Four Indicators of Toxic Safety Culture
When professionals get concerned about the safety culture in organizations there are a range of dispositions that indicate that things are not good. Recognizing these indicators early is one of the best ways to ensure that problems are addressed. The combination of the following indicators in an organization are a recipe for a toxic safety culture.
Cynicism is a psychological disposition that distrusts everything or selectively trusts only what it knows. A cynic has a lack of faith or hope in all, but self. Cynicism hides behind undisclosed values as only they can discern what is true or not. Cynicism understands truth as absolute and the cynic has the secret of what criteria is used to discern truth. Cynicism is an unhealthy disposition in any organization because it elevates distrust in others and projects only trust in self. This is destructive for the fundamental of teams or groups as trust is essential in managing risk. If you have cynics in a culture they cannot be trusted and won’t trust others. Cynicism is listed in the DSM V as a neurosis.
Skepticism ought not be confused with a healthy sense of doubt. Organizations rely on a healthy balance between doubt and faith. If one doubts all things then nothing gets done. A healthy sense of doubt understands the importance of competing goals and knows that relationships are not worth risking for one’s own sense of truth. Skepticism is most associated with knowing nothing as compared to the cynicism, which knows everything. Skepticism infects a culture with so much doubt that the uncertainties of risk and human fallibility become a block to activity. The sceptic doesn’t know what to do except they know it is not what you are doing.
When a culture is infected with pessimism and negativity everything tends to just spiral down. Pessimism is fueled by skepticism and cynicism and this leads to a very unhappy workplace. Pessimism extracts meaning and purpose out of the workplace and soon the meaningless of work affects risk taking and safety. Positivity on the other hand engenders effective working teams, morale and trust.
One of the cultural challenges for organizations is managing the gap between espoused-theory and theory-in-use. This is where the disposition of cynicism and skepticism are so toxic. Those who don’t understand the tensions of fallible leadership in human organizations expect perfection (also a disorder) and demand absolutes. When leadership or management makes mistakes it is the cynics and skeptics who are first on the persecution wagon because if they were in control there would be no mistakes. All organizations and leadership have gaps between what is said and what is done, it is when this gap is at extremes in contradiction that employees soon learn not to trust the words of leaders. Trust is the foundation of healthy culture.