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Want to Build a High Reliability Culture? Mentoring is Key. Here’s How Coronavirus Can Help

Updated: Feb 2, 2021


  • Many leaders believe that training alone will create a High Reliability culture. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work.

  • Coronavirus has eliminated on-site trainings for now. Everyone is going virtual. In the short term, this hurts.

  • But over the long term, more virtual engagements allow leaders, advisors, and workers to iterate, customize, train, and mentor key staff gradually, over time. This slow-burn, exponential strategy can create a powerful High Reliability culture.

I'm Jake Mazulewicz -- I help innovative leaders in high-hazard industries improve safety, reliability, and employee engagement by giving them better ways to manage error & expertise.


1) What's a High Reliability Culture?

How can innovative leaders in high-hazard organizations improve safety, reliability, and employee engagement all at the same time?

The best answers seem to come from High Reliability Organizations (HROs). (HRO originally stood for High Reliability Organization (a noun), but in recent years some thought leaders have “verbed” this term into ”High Reliability Organizing.” Both terms are in widespread use today).

HROs include: flight deck crews of aircraft carriers, operators of nuclear power plants, air traffic controllers, and wildland firefighters. HROs have evolved a unique network of strategies, techniques, and culture that researchers have gradually revealed over the past 40+ years. To learn more, see Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty by Weick & Sutcliffe. 2007.

As might be expected, four decades of debate coupled with constant pressure on researchers to “publish or perish” has left many thought leaders and practitioners arguing on how to best translate HRO theory into practice.

One conclusion seems to be unanimous. If leaders focus only on training their employees to use specific skills, tactics, techniques, or behaviors, then safety and reliability may indeed improve, sometimes dramatically, but often only in the short term. Gradually, over 1 to 3+ years, leaders who take this path often unwittingly create a ”Person-Based” culture.

In a Person-Based culture, workers involved with incidents or errors get blamed, punished or humiliated so often that chronic frustration, apathy, and disengagement become the everyday norm. Person-based cultures often poison safety and reliability, and can actually increase injuries, and errors. To learn more, see this article by Amy Edmondson).

Leaders in HROs operate quite differently.

Instead of focusing solely on individuals and observable behaviors, leaders in HROs focus as much or more on teams, systems, and culture. For example, when an incident, a near miss, or an error happens, a Person-Based leader might ask, “Who screwed up this time?”

But a System-Based leader might ask, ”Ok, how did our systems lead this person to do what they did, and how can we improve those systems?”

When leaders invest effort over 1-5 years to create this kind of counter-intuitive “System-Based” culture, then workers begin to feel Psychologically Safe enough to re-engage, share non-obvious problems, and ultimately become the single best source of clever, low-cost, innovative process improvements that build safety and reliability over the long-term (3-5+ years). (To learn more, see this).

So, why don't more leaders succeed in creating High Reliability, System-Based cultures?

Because many of them fall into the same trap.

2) The Lure of All-Hands Trainings

“Hi, Jake. I’m Molly. I was in your ½ day workshop last month. My colleagues and I really liked the High Reliability Strategies we learned from you there. Our leadership agrees that we need to create that same kind of High Reliability Culture for all 120 researchers and technicians in our group. We can get everyone together for a virtual “All Hands” training in about a month. Can you lead something like this for us?”

Molly (a pseudonym) was envisioning the benefits of a classic one-time, all hands training. Many of these benefits apply to virtual trainings, too.

All-hands trainings are newsworthy Events. They look dramatic. They feel special. Invitations get sent. Schedules get blocked off. Rock star executives drop in. Dozens of people connect, share new insights and ideas. Participants create a collective buzz that’s almost tangible.

And if the presenter is skilled, they’ll do far more than merely present. They’ll facilitate groundbreaking discussions, reveal fun surprises, trigger “Aha” moments, give everyone a common vocabulary, and create a unique and memorable “shared experience.”

After one-time, all-hands trainings like this, participants applaud. Organizers celebrate. Bosses give accolades. Auditors and regulators smile with approval at the long spreadsheet of names of all those who have now officially “completed” the training.

But Molly’s vision is leading her into a trap. The long-term drawbacks of one-time, all-hands trainings far outweigh the short-term benefits… especially if you want to change culture.

3) Why a One-Time, All Hands Training Doesn’t Change Culture… By Itself

Right now (April 2020), nearly every business in the nation is scrambling to adapt to the Coronavirus. Large group on-site trainings are impossible. And they’ll likely stay off-limits for longer than most of us have ever imagined possible.

But as the initial sting wears off, some leaders are realizing that this once-in-a-lifetime disruption may actually be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Why? Because sometimes, “Big changes are easier to make than small ones.” (To learn more, see Management of the Absurd: Paradoxes in Leadership by Richard Farson. p.109).

