recognition, rewards, incentives, and ceremonies. Again, reward employees for doing the right things and encourage participation in activities. Continually reevaluate the incentive program to ensure its effectiveness and to ensure that it does not become an entitlement program. Monitor non-reporting of incidents to achieve goals and quotas to receive rewards and incentives.

    • Accountability systems are useful when appropriate. These systems establish safety goals, measure safety activities, and charge costs back to the business units that incur them. Consider developing a System of Accountability for all levels of the organization. Everyone must play by the same rules and be held accountable for their areas of responsibility. A sign of a strong safety culture is when individuals hold themselves accountable.

    • In our industry, hazard identification and mitigation is a continuous process, minute-to-minute, even second-to-second, hazards can appear, then remain static or escalate, or disappear altogether. Hazards that have been mitigated can reappear, like playing a high-stakes game of ‘Whack-a-Mole®’.

    • Monitoring and mitigating hazards is only part of the process. Reporting hazards and their mitigation, reportable injury and damage incidents, as well as ‘near misses’ are all part of the paper trail that one day can keep you, your company and its leadership out of court.

    • Your safety and health policy is dynamic and alive, once created will require exercise and nourishment.

    • It is easy to become complacent and let your program go dormant. Be alert for slippage. Continued delaying or canceling of team safety meetings, or increases in incident rates are signs of a dormant safety culture in need of immediate revitalization.

    • Ongoing improvements to the policy is part of the evolutionary process. Be sure to record all changes to the program for later use.

Training and Information Sharing

    • Continually measure performance, communicate results, and celebrate successes. Publicizing results to the team is very important to sustaining efforts and keeping everyone motivated. Progress reports during normal shift meetings allowing time for comments back to the safety committee and promotes open communication, and also allows for input from those out on the front lines. Everyone needs to have a voice, otherwise, they will be reluctant to continue buy-in. A system can be as simple as using current meetings, a bulletin board, and a comment box. (USDOL, 1970)

    • As stated far above, employee and staff training is required by law. Proper onboarding and continuing training is essential for a healthy safety culture. The company will benefit from less time being wasted mitigating avoidable mistakes on-the-job at the company’s expense.

    • On a ship, every crew member is trained to fight fires onboard. Similarly, every event employee must be trained to create and maintain a safe site.

    • People who are provided with information on a regular basis are more likely to engage on safety and health issues.

    • Posters, warning signs and policies are not enough. To support a successful safety culture, the vision and messaging needs to be continuous and obvious so behaviors become second nature.

Safety Programs and Resources

This is a tough one for many event folks to get their heads around.

    • A healthy safety program also requires resources to monitor and take on actionable items requiring attention. It may be one person or a large team of people. Regardless, someone has to follow through on the punch list.

    • Resources also means funding. Safety is a hard cost with a soft return. Those who control the purse strings must understand the return on their investment will probably not be obvious.

    • From hazard identification and reporting, to risk mitigation and elimination, there needs to be a system that manages the process.

    • Once the members of the organization acquire the mindset that it is their obligation to actively protect themselves and their co-workers it is the system in place that must now engage and work to progress toward the vision.

    • The system should offer support, guidance and controls necessary to all levels of staff and promote the small wins as well as the big ones.

Blame-free Workplace

    • In a strong safety culture any worker would feel comfortable walking up to the plant manager or CEO and reminding him or her to wear safety glasses. This type of behavior would not be viewed as forward or over-zealous but would be valued by the organization and rewarded. Likewise coworkers routinely look out for one another and point out unsafe behaviors to each other. (USDOL, 1970)

    • Some people feel like they are tattling on someone when they report an unsafe behavior, condition or hazard. They are afraid they will be looked at as a ‘whistleblower’ and place their job in jeopardy. This issue will be one of the hardest for our industry to work through. Even after thirty years of progress on their safety programs, the film and television industry must still deal with these issues. See the below comment from a crew-member on a film set:

“For eight or ten weeks, the director’s in charge of cast and crew and his or her word is law,” he says. “If he wants people to do something crazy, it’s very hard for someone lower down the ladder to speak up.” (Smith, 2014)

This worker’s comments echo what we know exists in our own industry and is the basis for my earlier comparison of the two industries. It also bolsters my opinion that ten, twenty and thirty years in the future, we will still be having the same fundamental discussions about event safety as we are today.

The good news is, we’ve engaged in the war on ignorance in our industry. The bad news is, ignorance is a renewable resource.

    • One vital part of the vision needs to be to create trust between all involved. When it comes to safety in the workplace everyone must be an equal partner.

    • Make everyone in the organization an active partner in the safety culture, there is no blame because when someone identifies a hazard, they are simply beginning the organization’s standard risk mitigation process.

    • When an incident occurs, there should be no shame or guilt, only immediate mitigation of the risk that lead to the incident. The organization must act as one unit from top to bottom and feel secure in correcting unsafe practices without fear of retaliation. Resolve situations first, there will be time for investigations later.

    • In this type of environment, management will have a greater sense of what is going on. The workforce is compelled to tell the truth, and say what management needs to hear even if it is not what management wants to hear.

