Who Wants a Good Safety Climate for Christmas?

Human error is the dominant reason for the majority of maritime accidents. One may think that with all the technological innovations from which modern shipping has benefited, the amount of accidents would be significantly reduced. This is, however, not the case.

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The amount of accidents occurring is actually increasing, with one ship per day being lost on a global basis. Reliable and well-functioning technical systems are important, but often not sufficient in order to avoid accidents onboard. The human factor combined with social processes play a decisive role in preventing accidents. Clear goals, open communication, and competent crewmembers often make up the recipe for a good safety climate. But how is such a climate created onboard?

In the field of modern organisational psychology there now exists a school of thought that believes that psychological capital is a deciding factor in developing a good safety climate within an organisation. This autumn, researchers from the University of Bergen commenced research in collaboration with Norwegian Hull Club to explore if crewmembers' psychological capital contributes to an improved safety climate through which accidents and unwanted incidents onboard can be reduced. Perhaps there is a good reason to wish for a good safety climate for Christmas.

What Does Safety Climate Mean?

Safety climate is a psychological phenomenon. This means that we cannot measure it physically, but instead we must rely on subjective or indirect standards in the form of questionnaires or indicators that measure health, climate or safety onboard. Organisation safety climate is usually defined as a snapshot of selected aspects of organisation safety culture at a particular point in time. In this context safety climate is a temporary phenomenon, a momentary reflection of the safety culture onboard. Since the safety climate is relatively unstable, it is susceptible to change and influence, which makes it an interesting phenomenon.

Safety climate is created in the interaction between the organisations' formal rules and routines, the established social systems onboard and the individual. Good communication between the various actors is therefore important to prevent misunderstandings and mistakes that can lead to accidents.

The leader is considered to be the one single factor that has the greatest influence on an organisation's safety climate. The employee's interpretation of the leader's attitude and behaviour in relation to safety is therefore the most used measure of an organisation's safety climate. The captain on a ship has a great deal of formal power and authority and is a central figure in creating a good safety climate onboard. Furthermore, it is very important that open channels of communication are maintained, so it is possible for both management and employees to comment on issues that involve mistakes, made either by themselves or others – mistakes which can ultimately affect safety. In order to create and maintain a safe working environment onboard, it is necessary that the crew have knowledge and skills, and that they are familiar with procedures, rules and regulations. This will provide them with the ability to identify and evaluate dangerous situations or the risk of an accident occurring.

In addition, the crew must also understand what is expected of them and know how to handle problems that affect safety onboard. It is also important that employees accept that they have a personal responsibility for handling situations in the correct way. Accident and investigation reports have, however, shown that both management and employees can underestimate threatening situations, overestimate their own abilities, and have a reduced ability to handle danger. Human errors and mistakes can be caused by failure in one or more areas such as management, communication, motivation, situation awareness, and decision-making. In recent organisational psychology, attention has turned to the significance of focusing on the individual's positive qualities and strengths.
The intention is to further develop these qualities, instead of looking for faults and shortcomings within the organisation.

Why Should We Focus on Positive Organisational

Fred Luthans is one of the pioneers of the positive approach to organisational behavior. He has identified what he refers to as
Positive Organisational Behavior. Luthans emphasises that the employees' strengths and positive qualities must be developed
through their work, and that their shortcomings shall be focused upon to a lesser extent. Within this movement, which 7 is called positive psychology, one aims to understand the adaptive, creative and emotionally satisfying elements of human behavior, and how these elements can generate better productivity and job satisfaction. Bruce Avolio, one of the foremost spokesmen of positive psychology, claims that the majority of organisations are not aware of the potential of the human resources that are to be found in an organisationís social system and within the individuals. Through studying positive phenomena in the workplace and developing these further, better work processes can be developed. This can be done by releasing knowledge and creativity that can result in improved motivation and results in the workplace.

What Do We Mean by Psychological Capital?

Positive organisational behavior is not first and foremost about spreading happiness through an organisation, but rather about identifying psychological processes that can contribute to the fulfilment of goals, and in this instance, a better safety climate onboard. For a psychological process to be included in what we call positive organisational behavior, it must fulfil certain fundamental criteria. Firstly, the phenomenon must be one that can be measured in a reliable and valid way. Secondly, the actual phenomenon must be such that it can be influenced, improved or developed through learning, something which implies that the phenomenon must be related to behavior rather than to a stable personality trait. Finally, research must be available, and it must show that the actual condition is related to improved work performance, increased job satisfaction or increased engagement in work related issues. Fred Luthans refers to the sum of the employees' positive psychological resources as Psychological Capital (PsyCap), and asserts that these resources can be measured and influenced through systematic interventions in the organisation. In other words, it is conceivable that a leader, or others, can influence these conditions in a positive or negative direction.

