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How to Promote a Global Safety Culture Across Local Cultures

April 19, 2018 By

“Different strokes for different folks.” ~Sly and the Family Stone

For most of my career, I worked for companies that had a strong presence both in North America and Europe. Working with colleagues from different cultures taught me a lesson that I like to share, and that can be applied to promote a global safety culture across all locations.

This is what I tell people who speak different languages: If you will communicate something that is not in your native language, always perform two translations. First, perform a regular language translation (e.g. French to English). Second, perform a “cultural translation”. Also, if you will communicate something in your native language to someone whose native language is different (e.g. an American speaking in English to a German), it’s also good to perform a “cultural translation”.

“Cultural translation” is key for effective communication in companies with locations around the world, and effective communication is key to promote a global, uniform safety culture. There are many aspects to cultural differences, but two particularly stand out, and which are highlighted in negotiating styles: emotional expression and expression of disagreement. Check out this chart from a Harvard Business Review article:

Harvard Business Review chart

Now imagine that each blue dot also represents a country where your company has a facility, and you’re trying to promote a global safety culture. Since a safety culture is about shared beliefs, values, attitudes and customs regarding workplace safety, ideally it should be the same across all locations. For example, you want all sites to take the habit of reporting observations of unsafe conditions, even if in some countries that may be perceived as overly-intrusive.

But there is a danger in forcibly imposing a global safety culture from the top. Beliefs, values and attitudes are not policies, rules or procedures. People must adopt them in their hearts and minds, and make them part of their personalities. It’s not surprising that a safety culture can take a long time to develop, sometimes even years. This is why effective communication is key to promote a global safety culture, and adapting a communication style to take into account local cultural differences can help. As a global head of EHS or Safety, you may be a very effective communicator and negotiator in your own country, but you may not be as effective in other countries.

What does this mean when we consider emotional expression and expression of disagreement? A video from Harvard Business Review about the same chart above gives the following explanations, which are good to know:

  • In some cultures, it’s perfectly normal to show emotion (e.g. raising your voice, laughing passionately, touching). But in other cultures, this much expression may feel intrusive and surprising, or may even be viewed as immature and unprofessional. Neither style is right or wrong. It’s just normal cultural differences.
  • In some cultures, open disagreement is seen as perfectly normal and appropriate. But in other cultures, even in some emotionally expressive ones (top-right quadrant on the chart), open disagreement could be seen as insulting. Neither style is right or wrong.
  • In some less emotionally expressive cultures, open disagreement and debate are seen as positive and necessary (bottom-left quadrant), as long as things are expressed calmly and factually.
  • Some cultures are both less emotional and non-confrontational (bottom-right quadrant), which means you have to pay careful attention to subtle signals of positive and negative responses.

To promote effectively a global safety culture across local cultures, remember that every message or type of communication has two components: content and delivery (including the “package” around the content). Since safety culture is about shared beliefs, values and attitudes, the content must stay the same. But learn to modify the delivery across local cultures to make the adoption of the message more successful from one country to another. Tailor the tone and the style of the message, and adapt your reactions.

Another approach is to have local safety managers advance the safety culture, instead of doing it centrally. However, even in this situation, you still need to have effective communication with the local safety managers in each country who will be acting on your behalf to strengthen the safety culture.

In conclusion, if you work in an organization with locations in different countries, be aware of local cultural differences in communication and negotiating styles. It will not only help you promote a global safety culture, but also contribute positively to the organizational culture.

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Categories: EHS

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