Managing Your
Public Risk

January 2000

A Healthy Organizational Culture

Organizations with public safety responsibilities need a healthy organizational culture.  Here are some tell-tale signs of a healthy org:

1. Goals: Public safety objectives and policies are taken seriously, with full accountability. 

2. Plans: Realistic plans consider public safety.  

3. Processes:  Mechanisms exist to avoid conflict between safety and financial pressures.

4. People:  People are respected: those who abandon safety in a crisis aren’t promoted.

5. Communication:  All information meetings are scheduled and structured to ‘stroke’ critical safety information up or down the organization.

6. Inquiry: Everyone and everything is open question.  Honest answers are the norm. 

7. Justice: There is a universal trust and respect for the equitable manner in which justice is administered throughout the org. 

8. Learning:  Successes and failures are captured, analyzed, understood and shared widely.  Failure is seen as a form of learning.

9. Flexibility: The org adopts improvements and drops ineffective or inefficient practices.

10. Hope: Staff have faith in their future and that of their leaders and their organization.

How organizations manage information is a key determinant of their cultural health, says Eastern Michigan University Professor Ron Westrum.   Pathological organizations hide info, shoot messengers, shirk responsibility, discourage bridging, cover up failure and crush new ideas.  Healthy organizations seek information, train messengers, accept responsibility, reward bridging, inquire into failures, and welcome new ideas. How would yours rank?  Would your staff agree?

Since communication is so important to a healthy organization, consider the following principles:

1.       Walk the talk: behaviour is the only real message that gets noticed;

2.       Talk to me: face to face is better than afar;

3.       Tell it like it is: Full disclosure is required;

4.       Honesty is not career-limiting: Those who speak the truth should not fear reprisal;

5.       Don’t shoot the Messenger: candid feed-back is the best way to learn and improve;

6.       Cut the crap: propaganda and spin are out;  messages must be clear and simple; and

7.       Beat the Grapevine: be quick and be accurate.

Murphy thanks his former Transport Canada - Central Region Communication Corrective Action Team, lead by Larry Wright, for finding these pearls and sharing them with us.

Recommended Reading for Risk Managers  

Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents, by James Reason.  This 1997 sequel to his 1990 classic Human Error shows how organizational defenses, erected to prevent losses, can be circumvented or even contribute to a loss.  The world-renowned University of Manchester psychologist addresses the safety culture, including some of the ideas here.


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Mike Murphy spent 17 years (78-96) with Transport Canada, his last five as Regional Director General, Aviation in Winnipeg.  Originally trained as a professional pilot, he is the author of an internationally acclaimed 500-page report entitled "An Evaluation of Emergency Response Services at Airports in Canada," currently in its second revised edition (August 1999) and is undergoing a  third major revision.  He is also the Chairman of the Air Passenger Safety Group (APSG) , a Director of Transport 2000 Canada,  a Director of the Ottawa Chapter of Christian Businessmen's Committee (CBMC) and the Secretary General of the Peugeot Club of North America (PCNA).  

Without abdicating any executive authority, Murphy ran organizations with over 800 employees using an open door, completely candid and ‘zero recrimination’ communication policy. 

(Available in Word 97 by email or by fax from):

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