Luthans et al. define PsyCap in the following way:

PsyCap is an individual's positive psychological state of development and is characterised by:

  1. having confidence (self-efficacy) to take on and put in the necessary effort to succeed in challenging tasks
  2. making a positive attribution (optimism) about succeeding now and in the future
  3. persevering toward goals and, when necessary, redirecting paths to goals (hope) in order to succeed
  4. ability to, when beset by problems and adversity, sustain and bounce back, and even beyond (resiliency) to attain success

The four factors included in PsyCap are: Efficacy, optimism, hope, and resiliency. These factors can be developed and used
to influence an organisation in order to encourage increased performance, and give the organisation a competitive advantage.

  • Efficacy is the confidence an individual possesses. This self-confidence helps you to make the effort that is needed to succeed in your tasks.

  • Optimism is an explanatory style that attributes positive events to personal, pervasive and permanent causes, and negative events to external, temporary and situation-specific factors. Optimism is not just about expecting positive things to occur in the future: it depends on using an optimistic explanatory style to describe why certain events occur, regardless of these events being positive or negative, and if they belong in the past, present or future.

  • Hope is a positive motivation that assists the individual in working towards his or her goals, and to re-evaluate the path to the goals if necessary. An organisational culture that encourages participation and creativity can enhance the degree of hope in the organisation's members. Recent research has revealed a positive connection between hope and performance in the workplace. A connection has also been shown between the manager's level of hope and the performance of the employees.

  • Resiliency is the ability to continue or 'bounce back' from adversity, conflict, failure, or even positive events, progress and increased responsibility.

However, a central question is: how can positive organisational behavior in the form of PsyCap be stimulated and developed
in the employees of an organisation? In cases where there are challenging work assignments that correspond well to the individualís personal and professional qualifications, a strong subjective experience of full involvement in the work processes can be experienced. Motivational psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls this flow. Situations where you become so immersed in your work, that time and place are totally forgotten, are an example of flow. Csikszentmihalyi points out that a lot of people will have problems achieving such flow in their work.

It can probably be difficult, or maybe even impossible, to achieve in certain routine and non-stimulating work assignments onboard. Csikszentmihalyi maintains that the key to flow is identifying with your own role and value your own actions and results in order to be engaged in what you are doing. This makes the leader very important, both as a good role model and as an inspiration.

Authentic Leadership

Authentic leadership has its roots in Greek philosophy, and the expression "to thine own self be true". Positive psychology focuses on this type of leadership, and defines authenticity as the ability to recognise and take responsibility for one's own psychological experiences, and to act in accordance with these experiences. The authentic leader is defined by Aviolio, Luthans & Walumba as: "those individuals who are deeply aware of how they think and behave and are perceived by others as being aware of their own and others' values, moral perspective, knowledge, and strengths; aware of the context in which they operate; and who are confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, and high in moral character".

In order to be authentic, you must know yourself and act in accordance with your inner thoughts and feelings. Authentic leaders develop positive psychological factors (PsyCap) and a supportive organisational climate through experience and stable personality traits. These leaders are excellent role models for their employees. They recognise and value individual differences, and have the ability and motivation to identify talent in others and help them to develop. This does not mean that the leader should be soft and gentle, but rather that he or she should be clear, direct and unambiguous in their meanings and priorities. The authentic leader will expect that each and every employee tries their best to deliver what is expected of them, as this is something he will also demand of himself.

From Authentic Leadership to Safety Climate? 

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As depicted in the above model, authentic leadership can influence the safety climate, both directly and indirectly through strengthening the psychological capital of the employees. When the employees' attitude and behaviour are influenced this way, the safety climate is also influenced. The authentic leader can enhance the safety climate through accommodating positive organisational behavior. There are of course many intermediate variables between authentic leadership and the employees' safety behavior, wherein the interaction between them is complex. Regardless, we can surmise that through his or her ways the leader accounts for a part of the employees' safety behavior.

Can Shipping Learn From Air Transport?

In the spring of 2008 we carried out the first Norwegian study of the relationship between PsyCap and the safety climate among air traffic controllers. The basis for the study was that we assumed that positive organisational behavior would be related to a strong focus on safety within the organisation.

In other words, the study was searching for an answer to whether or not there was a systematic relationship between positive organisational behavior and the air traffic controllers' perception of the safety climate in the control tower.

The study questionnaire was returned by 77 air traffic controllers in two departments. In order to determine the degree of positive organisational behavior, the research team used a questionnaire developed by Luthans, Avolio and Avey; PsyCap Questionnaire (PCQ). An abridged version of an instrument developed by a group of Nordic work climate specialists was used to measure the individual respondent's perception of the safety climate in the workplace. It was revealed that positive organisational behavior contributed significantly to explain the employees' perception of the safety climate. The statistical analysis showed that demographic variables and dimensions in PsyCap accounted for a whole 40 per cent of the variations in the employees' perception of the safety climate in the control tower.

These results confirm that the positive organisational behavior seems to be important for the employees' perception of having a strong focus on safety. It will therefore, in the next phase, be very interesting to test how the connection between PsyCap, authentic leadership and safety climate is within shipping. We hope that the on-going collaboration between Norwegian Hull Club and the University of Bergen can lead to an opportunity to explore this connection in a shipping company that is interested in focusing on safety climate onboard.


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1. Dec. 2008