Many shipping companies and organisations are challenged by employees who do not answer honestly on surveys, self-assessments, performance evaluations, etc. This is the second of two articles that analyse this challenge in a maritime context and dig into means to overcome it.

As concluded in the previous article, Green-Jakobsen firmly believes that an open and trusting culture in a company is the most resilient and long lasting means to overcome the challenge. In order to get as accurate results as possible it is vital that employees answer according to their own perception of things and not what they think other people, superiors or the management want to hear. The previous article described several factors in the maritime industry that motivate what we call social desirable answers. The article argues that honest answers are not only ensured through a good survey design – how you ask the questions – but are strongly depending on the organisational culture in the company.

In this article we will describe the insights gained through the pilot testing of Safety Delta, a tool that supports and promotes safety culture development on board. Safety Delta measures the safety culture and performance on board on the basis of the crew’s answers to a survey. The results are delivered in a report, which is sent to the vessel and the office. Through the report results the crew can learn about their safety performance and identify the safety areas they would need to improve and the skills to be developed. The insights gained through the pilot tests show that an open and trusting culture motivates employees to give honest answers, and it also lays the foundation for a proactive safety culture in the organisation.

Case: Safety Delta pilot test

In December 2015 Green-Jakobsen conducted a pilot test of the survey, which is part of Safety Delta. Four different shipping companies and a total of 17 vessels have participated in the pilot testing. Generally, the results of the test were positive and showed that we are on the right track and therefore ensured us a proof of concept for Safety Delta.

The pilot test also provided a very interesting insight, which we find relevant for this topic: The company culture influences the way employees answer the survey questions.

The company culture influences the way employees answer the survey questions

One of the companies participating in the pilot test had engaged in a year-long collaboration with Green-Jakobsen about making openness and trust key points in their organisational culture. Let us refer to this company as Company 1. Another company participating in the pilot test, Company 2, had not yet had the same focus on openness and trust in their organisation.

When the results from the surveys arrived it showed an interesting difference. The survey score from Company 2, the company with less focus on openness in their organisation, were higher than the scores from Company 1, who had worked on their company culture.

Company 2 – can we trust the survey scores?

According to the results, the vessel from Company 2 shows the highest safety performance. However, based on the insight we have into the different organisational cultures of the two companies as well as the influence that social desirability bias can have on survey answers, we ask ourselves: Does these results reflect the true safety condition on board? Are these results based on honest answers? Or have the answers been biased by social desirability factors?

As part of the pilot test we discussed the report results with the office staff of each of the two companies. Here, it became evident that Company 2 doubted the honesty of the survey answers:

“If I look at the performance of all the vessels, I don’t believe this is the right picture. This is how they perceive their safety culture on board. I’m sure that when we see the results in 2 years, we’ll see it going down and become more realistic. We see the same tendency in our appraisals” (Marine Superintendent)

The office staff in Company 2 are well aware of the challenge related to getting honest answers. They even face the same problem with their appraisal system. The fact that the office staff in Company 2 is aware of the challenge and has a critical perspective on the results is the first step towards developing a culture in their company that is based on trust and openness.

It is important to remember that even though the results are not based on honest answers, they are not useless at all. The results serve as an essential basis for a dialogue with the crew about safety on board: do the results truly reflect the perceived safety performance on board? Do the crew members have experiences that back up or challenge the results? Asking questions like this can start a dialogue and reflections about not only the safety performance on board, but also the importance of giving honest answers.

The results serve as an essential basis for a dialogue with the crew about safety on board

Company 1 – trusting the survey scores and each other

Compared to Company 2 the office staff in Company 1 evaluate their results to be much more realistic:

“I have a notion that they have answered quite honestly (..) and that they reply what they think”.

Company 1 uses the realistic results to evaluate and discuss the safety performance on board with the crew and office staff: what are we good at? What are we not so good at? What can be improved? What should we continue doing? The outcome can be development initiatives that target the vessel’s specific challenges.

