Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Perception and Reality

In our October 18, 2010 post on how perception and reality may factor into safety culture surveys we ended with a question about the limits of the usefulness of surveys without a separate assessment to confirm the actual conditions within the organization.  Specifically, it makes us wonder, can a survey reliably distinguish between the following three situations:

-    an organization with strong safety culture with positive survey perceptions;
-    an organization with compromised safety culture but still reporting positive survey perceptions due to imperfect knowledge or other motivations;
-    an organization with compromised safety culture but still reporting positive survey perceptions due to complacency or normalization of lesser standards.

In our August 23, 2010 post we had raised a similar issue as follows:

“the overwhelming majority of nuclear power plant employees have never experienced a significant incident (we’re excluding ordinary personnel mishaps).  Thus, their work experience is of limited use in helping them assess just how strong their safety culture actually is.”

With what we know today it appears to us that safety culture survey results alone should not be used to reach conclusions about the state of safety culture in the organization or as a predictor of future safety performance.  Even comparisons across plants and the industry seem open to question due to the potential for significant and perhaps unknowable variation of perceptions of those surveyed. 

How would we see surveys contributing to knowledge of the safety culture in an organization?  In general we would say that certain survey questions can provide useful information where the objective is to elicit the perceptions of employees (versus a factual determination) on certain issues.  There is still the impediment that some employees’ perceptions will be colored, e.g., they will discern the “right” answer or will be motivated by other factors to bias their answers. 

What kind of questions might be perception-based?  We would say in areas where the perceptions of the organization are as important or of as much interest as the actual reality.  For example, whether the organization perceives that there is a bias for production goals over safety goals.  The existence of such a perception could have wide ranging impacts on individuals including their willingness to raise concerns or rigorously pursue their causes.  Even if the perceptions derived from the survey are not consistent with reality, it is important to understand that the perception exists and take steps to correct it.  Questions that go to ascertaining trust in management would also be useful as trust is largely a matter of perception.  It is not enough for management to be trustworthy.  Management must also be perceived as trustworthy to realize its benefit.   

The complication is that perception and reality are pulling in different directions. This signifies that although reality is certainly always present, perception is pulling at it and in many instances shaping reality. The impact of this relationship is that if not properly managed, perception will take over and will lessen if not eliminate the other attributes, especially reality.

It would suggest that a useful goal or trait of safety culture is to bring perception as close to reality as possible.  Perceptions that are inflated or unduly negative only distort the dynamics of safety management.  As with most complex systems, perceptions generally exist with some degree of time delay relative to actual reality.  Things improve, but perceptions lag as it takes time for information to flow, attitudes to adjust to new information, and new perceptions take hold.  Using perception data from surveys combined with the forensics of assessments can provide the necessary calibration to bring perception and reality into alignment.

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