Culture, safety culture, values, mission statement, etc., are constantly crafted and discussed by the upper management in many companies across the world. With that being said, the focus or goals of upper management does not always equate to what actually occurs and is reinforced at the front-line supervisor or the field worker level.
Ask the CEO or a VP level executive what the mission statement is or what the culture is like at their company, and they will most likely be able to elegantly describe whatever is written in the latest version of the employee handbook or what was shared in their last board meeting. I am not implying they do not believe in what they are saying or they do not have good intentions towards the effort they put towards crafting these items. But what responses will you get if you ask a field level worker what the culture is at that company or what the mission statement is?
As a (relatively new) field level health and safety officer I have never given too much thought to the exact mission statement or set of written values of the company. That being said, I do care to live the values that I have learned over the past few years from the passionate individuals who have been with the company for decades and pass them on to the field level workers at whichever project site I am on.
AirBnb CEO’s Letter to his Employees About Culture
A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast about building teams and building the culture of a company. In the podcast, the gentleman presenting mentioned a quote by AirBnb’s CEO Brian Chesky. The quote came from an article Chesky posted on Medium. The article was a letter to his whole company titled “Don’t **** Up the Culture” (He actually used the word, I’ll bleep it out in this post).
In the letter, he wanted to address his employees after having a conversation with famous investor Peter Thiel after Thiel invested $150 million dollars in AirBnb. Chesky asked Thiel what the most important piece of advice was that he had for AirBnb. Thiel responded, “Don’t **** up the culture”. Thiel went on to explain once a company gets to a certain size, it is almost inevitable that the culture will not be the same (which AirBnb’s culture was incredible at the time).
Astounded by the advice, Chesky gave a lot of thought to how he could protect the great culture of his young fast-growing company. He decided as CEO that he was only going to focus on not only defending his company’s culture, but focus on building it up.
In this letter to his employees, Chesky defined culture as “simply a shared way of doing something with passion.”
What really resonated with me is what he goes onto say in a section of the letter he titled “So how do we build culture?”.
In the first paragraph of this section he states:
“By upholding our core values in everything we do. Culture is a thousand things, a thousand times. It’s living the core values when you hire; when you write an email; when you are working on a project; when you are walking in the hall. We have the power, by living the values, to build the culture. We also have the power, by breaking the values, to **** up the culture. Each one of us has this opportunity, this burden.”
To me, that is an incredibly powerful paragraph. He recognizes and explains that the culture and core values are in everything that everyone does. It isn’t just written words or lip service. He goes on in the next paragraph to explain why culture is so important to a business:
“Why is culture so important to a business? Here is a simple way to frame it. The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial. And if we have a company that is entrepreneurial in spirit, we will be able to take our next “(wo)man on the moon” leap. Ever notice how families or tribes don’t require much process? That is because there is such a strong trust and culture that it supersedes any process. In organizations (or even in a society) where culture is weak, you need an abundance of heavy, precise rules and processes.”
Applying Chesky’s Letter to Safety Culture
This paragraph really struck a chord with me when applying it to workplace safety. The term “safety culture” is thrown around, discussed and debated in workplaces, LinkedIn posts, and conversations of those who care to involve themselves in giving thought to it.
To get involved in a heated debate about what to do to improve the safety culture at your company with someone outside of the company is most likely energy wasted. In all reality, it is going to be different company to company of what exactly needs to be done to build or improve safety culture.
While we can all learn from each other or study best practices, what will need to be done at your company will most likely be different from what I need to do at my jobsite. Even within the same company, specific work groups or locations may need completely different things to improve and build the culture.
There are too many factors to make it a one size fits all process. Attitudes, experiences, backgrounds, expectations, education level, motivation, maturity, training, leadership, etc., varies greatly overall from person to person and from workforce to workforce.
The letter written by Chesky, it enforces the idea that culture is built up by living the core values of the company. More importantly, he describes why this is so important to a business and the individuals in that business.
After reading this letter, I thought it could provide value to our field crew at the construction site I work at (and I believe it can hold value for your work crew which is why I am writing this post). We hold daily morning safety meetings before work begins, so I decided to incorporate it into a safety talk. I read the letter, explained how and why the ideas conveyed are so critical, and most importantly, listed three values that exemplified the culture at our company. The three focus items I chose to speak about were caring for each other’s wellbeing, working hard, and being client-focused.
I used these three values to drive home the fact that when we strive to live these values we are able to be autonomous both at a front line supervisor level as well as the field worker level. What results is a more enjoyable place to work that is more light-hearted, relaxed, and respectful than found at the majority of other construction sites. The result is enjoyed by everyone working at the site- not just the upper management in an office far, far away.
To Wrap it Up
It is important to take a step back, evaluate the culture at your particular worksite, and the part you play in it. We all have the power to help build a positive culture and we all have the burden of the ability to break it.
A (safety) culture is not words, a plaque on the wall, or an employee handbook. Culture is how we carry ourselves, our actions, our decisions, and how we choose to treat each other.
Take a look at how your specific company or worksite functions. What three things can you focus on to describe the kind of culture there? What needs to be done to not only align with what upper management envisions for the company as a whole, but more importantly (to me) what can be done to make it a more positive place to work at where people want to be every day? After all when people care about each other and the work that they do, most of the other things will fall into place.
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