Kickstarting Your Safety Culture

Several years ago, I sat in the office of Howard Shultz of Starbucks. We were doing some research for a project, and I was on the team. All that to say, it was not my meeting, but I got to be there.

One of the questions the lead of the project asked Howard was “what is your biggest fear as a CEO?” His response, “being able to keep Starbucks’ culture alive and well in the stores as they expand.” His concern was that the more stores they added (and the faster they expanded), the harder it would be to preserve Starbucks’ culture and unique coffee buying experience he had cultivated in the first stores.

In 2000, a few years after the interview, Howard stepped away as CEO and Starbucks started to lose its luster. Some say they expanded too fast. Others say they it was because they entered into new and different products and got away from its core. Howard would say it was because of the dilution of the culture. The experience in the Starbucks stores opening at that time he was away was far different than the ones when he was CEO. The focus was on efficiency and operational excellence and not on customer experience.

Howard came back in 2008 and dedicated his life to restoring the Starbucks brand by reviving its unique culture. He even chronicled his journey in a book Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul. In 2017, Howard finally felt he had everything in place – specifically the right people on the bus – to be able to step down from CEO. But he spent 9 years grooming the right people and putting them in the right places before he did.

What is the definition of culture?

Here is where we dig out our friend Mr. American Heritage Dictionary to help us. (Yes the actual book, not online.) This friend will be very useful to us throughout this book. There are multiple definitions of this word, as there are for all words in the dictionary. The interesting thing about each is how the latter ones grow from the former. See what we mean.


  1. The behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought expressed in a particular community or period.
  2. Intellectual and artistic activity and the works produced.
  3. Development of the intellect through training or education.

NOTE: These definitions are for the word culture, not for the term corporate culture. Is there any difference? None whatsoever.

In definition 1, you replace the word community or period with company and Walla! In definition 2, the works produced (results) of a company. And in definition 3, the intellectual capital of a company. We are especially fond of definition 3. It holds the key to corporate culture and more importantly to corporate culture change.

We could spend the rest of this book discussing the intricacies of culture in more detail, but one of the Top 10 reasons you bought this book is because it wasn’t going to be a Harvard edition. The brief description above is all you need to know. However, to effectively change a culture, as in your case of building an experience culture, there is a little more you need to know. The people in your company right now are the ones you want to become more service oriented. What’s the secret before you go any further? You must involve the whole employee in an experience culture.

John Parker Stewart, in his work Team of Champions, relates it this way; “with a paycheck, you earn the hands and feet of the employee. But for them to perform safely, you must capture their hearts and their heads.” Truer words have never been spoken. How many times have you said to yourself after a poor performance, “My heart just wasn’t in it?” If you are like everyone else in the world, way too many. This supports Stewart’s and my point. You must have the hearts and heads of your employees if you ever expect them to take safety seriously.

It is a fact that a great percentage of your current employees come to work simply looking for the easiest route to a paycheck. These employees look to give the least amount of effort possible to get by. Truly this is their motto— “to get something for nothing.”

A group of scientists were performing an experiment with mice. (I know this is a shock and hard to believe, but it’s true.) They took a mouse and dropped him into a beaker full of water to see how he would react. The little mouse swam furiously trying to keep its head above the water so it could breathe. Eventually, the mouse’s legs tired and he stopped struggling and simply sank to the bottom. The scientists pulled the mouse out of the water, dried him off and put him back in his cage.

The next day, they took the same mouse and placed him in the beaker of water again. This time the mouse swam, and he swam trying to keep his head above water, but not as long this time as he did yesterday before he finally gave up and sank to the bottom. It’s now the third day – same mouse, same scientists, and a same beaker of water. They dropped the mouse into the water and guess what happened? The mouse sank straight to the bottom. He had learned that there was no reason to go through the entire struggle and pain of trying to keep his head above water. In essence, the mouse had learned that if he would just sink to the bottom, they would take him out, dry him off and it would all be over. If it takes a mouse three days to learn he can get something for nothing, how long does it take people?

