With EHS and sustainability, employee behaviors will drive your performance, and employee behaviors are driven by perceptions, beliefs, values, and attitudes.

What do a college hockey team, a local utility, and your company EHS and sustainability programs have in common? They all rely on people’s thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors – the culture, which can lead to disastrous results or enhanced performance, all depending on how you manage it.

A few years ago, a popular college hockey team was facing a crisis – two separate sexual assault charges were filed against team members over a period of just a few months. The investigation report identified a “culture of sexual entitlement” that was pervasive throughout the team. This is clearly an example of how the team culture was not managed properly.

My local utility sends out annual “report cards” comparing my natural gas usage to equally-sized homes in my neighborhood. I have to admit, my usage is a little higher than my “most efficient” neighbors, which has caused me to think twice, and even change my behavior, about pushing up the thermostat in the winter.

With EHS and sustainability, employee behaviors will drive your performance, and employee behaviors are driven by perceptions, beliefs, values, motivations, attitudes, and other intangible aspects – in other words, your company culture. It is NOT the written policies, programs, and procedures that companies spend so much time developing and implementing, although this structure is important. Company culture can either send your programs off the track before you know there is a problem, or you can use it to your advantage and drive performance to the next level.

What is my company culture?

Not sure what your company culture is? Curious to find out? Assuming that you have the basic structure in place with policies, programs, training, auditing, etc., a culture assessment is a tool to measure and quantify your company culture. A well-planned culture assessment will include the following:

  • Key stakeholder group – This group represents the long-term stakeholders that will not only help with the assessment but will also define and drive the desired culture within your company.
  • Culture survey – This survey, through well-developed questions, will tease out employees’ perceptions and attitudes about EHS&S. It should capture employee demographics (organizational level, department, length of employment, and geographic location) so that differences and gaps in behaviors and perceptions can be analyzed between different employee populations. Anonymous responses or data analysis through a third party will provide the most candid insights.
  • Data analysis and interpretation – There are a number of ways to analyze the data, but we have found the most useful data visuals to be:
    • Spider graphs – highlight the gaps between various employee demographics in different areas.
    • Bubble charts – plot culture score versus response rate using bubble size to indicate level of participation at specific locations
    • Color coded maps – use color codes (green, yellow, red) to illustrate strengths and weaknesses across survey topic areas
  • Communications – Both the initial survey communication and sharing the survey results present important opportunities to reshape your company culture. Build these communications carefully to convey the right messages.

A good culture assessment will quantify those intangible aspects of a company culture and give you the information needed to develop a plan moving forward.

So I have the results, now what?

Changing and managing your company culture – is it possible? Yes it is, but it needs to be viewed as a long-term and deliberate process. Changing human behavior takes time, consistency, and hard work.

Based on the gaps identified during the culture assessment, action plans can be considered at the facility, regional, and/or corporate level. Good action planning considers the following:

  • Focus – Do not try to do too much at once. Focus on a select number of topics, or critical shifts in behaviors, and develop detailed action plans around each topic.
  • Consider existing culture – There will be aspects of the current culture that can be helpful as you develop action plans. Consider aspects such as innovative spirit, company pride, work ethics, team work, etc. These aspects can be incorporated into your action plans to support development of the new culture.
  • Communications – A key part of every action plan should be communications – who, what, when, and how will information be communicated to the workforce? The communications process will reinforce desired perceptions, beliefs, and values towards the desired culture, desired employee behaviors, and improved performance.
  • Reward and recognition – All behavior is rewarded whether it is a perceived reward (I’ve finished my work 15 minutes faster!!) or an actual reward. For each action plan, build opportunities to publicly recognize and reinforce desired employee behaviors to lead to improved performance.
  • Follow human nature – "The inner conformist is stronger than the inner activist," said Michael Morris, a psychologist at Columbia University who studies the role of culture in decision-making. In other words, the pressure to conform to what everyone is doing is stronger than desire to lead a movement for change. Of course, leadership is important, but creating a long-lasting cultural change will require many people to follow, and it is easier for people to follow if they think everyone else is doing it.

Lastly, consider periodic culture assessments to systematically monitor changes in employee values, perceptions, motives, and attitudes and continue to drive improved performance.

And now, I am going to turn down my thermostat and put on a sweater – yes, behaviors can change!

Check out 5 Tips for Building Your Company EHS Culture in a Low-Risk Environment for practical how-tos.

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