    • When incidents occur, people at all levels must be held accountable and embrace the bad news as another step in the transformation process. Record the incident and mitigation efforts for later use.

Celebrate Success

    • Recognition, rewards, incentives, reinforcement and feedback are important.

    • A good safety culture makes it worthwhile for everyone to maintain a state of mindfulness by celebrating success whether big or small.

Eight Steps to Transforming Your Organization (Kotter, 1995)

  1. Establish a sense of urgency

  2. Form a powerful guiding coalition

  3. Create a vision

  4. Communicate the vision

  5. Empower others to act on the vision

  6. Plan for and create short term wins

  7. Consolidate improvements and continue to produce change

  8. Institutionalize new approaches

Eight Reasons Why Transformation Efforts Fail (Kotter, 1995)

  1. Not establishing a great enough sense of urgency

  2. Not creating a powerful enough coalition

  3. Lack of Vision

  4. Under-communicating the vision by a factor of ten

  5. Not removing obstacles to the new vision

  6. Not systematically planning for and creating short-term wins

  7. Declaring victory too soon

  8. Not anchoring changes in the organizations culture

The Eight Transformation Steps

  1. Establish a Sense of Urgency: Prove the status quo is more dangerous than launching into the unknown. The urgency rate is high enough when about 75% of leadership is honestly convinced that business as usual is no longer acceptable. Anything less and you will have problems later on in the process.

  2. Form a Powerful Guiding Coalition: Assemble a group with enough power and wherewithal to lead the change effort; Influence this team to work together and the others will follow. (ESA a good case) Major change is impossible unless the head of the organization is an active supporter. The power coalition needs to be powerful in terms of titles, expertise and information, reputations and relationships. The number can be from 3-5 in smaller groups on up to 50 in larger groups. Senior management usually forms the core of the group, but you will also find board members, key customer reps and union leaders. The coalition needs to operate outside of the organization’s normal hierarchy, awkward at times but necessary. Companies that fail in this phase have usually underestimated the difficulties of producing change. Sometimes those failing organizations have no history of teamwork and therefore undervalue the importance of this type of coalition. Efforts lacking a powerful coalition can make progress for a while, but sooner or later opposition gathers together and stops the change.

  3. Create a Vision: Create a vision to help guide the change effort; Create achievable goals and strategies for achieving those goals and fulfilling the vision. A useful rule of thumb, if you can’t communicate the vision to someone in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you have not yet completed this phase of the process.

  4. Communicate the Vision: Use every available means to communicate the new vision and strategies; Teach new behaviors using the guiding coalition to set the example for others to imitate; The guiding coalition must exhibit that which they wish to change in others. They must develop a picture of the future that is relatively easy to communicate and appeals to the entire organization. Success usually requires short-term sacrifices by everyone in the organization. Major change requires the organization’s leadership to ‘walk the walk’ and become model, living symbols of the new culture. If you know you have people who are going to be tougher to modify than others, consider making them a part of the guiding coalition and/or the vision-creation team, they see things through a different set of eyes which can benefit the transition development plans and their personal involvement can help ease the transition for them personally.

  5. Empower Others to Act on the Vision: Remove obstacles that stand in the way of the changes desired; Modify systems or structures that seriously undermine the vision; Encourage risk taking and nontraditional ideas, activities and actions. Involve large numbers of people as change progresses, the more people involved the better the outcome. In the first half of a transformation, no organization has the momentum, power or time to get rid of all of the obstacles.

  6. Plan for and Create Short Term Wins: Plan for high visibility improvements; Make those improvements; Recognize and reward those involved with the improvements. Creating short-term wins is different from hoping for short-term wins. The latter is passive, the former active. Look for ways to obtain clear performance improvements, establish goals in the planning system, achieve the objectives and reward the people involved with recognition, promotions, or other incentives. Long-term major change takes time and managers may complain about being forced to produce short-term wins. Such pressure can be a useful element in a change effort because once it becomes clear that change will take a long time, urgency levels drop, this is a precursor to failure. Commitments to produce short-term wins help keep the urgency level up and force detailed analytical thinking that can clarify or revise the vision.

  7. Consolidate Improvements and Continue Making Changes: Use the increased or new credibility to influence further change in systems, structures and policies that do not fit the vision; Hire, promote and develop those who can implement the vision; Keep refreshing the process with new projects, themes and change agents.

  8. Institutionalize New Approaches: Find and articulate the connection between the new behaviors and success; Develop the means to ensure leadership development and seamless succession. Change sticks when it becomes “the way we do things around here”. Two important factors in institutionalizing change in culture are: demonstrate how the new approaches, behaviors and attitudes improve performance; be watchful of the organization’s next generation of leadership and staff and ensure all succession candidates live the vision. A regular tough decision for a board of directors or CEO is: Do they promote a more qualified candidate or a less seasoned candidate who better personifies the transformation vision.