Let’s face it. You have a workforce with lots of hands-and-feet people who are looking to get something for nothing. In most cases, it’s simply because no one has ever tried to touch their hearts and heads. They have spent their adult lives “getting by” looking for the path of least resistance. But what about yourself? Have you always been a go-getter? Or is there some point in your life when someone got to your heart and head that made the difference in who you are today? Take a couple of minutes to think about this point really. You could, in fact, be that person for the employees in your company.

A corporate culture is a living, breathing part of your company.

There was a scorpion that happened onto a river on his journey home. Being a scorpion, he couldn’t swim across the river, so he needed help. The scorpion spotted a frog sitting on the edge of the river. He approached the frog and asked him to let him climb on the frog’s back and ride across the river.

“I can’t do that,” said the frog. “You are a scorpion! You will sting me!” “I won’t sting you, “said the scorpion. “If I did, I would only be hurting myself because if you drown, so do I!” The frog thought it over and finally agreed. The scorpion climbed onto the frog’s back, and they started across the river. Halfway across, the frog felt a painful sensation in his back. The scorpion had stung him. “I can’t believe you did that,” said the frog. “Why? Why did you do it?” asked the frog going down for the last time. “Because I am a scorpion,” he replied, “and that’s what scorpions do.”

What is the moral of this story? You must accept the fact that your corporate culture is a real entity, not just a buzzword. The definitions given above can be cold and well, “dictionary-like.” Once you have accepted the fact that your corporate culture is a living, breathing thing, then and only then can you initialize true change in your organization. You must realize that your culture has a heart and a head and that you must deal with both. The scorpion in this story is your current culture. Your warning is not to claim victory with your experience culture change initiative too early. On the outside, the scorpion convinced the frog (management in this scenario) that he was all for change and would not practice old habits. But the further across the river (culture change) the frog and scorpion got, the harder it was for the scorpion to accept this “head” decision and he started to follow his heart and stung the frog.

You will get stung continually unless you accept the fact that true culture change is much deeper than a few rules and policy changes. It goes so much further than dressing casual and calling everyone by his or her first names. You must get to the heart of the culture and change it there.

The Five Key Elements of a Corporate Culture:

What are the key elements of a corporate culture? Well, there are five to be exact. These five represent the heart of your culture and are where you must begin your change. The first two represent the visible parts of your culture – those things that your employees can easily see. The last two represent the “unvisible” part of your culture, and the middle one is on the fringe since it has elements from both sides.

You will recall that our definition of “unvisible” was “things that are not seen but are there if we look for them.” Invisible means you could never see them. Unvisible means you must look for them because they can be seen if you try hard enough; they are there. In the world of culture change, it is the “unvisible” that will crash your bus more than the visible.


This one is pretty simple to figure out. How do your people behave on a daily basis in their roles? What we have on paper and what we do are two various things. As we all know, actions do speak louder than words. But in culture change, it is not only the verbal but the non-verbal behavior as well.

How do your people react to a crisis? How do they celebrate? Do they celebrate? Do they work as a team? Do their behaviors value the customer experience? Do their behaviors value the employee experience? Do their behaviors value the stakeholder experience? The behaviors in your culture are fairly easy to see and decipher although sometimes you will have to decode some of the behaviors.

Behaviors also manifest themselves in our dress, the quality, and timeliness of our work, even the amount of time we take for lunch. People react differently to different situations. You probably have a much different behavior set for when you attend church than when you are at a friend’s house. Or compare the way you act at work versus the way you act at home. How do they differ? Your behaviors are congruent with the culture or situation you find yourself in at the given time. Culture does not make you schizophrenic, but it does affect the way you behave.

When I was working as a lead consultant for a Fortune 50 tech client in Texas, I experienced a corporate culture like none other. The amount of productivity and work churned out by the employees was remarkable. The problem was work-life balance non-existent. It was an extremely stressful place to work. In fact, if you didn’t have two meetings scheduled for the same time you were not working. The behaviors of the employees celebrated the overworked and criticized the person who simply had one meeting at a time.

Earlier I mentioned that the non-verbal behaviors are just as important in culture as the verbal. This is especially true in an experience culture. How many times have you been waited on by a salesperson or service provider and could tell from his or her non-verbal behavior that they didn’t want to be at work that day?