As we collectively figure out our “New Normal”, many leaders are seeing three serious problems with the notion of trying to create a High Reliability Culture with one-time, all-hands trainings… even virtual ones.

a) People hate ideas they’re forced to learn

People don’t argue with their own conclusions. The converse of this is also true. Most people stubbornly, vehemently, sometimes rabidly disagree with conclusions that aren’t their own. (My wife assures me that I'm one of them).

When leaders require people to attend a training, they virtually guarantee that some of the most independent, and intrinsically driven employees -- often the best performers and rising stars on your team -- will do the least they need to do to “comply.” Afterwards, they'll rarely do any follow through that they’re not required to do. (To learn more about Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic motivation see, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink).

The result? When leaders make courses mandatory, they often unwittingly drive their best people to hate and criticize powerful, evidence-based High Reliability strategies that they likely would have embraced and applied -- IF they had not been forced to learn them.

b) Changing old habits is way tougher than learning a new skill

“Why do learners so rarely put new insights into practice?” During my first few years teaching adults, I noticed that many learners seemed to put some concepts and skills into practice quickly -- for example learning a new software application or tool.

But those same people could take class after class, refresher after refresher on, for example, a new safety policy, and would never put it into practice. This frustrated and mystified many leaders. It fascinated me. After years of searching, I found out why.

“New insights fail to get put into practice because they conflict with deeply held internal images of how the world works...images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. That is why the discipline of managing mental models - surfacing, testing, and improving our internal pictures of how the world works - promises to be a major breakthrough for learning organizations.”

One-time, all-hands gatherings are great for sharing brand new information, concepts or skills that do not conflict with participants' existing mental models. Alas, many of the most valuable changes needed today, including the advanced High Reliability strategies that I teach, require substantial unlearning of core mental models including those on error, accountability, blame and safety.

c) Strategy flows top down, but Ground Truth flows bottom up

One-time trainings can tell work teams what to do (policy & procedure) and why to do it (strategy). But top-down trainings almost never build enough Psychological Safety for front line work teams to voice honest concerns, or share controversial criticisms, especially how the content of the training conflicts with their existing mental models.

One-time trainings don’t allow nearly enough time -- time for work teams to field-test new policies or strategies in real world conditions -- time for them to discover the real “Ground Truth” about what works and what doesn’t -- time for them to articulate & communicate relevant, crucial, non-obvious organizational weaknesses and system improvements to busy, skeptical leaders.

“A top-down approach may work for a matter of time. While you’re watching, it may work. But, then when that’s not the improvement that you’re watching as closely, people have a tendency to slide back to their old ways. But, if you can go slow and have the people who are actually doing the work involved, it really does help with spread and sustainment because they see what’s in it for them and they want to do it.”

~ Julie Firman, DNP, RN, FACHE, Vice President and System Chief Nursing Officer for Southern Illinois Healthcare in this article

That's why many of the innovative leaders that I respect tend to avoid mandatory all-hands trainings. It's also why a one-time training -- either virtual or in-person -- can be a core element of creating a High Reliability Culture, but only if it's part of a larger plan.

4) What’s the Practical Alternative?

So, how can leaders build a High Reliability Culture for their teams?

A) Apply Classic Wisdom – One profession has already accumulated hundreds of years of expertise in acclimating to new mental models and culture changes.


Thomas Kuhn literally wrote the book on when, how, and why scientists change their core mental models. He called them “Paradigms.” His advice? Don’t challenge the old paradigm until you have a better, evidence-based, field-tested alternative.

Don’t squander too much effort fighting staunch resisters. “You’ll never get to your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” (source). Instead, clarify the long-term benefits of your innovative new culture, and the non-obvious drawbacks of the existing one. Focus on slowly winning the hearts and minds of a few influential change agents. They’re your biggest allies.

As they become committed, enable them to speak to more and more middle-of-the-roaders, especially leaders higher and higher up the corporate ranks. Together, over time, they (not you) will gradually nudge the large majority of open-minded people who are the bulk of your team. (To learn more, see The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn).

B) Leverage Current Events –- The Coronavirus is a gut punch to any business that has traditionally depended on face-to-face engagements. But as an old mentor once counseled me, “If you can’t get out of it... get into it.” So, use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a series of small-group, high-quality virtual engagements over time the “new normal.”

Several months of experience working virtually will help us all rapidly evolve from reluctant amateurs to skilled practitioners. And when Social Distancing gratefully fades into memory, we can surely lead more live, in-person engagements, but only when they add real value, not because “We’ve just always done it this way.”

C) Use a “Consolidation of Subtleties” Losing weight. Earning a doctorate. Raising kids. Fighting the Coronavirus. The secret to succeeding in some of the most complex challenges at work (and in life) is that... there is no one secret.