Common Errors:

  1. Not establishing a great enough sense of urgency.

    1. It is easy to underestimate how hard it is to drive people out of their comfort zones.

    2. Leadership can lack patience. “Lets get on with it!”

    3. Some leaders may become paralyzed by the downside possibilities e.g. senior employees being defensive, drop in morale, event will spin out of control, short term business results will be jeopardized, sinking stock prices and that they will be blamed for creating a crisis.

  2. Phase 1 usually goes nowhere until enough real leaders are placed into the correct positions to facilitate change. Management’s mandate is to minimize risk and keep the current system running and operating. Change, by definition, requires creating a new system, which in turn always demands leadership.

  3. Failing efforts often lack a clear vision. Visions will doubtless change after the first 3 or 5, even 12 months once the coalition has had a chance to refine the plan. This is where some get anxious that the process is not moving fast enough and insist on rolling out larger significant changes the organization is not ready for and the project therefore fails. In failed transformations you often find plenty of plans, directives and programs but no vision. Without clear vision those affected by the change can become confused or feel alienated.

  4. Under-communicating the vision leads to de-prioritization of the mission. If the leadership does not “live and breath” the change they want to make, the vision is only partially communicated and this results in cynicism and belief in the vision. Employees will not make short-term sacrifices, even if they are unhappy with the status quo, unless they believe that change is possible. Without credible communication, and lots of it, the hearts and minds of the troops are never captured. Leadership needs to drill the vision at all times, tie the vision in with every performance review process and Q&A session, everything must be constantly tied back into the vision and progress towards that end. Leadership must demonstrate their buy-in in both words and deeds. Nothing undermines change more than behavior by leadership that is inconsistent with their words.

  5. Failure to remove obstacles to the new vision hinders progress. Communication is never sufficient by itself. Renewal also requires the removal of obstacles. There may be many willing to move down the path but an obstacle appears to be blocking the path. In some cases the obstacle in in the persons head and they must be convinced that no external obstacle exists, in most cases the obstacles are real and are indeed inhibiting progress. If leadership allows obstacles to remain in place, those expected to support and rally for change will question the leadership’s commitment to renewal and change, cynicism will grow and the whole effort can collapse.

  6. Short-term wins are essential. If the organization does not continually feel positive movement toward the vision’s objectives by attaining achievable short-term goals, interest and momentum will be lost. People will not continue the long journey unless the process is yielding expected results. Without short-term wins, too many people give up or actively join the ranks of those people who have been resisting change. Don’t be over-anxious, it could well be 12-24 months before the change results become incontestable.

  7. Beware of declaring victory too soon. After many months or years of hard work, it may be tempting to declare a victory with the first clear sign of measurable performance improvement. Celebrating a win is fine, declaring the war won can be catastrophic. New practices are fragile and subject to regression if the change has yet to deeply root into the changing culture, see #8 below. Ironically it is often a combination of change initiators and change resistors that creates a premature victory celebration. Enthusiastic change initiators can go overboard over a clear sign of progress, they are then joined by the change resistors who are quick to spot any opportunity to stop change. Once the celebration is over the resistors point to the victory as a sign the war has been won and the troops should be sent home. The weary troops allow themselves to be convinced they have won and when it comes time to continue the change process, they are reluctant to engage again because they recall how much work it took to get where they are, so change comes to a halt and tradition creeps back in. The fact is, the culture you are changing does not stop evolving therefore cultural change requires indefinite cycling and recycling through the processes to stay on your new course. Rather than declaring victory of the war, savvy leaders understand that renewal efforts take years, so they re-channel the organization’s current problem-solving velocity toward other problems that need solving that are not part of the cultural change effort.

  8. Avoid regression. Change that is not anchored in the culture is at risk of decay and deterioration. Until new behaviors are deeply rooted in social norms and shared values, they are subject to degradation as soon as the pressure for change is removed. Promotion of leadership successors who do not embrace the vision is an obvious mistake. Once leadership has committed to change, every move, each leadership successor and every new hire must embrace and live the vision of change or the organization will regress.

(Heathfield, What Makes Up Your Company Culture?, 2016)


  • Develop a safety program that matches your unique organization’s needs, all are similar, no two are the same.

  • As leaders and managers, we must support and practice those policies ourselves or they will fail.

  • Including employees and staff in the development and management of a safety program gives them ownership of the program and increases the likelihood of lasting success, listen to them.

  • Take ego and shame out of play. When it comes to safety in the workplace, there is no room for them.

  • Accept that mistakes will be made, plan for this eventuality.

  • Monitor the implementation of your safety program, watch out for complacency and cheating to earn incentives.

  • Report and record everything, it’s your paper trail.

Works Cited

Heathfield, S. M. (2016, October 12). How to Change your Company Culture. The Balance.

Heathfield, S. M. (2016, November 13). What Makes Up Your Company Culture? The Balance.

Johansson, A. (2017, March 20). Turning the Ship Around: A Guide to Changing Workplace Culture.

Kotter, J. P. (1995, May-June). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review.

Smith, J. L. (2014, July 6). Hollywood's Health and Safety Nightmare. The Telegraph.

USDOL. (1970). United States Department of Labor. Retrieved June 20, 2016, from Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

Shelby Cude