I was checking out at a Lowe’s Home Improvement store one time, and the lead cashier came over and spoke to the cashier waiting on me. Whatever the conversation, the cashier was not happy. She turned around and began ringing up my items. The entire time she was whispering to herself and shaking her head. You could tell she was upset and it affected her ability to provide a remarkable customer experience. In fact, I had one item under the cart on the rack, and she said to me, “well, are you going to pull that out or not?” Nice.


This is where the traditions of your culture come to life. We are story-formed people. Even before we could write, we would tell stories. Folklore got its name from the stories people used to tell around the campfires at night. The elders would gather the village together and tell them of their history – their origin. Where did they come from? Why are they where they are today? What do they stand for? Who were the heroes of their people? It was the only way the information was passed on. There were no books or digital cameras, and it was centuries before Al Gore invented the Internet.

Just like the stories of the elders, your company has its folklore as well. It is told every day in the break room, at lunch, on the phone to customers, in the interview to prospective employees and on and on. See if any of these sound familiar.

“Be careful, Brayden did that one time, and it cost him his job!”

“Our founder built this company working 16 hours a day; I think an hour of overtime won’t kill you!”

“You know when I was in your position; we didn’t have computers.”

“You know when I was your age, we had to walk to school in 12 feet of snow!”

“Well, that’s just the way we have always done it around here.”

What are your traditions? Don’t know? Try some of the ones above. Is there an urgency addiction in your culture? This was Stephen Covey’s (7 Habits of Highly Effective People) term for people who actually loved the overworked life. You know the type; they always eat lunch at their desk with a sandwich in one hand typing email with the other.

Does everyone complain all the time because they are always putting out fires? Is everything last minute? Who are the heroes of the workplace? Are they the ones with the highest sales or the best customer experience? This one is tough because your executive’s or manager’s heroes and your hourly people’s heroes are probably two very different people.

Do you want to know why people don’t know who the heroes are in their company? Because it’s not part of the process! It is never discussed in training. It is never discussed in meetings. There are no bi-monthly celebrations to brag on your people. As a matter of fact, in most companies, the tradition is to get together once a year for the obligatory Christmas party, and that’s it. Then the employee has to endure a speech on how valuable he is to the company. Do you think they feel valuable if this is the case?

When I use the term folklore, I am describing a way to tell your company history and background that relates to the hearts and heads of your people. If you show the PowerPoint slides or the 80′ x 100′ color, glossy portrait of the founder to everyone as part of their indoctrination into your company, you are asking them to give you their hands and feet. You must reach them – relate to them! Tell them stories! Stories like your grandparents did, or the elders did in early civilizations. Instead of saying, “The Grandiose Company was founded in 1943 by Ben. He got the idea from people watching at the fair.”

Try this on for size instead. “It’s July 17, 1943, and Ben is standing on the stairwell overlooking the midway at the county fair in Everett, Texas. He had been noticing the way people were continually fanning themselves with their tickets while they wait in line. And then suddenly it hits him. What if you could make a fan that was small enough to fit in the palm of your hand? A woman could carry it in her purse, and it would be battery operated. Excitedly, Ted ran back to the office and started drawing up the plans for the Hand Fan, our first ever product at Grandiose. And that tradition of the invention is what drives us still today.”

Notice the difference. It was like you were hearing a story about someone instead of hearing a lecture. Do you know the other reason people loved to sit around the fire and listen to the folklore? It made them feel like they were part of something. Everyone wants to feel like they are part of something. In a later chapter, I will talk about the fact that people draw the majority of their self-esteem from their job. Why? Because they want to belong to something – something special.

How do you tell your employees about your traditions or your folklore? What stories do you share? We live in the ATM generation; they need to be entertained. Walt Disney once said, “I would much rather entertain someone in hopes of training them than to train someone in hopes of entertaining them.” Walt had the right formula and so can you.

What traditions do you want to be present in your experience culture? Celebration? Recognition? Integrity? Care? Passion? Teamwork? Risk? Are your people afraid to step out and take a chance? If so, it’s an example of the tradition in your company. And the traditions are carried from one department to the next from one employee to the net from one generation to the next through stories – through folklore.


