Corporate Culture Matters: A Lesson from the Gulf Oil Spill
November 11, 2010 ‐ 1 comment
The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling (how's that for a descriptive name?!) has begun to release early findings, and the cultures of the BP, Halliburton and Transocean teams working on the rig feature prominently in its analysis. A "culture of complacency" rather than a "culture of safety" prevailed at the oil rig, the Commission says, leading to a series of poor decisions with disastrous consequences. Business leaders who care about organizational performance take heed. It is notable that the Commission places such weight on the culture of the organizations involved. And while ours is not to ferret out the root cause of this catastrophe, we suspect the Commission is right in its assessment of the culture, because in every organization, culture determines actions and actions determine results. Take BP. Since 2005, the company has received 97% of the 'egregious willful' violations handed out to the oil industry by OSHA. After BP's Texas City Refinery explosion in 2005, investigators 'were absolutely terrified' at the lack of a safety culture. All this despite the company's stated goal of "no accidents, no harm to people and no damage to the environment." We have been privy to safety emails that BP circulates on a frequent basis (without exception having to do with texting while driving, preparing for hotel fires and other quotidian affairs). We happen to know that at least one department begins every single meeting with a safety briefing. And here's an example (with great illustrations, by the way) of the effort BP puts into its safety collateral: As brand and organizational development specialists we believe that communications influence employee decision-making, but not nearly as much as training and incentives do. BP appears not to have understood this lesson. While the company must have some well-intentioned corporate communications staff, communications alone do not a culture make. USAA undoubtedly sends emails, holds meetings and hangs inspirational posters about the importance of customer service, but it's the immersive new-hire process, the higher pay for more highly-qualified candidates and the lack of time limits at their call center that keeps them winning awards year after year. Zappo's may say that 'customer service isn't just a department,' but it's offering new employees a $3,000 bonus to quit if they don't buy into the company's way of doing things that ensures they build a truly committed workforce. Your organization doesn't need to be in the same state of emergency as BP to learn two important lessons:
  1. If you care about performance or results, you need to care about culture.
  2. If you want to influence culture, it takes more than memos and meetings.
And by the way, in a twist so ironic we couldn't have made it up if we tried, BP was a nominee for two federal safety awards at a luncheon to be held one month after the explosion in the Gulf. The luncheon was called off, which presumably extends the reign of the 2009 safety award recipient: Transocean.
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