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It’s a statement we make in our survey of employees, both in our work with clients, and in our general growing database across industries.

“In my department, we refrain from disciplining team members who make inadvertent human errors or mistakes that may jeopardize ___________.”1

What is unique, is that it’s not part of a safety survey.  For us, safety is but one value to be protected within an organization.  Instead, we ask the question across seven representative values (i.e., inserted into blank above): customer service[1], customer safety[2], employee safety[3], financial stewardship[4], data/privacy and protection[5], environmental protection[6], as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion.[7]  For example, are healthcare clinicians held similarly accountable when they inadvertently:

  1. overbook patients (customer service)
  2. enter a wrong patient order (customer safety)
  3. stick a peer with a used needle (employee safety)
  4. forget to bill care (financial stewardship)
  5. leave a computer open (privacy)
  6. spill hazardous materials (environmental protection)
  7. delete the application of a minority applicant (DEI)

We humans are imperfect, inescapably fallible creatures.  We make mistakes, irrespective of the value being protected.  Fortunately, we can learn from our mistakes.  To create a learning culture, leaders and peers must create a psychologically safe space for team members to raise their hands and say “I’ve made a mistake.”  While the safety community has long been advocating for less punitive cultures, we have been working to help organizations create learning cultures across all values. 

We collected survey data on 1,000 U.S. workers from 12 separate industries, including healthcare, aviation, EMS, police, energy, construction, manufacturing, utilities, research laboratories, hotel & food services, K-12 education, and higher education.  What the data tell us is that if we are punitive toward safety errors, we’re punitive toward all errors.  In the chart below, average scores (% disagree or strongly disagree) for each value are shown. Customer safety errors receive the most punitive treatment (Mean = 56.5%).  Mistakes around the other six values (employee safety, DEI, etc.) also rated quite punitive, together averaging only 2-14 points lower than customer safety-related errors (Mean = 42.1%). This shows punitive cultures toward human error span far beyond safety events.  At an individual level, if a survey respondent sees a punitive culture toward service errors, they will see it across safety errors, and vice versa. 

As shown in the graph and table below, all seven benchmark values are highly correlated.  For example, perceptions of punitive response to customer service errors are significantly associated with customer safety mistakes (r   = .74, p < .001***), meaning that the two values behave similarly. That is, when one value increases, the other value also tends to increase.  All correlation coefficients are also near or above r = .50, indicating strong effects. The scatterplot below shows the underlying linear relationship between two values: x axis = financial stewardship errors, y axis customer safety errors (r = .50***). From the scatterplot, we can see there is a moderately strong, positive, linear association between the two variables.  The linear regression line also shows that for each one-point increase in punitive response to financial errors, the predicted punitive response to customer safety errors increases by B=.58 (y=1.65+.58*x, R2=.252, p<.001***).

Simply put, the justice of an organization is not tied to a specific value like safety, but is instead an attribute of organizational culture as a whole.  As we’ll discuss in future articles, we see the same effect across all of our Just Culture markers: the seven representative values being tied together.  A punitive service culture does not exist independent from a punitive culture toward financial stewardship, and a punitive culture toward DEI errors does not exist independent of a punitive culture toward safety errors.  Every practitioner of human and organizational performance knows that all seven representative values can possibly be involved in one adverse event.  And our survey data supports the notion that workplace values do not exist independent of one another when trying to create a supportive, non-punitive learning culture around mistakes.

The bottom line is this: a safety department can attempt to create a non-punitive response to safety-related errors.  While well-intentioned, it is a less-than-ideal approach.  Safety errors should not be treated differently than financial errors, environmental errors, or errors impacting diversity and inclusion.  To create a just culture takes leadership from the board of directors, C-suite, and operational leaders on down, with the organizational approach toward mistakes being blind to the values involved.  As it should be.

Cite as: Huntsman, D., & Marx, D. (2024). Psychological safety: If you’re punitive toward safety errors, you’re punitive toward all errors. The Data Series, (1), 1–2. www.justculture.com

1 The Just Culture Benchmark Survey is a device for evaluating workplace culture using nine key behavioral markers tied to seven generally universal organizational values: customer service; patient/customer safety; employee safety; financial stewardship; data privacy & protection; environmental protection; and diversity, equity and inclusion.  We use the survey, and its associated Just Culture Improvement Index, as key measurement tools aiding organizations’ implementation of Just Culture.

 

[1] the service you provide to your customers

[2] the protection of your customers’ physical safety

[3] the protection of your physical safety, and that of your coworkers

[4] how you try to maximize value and minimize waste of your organization’s financial resources

[5] the protection of private data of customers and fellow employees

[6] the protection of the environment, both locally and globally

[7] how you strive to promote equality of opportunity and fairness within the workplace

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