What is interesting about Company 1 is that they have worked hard on creating an open and trusting culture. Here are some of their focus areas:

Top management has consistently delivered the message that everything can be said as long as it is done in a positive and constructive way.
During all seminars and conferences, dialogue, discussions and questions are encouraged. All seminars and conferences end with a QA session, where office management answers any questions the seafarers may have.
All seafarers have participated in a sign off survey designed by Green-Jakobsen. The results have been shared with the entire fleet and all seafarers. In this way the seafarers can see that the survey is completely anonymous and that the results are not used to evaluate any specific person. Rather, it is used to identify trends and improvement opportunities in the company as a whole.

These focus areas have helped develop a trusting and open culture in the company, where seafarers feel comfortable expressing their opinion and raising critical points. The outcome of Company 1’s efforts is not higher scores in the survey. The outcome is more honest scores that can serve as an actual, reliable and useful basis for improvements.

The outcome of the efforts is not higher scores – it is more honest scores

Of course there might be other factors influencing the crew’s answers. Factors that an open culture and good survey design cannot help to overcome. For instance, some individuals are simply more prone to giving social desirable answers. Nevertheless, Green-Jakobsen believes that an open and trusting culture is an important factor, along with a good survey design.

Developing safety cultures through Safety Delta

The pilot test case shows that getting employees to answer honestly cannot only be resolved through good survey design; it also depends on the culture in the company.

Green-Jakobsen has years of experience with developing safety cultures via training, development programmes, organisational guidance and direction, etc. The last couple of years we have worked hard on developing a tool that incorporates all our beliefs, experiences and safety ideologies: Let us introduce you to Safety Delta.

Safety Delta is a tool that is designed to develop safety cultures in shipping companies towards increased dialogue, openness, trust, collaboration, safety awareness, and essentially a higher safety performance.

Safety Delta consists of 3 stages: Diagnosis, Dialogue and Development.

The essence of Safety Delta is that it enables crew and office staff to correct poor performance before anything goes wrong. Safety Delta gives crew and office staff insight in the diagnosis of the vessel’s current safety performance. It enables them to share their thoughts, concerns and experiences through dialogue. And finally it supports the development of their safety performance through readily available on board learning material.

The important outcome of Safety Delta is to develop an open and trusting culture on board and in the company as a whole. The key elements are the survey, the report and the dialogue on board and between ship and shore.

The survey is 100% anonymous and the results are shared on board and in the office in an anonymous report format. When the crew experience that they can voice their opinion and influence safety through the survey, they come to trust the survey as a secure channel where they can provide honest answers without negative consequences.

They come to trust the survey as a secure channel where they can give honest answers without negative consequences

The survey results are delivered in the Safety Delta report that is sent to the vessel and the office. The report serves as an important foundation for the dialogue, as it enables crew to see that other crew members can have the same experiences as them. Also, Safety Delta provides several tools to help create a respectful, open and constructive atmosphere during the dialogue. When the crew experience that their input is acknowledged and shared by others, they feel comfortable and start to open up and engage actively in the dialogue.

It is important to note that Safety Delta cannot develop an open, trusting and dialogue-based culture overnight. It takes time and it requires engagement. However, if an organisation decides to engage in the Safety Delta process they will over time experience a change in their safety culture towards increased dialogue, honesty, collaboration, and a shared understanding of safety. This will essentially motivate employees to give honest answers and promote the establishment of a proactive safety culture.

Overcoming social desirability bias

In the two articles we have investigated a common challenge we and our clients are facing: the difficulty of motivating employees to answer honestly on surveys, self-assessments, performance evaluations, etc.

This tendency, called social desirability bias, can to some extent be overcome by optimising the survey designs. But there is no doubt that the company culture also plays a significant role in motivating honest answers, and this is something that takes time and efforts to grow.

A useful help in this process is Safety Delta. Green-Jakobsen believes that Safety Delta can develop a company’s safety culture towards increased openness, trust, dialogue and collaboration. This lays the foundation for a proactive safety culture, and creates a positive improvement process including the motivation for employees to give honest answers.

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Ida Krogh
Ida Krogh
Consultant, Safety Delta Product Manager

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