safetymindblog

a spotlight on the human aspects of accident prevention

When hierarchy can be bad for safety

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Every organisation, no matter how democratic its culture is, has a hierarchy and a management structure in place, as this is necessary to define roles and responsibilities.  People need to know who’s in charge and who makes decisions.  No organisation can function without a hierarchy.

However, organisations that depend on having a good safety culture for their day-to-day operations cannot survive solely on a hierarchical mind-set in the long-term.  Ultimately, the lack of flexibility in depending only on one style of management will cripple an organisation when an unexpected crisis occurs.In order to maintain a culture where safety is essential, workers and staff at all levels need to be communicating and reporting upwards and downwards.   When management constantly prefer hierarchy over equality, it can end up creating an authoritarian atmosphere, breeding fear and distrust. Workers end up feeling hesitant to report danger signs they have noticed for fear that they or someone else will be blamed.  Information can also be withheld by those at the top to maintain their status and authority which prevents information from flowing down to workers at the frontline.  When the information system goes quiet, it is never a good sign.  Workers who are afraid to intervene to address unsafe behaviour, especially when it is happening further up the hierarchy are ultimately working in an unsafe environment.   This is because an authoritarian culture creates a situation where the initial signs of problems are ignored and not reported and are then left to incubate quietly until such time when a crisis hits the organisation and exposes what has been ignored all along.

To survive a crisis, an organisation must be able to contain the consequences of the crisis so that it is able to bounce back and continue operations without being severely crippled in the long term.  However, when an organisation falls back solely on its hierarchy during a crisis, the result is that decisions are made only by those in authority and those lower down (workers who are at the frontline or who may have the required expertise) are ignored and not consulted.  Often the assumption is made that those in authority must also have the requisite expertise but that is not necessarily the case.  To make matters worse, information may not be flowing up to management either and so decisions are made without all the necessary information or expertise.

The opportunity to learn from a crisis and improve the existing system is also lost when a hierarchical mind-set is predominant.  An authoritarian culture tends to name and blame, and then it’s “case closed”.  While there are times when it is necessary to deal with workers who have committed an unacceptable act that has compromised safety, it is also important to realise that incidents and unexpected events are mostly the result of accidents and lapses.  The discerning organisation will know the difference and will be able to identify what lessons can be learned and how their existing systems can be improved as a result.

To build a resilient organisation which can survive the unexpected and constantly improve their safety standards, managers must learn to manage mindfully, and have the flexibility and discernment to know how to balance hierarchy and equality in their management style.  Developing the ability to reconcile these opposing styles within your organisation will enable people at every level in the hierarchy to perform their roles most effectively and make the organisation more able to deal with a crisis.

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