Instead, most successful complex endeavors -- including building a High Reliability Culture -- result from leaders, workers and advisors orchestrating a “Consolidation of Subtleties” – a coordinated combination of interlocking efforts that reinforce each other to generate cumulative impact far greater than any of them could achieve alone, or even sequentially.

“…the power of these [Coronavirus] interventions will lie in their combination. Test-and-trace will mean that fewer people get infected with the disease. An expanded medical system will be able to heal more patients. And better treatment options will save a greater portion of the critically ill. Each of these measures will amplify the others.

~ Yascha Mounk in “This is Just the Beginning.” The Atlantic. March 25th, 2020.

D) Track Quantitative and Qualitative Results Equivalently --- Tracking progress is healthy and essential, especially over a 2-5 year project. But beware the temptation to over rely on metrics, especially as goals. As Sidney Dekker warns, “What gets measured gets manipulated.” (See p.75 here). An increasing body of evidence cautions us to “measure responsibly” and give context to often misleading quantitative metrics and KPIs by using detail-rich, evidence-based examples, and real world success stories. (See the Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Mueller).

E) Mentor to Build Deep Expertise -- Every leader who gets training for their team inevitably asks, "How do I get my team to apply what they just learned?"

Mentoring may be the best solution.

I've had mentors, and I've been a mentor. Both have dramatically improved my life in ways I could never have accomplished, or even imagined on my own.

A good mentor is part Subject Matter Expert (SME) and part coach. As the mentoring relationship develops over time, a good mentor learns:

  • How to balance listening to you vs. recommending a course of action

  • When to let you struggle to solve a problem yourself vs. when to help you solve it

  • Why you might prefer a comfortable problem vs. a challenging solution

Even the best mentors are fallible. Their expertise, limited. So a mentor's most important duty may be to serve as an independent sounding board. They can help you debrief complex experiences whose meaning is unclear, like a job interview that went south, an unexpected argument with a colleague, or a stressful work project. A good mentor can help you distill the most valuable lessons learned from your raw, hands-on experience faster and more effectively than you could do alone.

In his research on peak performance, Anders Ericsson found that skilled mentors can help clients turn mindless repetition into "Deliberate Practice" -- the key to building expertise in nearly any field.

Does mentoring produce business results? One company that invested heavily in it:

  • Saw retention improve 20%

  • Reduced turnover costs by $6 million

  • Estimated a Return-on-Investment (ROI) of over 900%. (Source 1) (Source 2).

F) Avoid Short Term Temptations. Instead, Play the Long Game -- A thoughtfully-planned series of engagements with small groups (6-24 people either virtual or on-site) over 2-5 years is ideal. Why? It allows you to continually customize your High Reliability strategies and tactics to better and better fit the unique needs of your team as you continually learn what works and what doesn't over time. One-time trainings utterly fail at this.

Playing the Long Game – anticipating, planning for, and budgeting for a 2-5 year engagement -- allows essential time for the most effective High Reliability strategies and insights to “marinate” through the culture gradually, one genuine conversation at a time until leaders and workers can honestly say "These are our ideas."

Playing the Long Game also gives leaders, workers and advisors time to collaborate and compare the inevitable differences between their ideal policies, practices and culture (Work as Imagined) vs. the "Field Expedient" way that most complex high-hazard work actually gets accomplished (Work as Done). The most effective High Reliability teams find ways to sustainably balance the two. (To learn more about Work as Imagined vs. Work as Done see pp.18-19 in this article by Erik Hollnagel).

When leaders consistently apply High Reliability strategies over time, then patterns of cause and effect evolve from fragile threads dependent on a few key individuals into complex, resilient webs of indirect influence that become, “Just the way we do things around here” (aka Culture).

5) Insights & Actions

  • Many leaders want a High Reliability Culture for their teams.

  • One-time, all-hands trainings by themselves feel powerful, but often cause far more problems then they solve, and rarely ever create sustainable culture change.

  • The Coronavirus has eliminated large all-hands trainings for now. This is good since all-hands trainings have three serious flaws anyway.

  • The pandemic is getting us all to lead smaller, less formal, more frequent meetings.

  • Right now, we have a unique chance to use a "Consolidation of Subtleties" to create High Reliability Cultures -- blend teaching with mentoring, accumulate allies and small wins, iterate & adapt, track progress both with metrics and stories, and persist for long enough to see powerful, non-obvious, long-term benefits gradually emerge.


Best wishes to you and your families, friends, colleagues, and clients as we all move through this historic pandemic separately, yet together.

And if you're an innovative leader in a high-hazard industry, then I invite you to take this free quiz, and schedule a free call to explore the benefits of us working together.

Jake Mazulewicz

April 18th, 2020

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