5 Things the Safety Profession Can Learn About Culture from a Chicken Sandwich

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September 14, 2023
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Patrick J. Karol,

It’s funny how some memories stick with us. One memory is of a new restaurant opening at Greenbrier Mall in Atlanta when I was growing up. It turns out, that the new restaurant was Chick-fil-A. Later, as a young adult, I worked within a few miles of the original restaurant in Hapeville, GA, and frequented it for breakfast, lunch, and occasionally a late-night dinner. I’m still a frequent diner today.   Since opening in 1946, Chick-fil-A has grown to over 2000 locations and $7B in annual sales.

It’s a remarkable success story predicated on a culture focusing on hiring, retaining, and sustaining the right people. If you have dined at a Chick-fil-A restaurant, you likely heard the phrase, “It’s my pleasure.” This simple phrase reflects their culture and their investment in their employees. Dee Ann Turner, formerly Chick-fil-A's VP of Talent and currently VP of, Enterprise Social Responsibility, chronicles the development of that culture in her book It's My Pleasure -The Impact of Extraordinary Talent and a Compelling Culture. It is also a great benchmark opportunity for the safety profession. Not because it is about a safety culture; it’s not. But, because it’s about a successful corporate culture that encompasses all levels of the organization and has safety implications every step of the way if we choose to look. I did, and here are 5things I found that we, as safety professionals, can learn from Chick-fil-A.


#1 It Starts with a Vision

Creating a compelling safety culture starts with a vision and a clear purpose for existing. Our vision answers “why” we do what we do. According to Turner, “Knowing why we truly exist helps us succeed at everything we do.” Why do we, as safety professionals, do what we do if not for the benefit, health, and well-being of our employees, and as an extension, their families?

Great leaders don’t lead with fear, but rather with vision, and they share their vision at every opportunity. Unfortunately, fear seems to be joined at the hip to safety: fear of a poor audit score, fear of being caught violating procedures, fear of disciplinary action, etc.

It’s okay if you don’t have a well-defined and honed vision. Most of us don’t, but if you love what you do, show it. Let your passion and enthusiasm shine. People with vision, passion, and a plan are called leaders, and we like to follow them. As safety professionals, we are called to create environments where employees can do their best work without worry of being injured or getting sick.


#2 Practice Servant Leadership

According to Tim Tassopoulos, Executive Vice President, Operations at Chick-fil-A, “Employers of choice add value to team members rather than extracting value. Team members are a gift to be stewarded, not an asset to be managed.” Practicing servant leadership means putting others above ourselves, which comes as second nature to many safety professionals.

Servant leadership means not asking a team member to do something we are unwilling to do ourselves. Have we ever conducted an audit or a Job Hazard Analysis of a task we have never performed? We might consider spending a shift working or at least shadowing a worker at that job before conducting the audit or Job Hazard Analysis.

According to Turner, these are the five critical principles of servant leadership:

·       Don’t expect others to do what you are unwilling to do.

·       Acknowledge the importance of every team member.

·       Put others above yourself.

·       Share opportunities with your team members.

·       Be inclusive; spend time with team members or front-line employees, and seek opinions.

A team’s culture will grow when we model servant-leader attitudes and behaviors.


#3 Nurture an Abundance Mentality

Leaders with an abundance mentality believe there are plenty of opportunities to go around, and actively seek opportunities for themselves and others. This is contrasted with a scarcity mentality, which is prevalent in unhealthy cultures where individual opportunities are viewed as limited, and the success of others is resented.  

Every organization has people who want to contribute, and who want to be a part of a winning team. Those are our allies, our “rock stars.” Do we identify them and offer them opportunities to shine? Opportunities such as leading the safety committee or a safety task force exist in almost every organization. Their success does not limit our own potential for success. Characteristics of leaders with an abundance mentality include:

·       Fostering other people’s dreams.

·       Confidence in their plan and belief that the accomplishments of others do not negatively impact it, but enhance it.

·       Coaching and mentoring others. Sharing time and talents to help others succeed.

·       Optimistic and seeing the best in others.

·       Generous and freely sharing their ideas, talents, advice, and expertise. They are not concerned with who gets credit.

The spirit of an abundance mentality will permeate a team, strengthen the culture, and increase the likelihood of success.


#4 Cultivate a Spirit of Commitment.

At Chick-fil-A, leaders commit to the development and growth of each employee because they understand that a culture of commitment versus command to compliance reaps continuous rewards.

It’s all too easy in the safety world to build for compliance; compliance with federal and state regulations or company policy, compliance with training requirements, etc. Noncompliance often results in disciplinary action and a letter in the employee’s file. A command to compliance works if we are satisfied with a minimum standard and a culture with employees who will not give their discretionary effort. Most employees prefer to work in a culture with a spirit of commitment; commitment to a vision, and commitment to each other.

Cultivating a spirit of commitment requires leaders to take a personal interest in employees and team members, taking time to understand their goals and aspirations, and looking for growth opportunities. When we coach for commitment, employees will actively look for and report hazards; they will look out for each other because we have committed to their development and growth. Compliance is important, but cultivating a spirit of commitment wins their hearts and minds.


#5 Engage Guests in a Compelling Culture

Chick-fil-A’s culture encompasses more than its employees. Every diner who walks through the doors of a Chick-fil-A restaurant can expect to be treated with respect and dignity.

Do we take the same approach with our contractors when they come through our doors? Do we treat them as team members deserving of our best efforts to create a safe work environment, or do we view them simply as a means to transfer risk? “As long as it doesn’t fall on my OSHA log” is a phrase I have heard more than once. I’ve been on both ends and can say I prefer being treated as a partner and can certainly contribute more to the culture and success of that organization in those cases.    

Chick-fil-A has established a compelling culture by growing relationships with employees and guests, one connection at a time. Those relationships are built by putting others first, facilitating opportunities for others, and fostering a spirit of commitment. It can be a successful formula for building a compelling safety culture as well.

If you have gotten this far, you might wonder what this has to do with passing the ASP or CSP. Both exams, particularly the CSP, include questions that reflect current management theory. If this is a knowledge gap for you, we suggest reading ASSP's monthly Professional Safety Journal. Each issue typically has articles on current management theory. If you are not a member of ASSP, either join or get your hands on the previous 12 issues.