Frontline Fundamentals: Organizational Culture: What Caves Can Teach Us

If you were in a cave and someone yelled “Watch out for that stalagmite!” would you look up or down? If you said down, you are correct. Both stalagmites and stalactites are formed in caves by mineral deposits from trickling water. Stalactites result from water dripping from the ceiling. They hang down, typically are hollow, have smaller bases and form faster than their counterparts. Stalagmites are built from the ground up when water drips on the cave floor. They have a more solid structure with a larger base that takes more time to form.

This imagery is useful when contemplating and discussing organizational culture. Does your company have a top-down (stalactite) or bottom-up (stalagmite) culture? As you think about your answer, consider how your organization handles the following occurrences.

Occurrence 1: Change
Stalactite: The company is reactive and changes only because they have to due to incidents or regulatory reasons. Management creates or revises programs and policies that are implemented during lecture-style training sessions conducted per organizational hierarchy. Employees have no or very limited opportunities to ask questions or provide feedback about the change.

Stalagmite: The company is proactive and changes because they want to. Leaders anticipate the need for change. Frontline workers are involved in creating or revising programs and policies that are implemented during training sessions, and they encourage questions and feedback from safety leaders, safety advocates and change agents.

Occurrence 2: Injury
Stalactite: The company is focused on human error. Investigations are designed to assign blame and justify discipline that often exceeds policy guidelines.

Stalagmite: The company is focused on systems error. Investigations are designed to determine and correct root causes, with the ultimate goal of preventing reoccurrence.

Occurrence 3: Job Observation
Stalactite: An individual or team stops working when management or supervision visits a job site because they perceive the visitor is out to get them.

Stalagmite: An individual or team continues working when management or supervision visits a job site because they perceive the visitor is there to help them.

Occurrence 4: Near-Hit/Near-Miss Reporting
Stalactite: Reporting is minimal or nonexistent within the company. When reporting occurs, there is little to no follow-up or communication. People seemed surprised when the same incidents continue to occur.

Stalagmite: A significant number of near-hits and near-misses are reported by employees, and those reports are followed up on and communicated. Trends in near-hit and near-miss reports increase as repeated incidents decrease.

Occurrence 5: Leadership Style
Stalactite: Many of the organization’s leaders have an autocratic style of leadership and have difficulty involving others in decision-making. There is a macho attitude that this is the correct and only leadership style.

Stalagmite: Leaders understand different styles of leadership, different types of personalities and how they relate. There is no singular correct leadership style, and the style utilized is based on people and circumstances. 

Speleothem Safety Culture
Ideally, organizational safety culture involves management commitment to worker-driven safety, with safety being integrated into every work process and decision. Going back to the cave analogy, this would look like a column – a formation that can also be referred to as a speleothem – which forms when a stalactite and a stalagmite meet somewhere in the middle.

‘Safety First’
Another way to think about your organization’s culture is to consider whether or not “safety first” is a good slogan. While this is a bit of semantics, and there is nothing inherently incorrect about saying “safety first,” it can have unintended consequences by:

-Separating safety from other work processes and departments. Perhaps the company’s operations managers rely too much on the safety department and do not get involved with safety themselves. Or maybe resource management and engineering do not consider safety in their jobs. Safety cannot be first; it has to be incorporated into everything we do.

-Implying a start and end point for safety. In these cases, the thinking goes something like this: We have a pre-job briefing. We put on our PPE. We inspect our tools and equipment. We do all the safety stuff and get it out of the way … and then we go to work. We talk about safety during safety meetings and calls, not during work. But safety cannot be first; it has to happen all day.

-Implying it is someone else’s responsibility. When this happens, safety becomes a company and cultural issue rather than a work practice. In the General Duty Clause, OSHA states employers must provide a workplace free of recognized hazards that could harm employees, and that employers must comply with OSHA regulations. What is often missed is the second part, which states, “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.”

Mike Rowe illustrates this point with a concept he calls “Safety Third.” In the video, which can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wdfsn_NzP1Q, Rowe discusses his experience on a crab fishing boat. He talks about being fearful for his safety in 30-foot seas and confronting the captain with his concerns. The captain tells him it is not his job to get him home alive, it is his job to get him home rich. Rowe goes on to discuss how that conversation eliminated his assumption that others would take care of him and made him understand what it really means to be responsible for his own safety.

I do not mean to propose that “safety third” is a good or even a valid safety belief. Perhaps it may be better to say that safety should be incorporated into everything we do. Everyone needs to understand that they should be responsible for their own safety, and there should be a culture of management commitment to worker-driven safety.

Remember, establishing a safety culture is a journey, not a destination. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” While most organizations do not fall into the extremes of being a stalagmite or a stalactite, few have achieved the perfect balance of management commitment to worker-driven safety – a speleothem safety culture. Safety is about building a safety and health management system that includes management commitment and employee involvement; planning; hazard prevention and control; training; evaluation; and continuous improvement. When it comes to safety, Benjamin Franklin was correct when he said, “If better is possible, good is not enough.”

About the Author: David McPeak, CUSP, CET, CHST, CSP, CSSM, is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute (www.ip-institute.com). His experience includes operations management, safety and training roles. McPeak holds multiple safety and training certifications and has received numerous awards. He also has served as chairman of Task Team One of the OSHA ET&D Partnership, as a member of Incident Prevention’s editorial advisory board and as a member of the North Carolina Apprenticeship Council. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  

About Frontline: The Frontline program provides interactive, engaging classroom training that empowers employees to become better utility safety leaders. Subject matter experts facilitate the learning process and cover four areas – safety leadership, incident prevention, human performance, and standards and operations – critical to safety success. Visit www.frontlineutilityleader.com for more information.

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Culture: What Caves Can Teach Us Webinar
September 13 at 3 p.m. Eastern
Visit www.frontlineutilityleader.com for more information.

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