Communication within your experience culture is not about reaching an agreement with your employees; it’s about reaching an understanding with your employees. The communication element of your culture can be divided into three parts. They are the:

Vocabulary of your company

Language of your company

Internal and external communication of your company

1. Vocabulary of your company

Your culture’s vocabulary is the terms you are adopting to create uniqueness among your experience team. This is a very important step because it is an obvious sign that things are different. Perhaps you want to call everyone cast members like Disney or Team Members like Target Stores. Whatever you decide, it must be based on your culture’s theme.

A culture’s theme is the metaphor you are using to describe the behaviors, values, communication, folklore, and beliefs of your culture. This is the trendy part of culture change that is not necessary but highly recommended for the visible reason listed above. Be careful not to go too crazy with this step. Use terms that your people can understand and will accept. Also, if you are “theming” your culture, there is no need to use the terms from the metaphor exactly.

For example, in one culture change for a conference center we worked with, they selected a movie studio theme. The term for coffee breaks and snack foods in the movie industry is “craft services.” We elected not to use this term because everyone thought they were getting Popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue on the tray instead of coffee. You can see that the confusion this caused was negative and detracted from the customer experience. However, it’s important to note that much of your new vocabulary will be confusing at first. This will take time. DO NOT make the mistake of starting out with one term and changing it to another. This is the easiest road to failure.

2. Language of your company

The language of your culture relates to the way you talk to one another. Especially in the computer or SaaS industries, acronyms and slang terms are prevalent. People quickly forget that the rest of the world has no idea what they are talking about. Things seem so simple to us, but they are very complicated to others. Be careful to make sure that your terms or slang are eliminated. How we talk to each other is how we will talk to the customer.

When I used to sell electronics, there was always a pitch at the end for an extended warranty. We had a one-year, two-year or three-year plan available for each product. Around the water cooler, we referred to the three-year deal as the “full boat” warranty. This was our little way of saying we got the maximum money from the customer. It was no big deal until one day when I overheard one of the new guys saying to the customer, “Well, my recommendation is that you get the full boat warranty!” Isolated incident? Hardly. Eliminate the short-cut terms in your culture that can confuse and destroy your service excellence and give the customer a poor experience.

Another way to look at the language of your culture is to check for colorful adjectives when people speak. Swearing shows a lack of professionalism and respect and, just as slang terms can make their way into conversations with customers, so too often do these four-letter words.

Also, the volume at which your language is communicated tells a lot about your culture. Too many people practice the deaf principle today. You know this one. It’s when we speak louder to someone who is deaf as if that will help him or her understand you. Many managers think that the only way to emphasize their point is through yelling. There is never a need to raise your voice in an experience culture unless you are cheering. In fact, if you do, the “experience” is a bad one.

3. Internal and external communication of your company

One of the first stops on your culture change journey is to define your company’s product. The challenge will be when it comes to communication of the product. How do you communicate it to the public? The biggest mistake a company can make is when they try to wear two faces – one for the public (external) and one for the employee (internal). For example, at DisneyWorld, employees are called cast members. This is what they call them to anyone they talk to. They do not apologize for their culture. They may have to explain themselves a few times a day when communicating with the outside world, but that’s okay. It reaffirms the culture’s identity over and over.

This was a lesson we learned the hard way. One of our first real culture change projects was to open a new retail concept with existing people from an old culture. We gave them Disney and, in so doing, used the term guest instead of the customer. We went about creating this culture and were derailed when the upper, upper management said, “You cannot put the word guest on a sign! It will confuse everyone!”

So, we were required to use the word customer everywhere it was to be external, but they were kind enough to let us place a guest on all of our internal communication! The result was utter confusion. The cast members (employees) were so confused because all their training taught them, guest, yet when they entered the “real world” it still said customer. We spent 80-100 hours training every new employee before we opened the doors to each location. It was our version of brainwashing, and it worked marvelously until internal became in conflict with external. (By the way, the signs eventually changed to guest.)

Another company we worked with wanted to convey their newly defined product of “style” (more on “product” to come) to the world. So we renamed the sales associates Style Consultants. At first, as is usually the case, the people thought it hokey and resisted. But through time, a sense of pride and the true meaning of the word “style” evolved in this culture. People shopped at this store because the people are called Style Consultants. And the quality of employee attracted increased as well. This company effectively “programmed” style in the position and it worked magically.

Programming is what determines your culture, and there is no greater form of programming than how your employees see you interact with the public. If you tell your employees that in your new experience culture they will no longer be called employees, but will be called team members, then you better carry that all the way through if you expect it to stick.

What do we mean by all the way through? EVERYTHING better reflect this new term.

The last important note on communication is when and how. How often do you get the whole company together to celebrate accomplishments and discuss the business? Understandably, if you are a business with 300 locations nationwide this is difficult to do, but how often do each of the locations get together? You should plan to have a meeting for all of your employees twice a month.

In this meeting be prepared to discuss the following in no particular order:

  • Financial data (How well are we doing. Be honest! In a later chapter on the younger generations you will see why.)
  • Goals (Where we are in relation to our goals. Talk about company safety goals here, not departmental. Keep them focused on the big picture.)
  • Folklore (Continue to tell the stories of your company.)
  • Celebrate (Give out awards and recognition for those who deserve.)
  • Announcements (What’s coming up in the future.)
  • State of the Union (What is the company up to?)

If you are trying to build an experience culture, then you better make sure the front-line employees are involved in these meetings. You are trying to get your employees to be of service to each other as well as the customer. Your people see your face often enough. Let the peers tell the stories and give out the information. This will communicate a very strong message for you. Newsletters and social media are great communication tools. We will give you more hints on how to use these in the chapters on “Awards and Recognition” and “Culture Council.”


The first element of the unvisible category of culture is the values of your culture. Values provide a sense of common direction among the employees of the company. This is the start of your company’s identity. The values you adopt will determine the behaviors you witness every day from your employees. What does your culture value and hold dear? Is it hard work? Is it precision? Is it getting the deal whatever the cost? Is it family? Is it the customer experience?

Every company we talk with preaches the customer as one of its values, but usually, this isn’t in place in the culture. It is enough to know that the word value in this context is exactly as you thought – a principle, standard or quality thought of as worthwhile.

Remember our tech client from the Behaviors section? This culture uniquely valued time. Checking your email at midnight was considered proper work style and often expected by managers. Earns you props with your boss, though definitely not a favorite activity of your spouse.

You will come to understand that what your culture values will ultimately determine the behaviors of your employees. And you also need to know that the reason we put values in the unvisible category is that in my experiences what the owners think the values of the company are and what they employees actually value are very different.

Here is where safety is most impacted in a culture. Do you truly “value” safety? Or do you just give it a once a year safety fair treatment. You know the ones I’m talking about that are more focused on getting stamps at the booths or tables to get the free ice cream sandwich than actual safety. I have attended many of these safety fairs and been very disappointed. After all, if the purpose of the event is to improve the safety and wellness of the employees, then the employees understanding of safety and wellness would increase as a result of the event – and not rarely does that happen if safety is not a value.


Whereas values are words that relate worth to us in our culture, beliefs are the principles or strongly-held convictions of the culture. If you are paying close attention to each of these explanations, you are starting to see a pattern or “cycle” develop. This is known as the culture cycle. The culture cycle delivers the theory that your beliefs (since they are “strongly-held convictions”) come before your values (which show “worth or regard for something”) and the behaviors of your culture are born from the beliefs and values.

Beliefs actually go deeper than values since they are formed before the values because what you believe about something determines its value to you. For example, if you believe in God, then your value system reflects a creator and deity you worship or serve. If you are an atheist, then your value system will be different. You will draw more of your values from human sources (books, the internet, etc.) versus the Bible.

All five culture elements will intertwine with each other. They are interdependent. You cannot attack one of the five and expect any level of success. The culture cycle is an important fundamental yet to come in your culture change training.

The previous was an abridged excerpt from the book Culturrific! by Matthew Hudson, PhD – author and Chief Experience Officer at Work Wear Safety Shoes.

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