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Just Culture: Getting the balance right

July 8, 2024

Our consultant James Hayton was recently asked to write an article for HSI magazine on the concepts of just culture and psychological safety. The following is a summary of an interview with James about the topic. If you would like the full article, please e-mail James directly:  

What is a ‘just culture’?

When we say an organisation has a ‘just culture’, we mean that it has an atmosphere of trust that allows all staff to talk openly about systemic issues, and their own errors without fear of inappropriate blame or punishment. To facilitate this, there must be systems and processes in place:

  • A comprehensive and in-depth accident investigation capability, supported by a strong understanding of human factors.
  • An established and explicit process that ensures that consequences for staff behaviours are fair, consistent – and in particular – proportional to the intentions and circumstances that drove the behaviour.

At The Keil Centre, we refer to having a ‘Just Culture’ framework to include both of these elements. 

Sounds a bit like a ‘no-blame’ culture – but people can't just get away with breaking the rules surely?

A ‘no-blame’ culture is different from a just culture. In a true ‘no-blame’ culture, there is never any punishment, no matter what the behaviour, leading to a lack of accountability. This is neither fair nor helpful for accident prevention. A just culture ensures there are consequences for behaviours, but that these are fair, consistent and facilitate a wider process of learning for the organisation. 

There may be times when staff intentionally cause harm or damage, or act in a reckless manner, in which case people do need to be held accountable for their actions. However, defaulting to blaming the individual without understanding why will not help. A Just Culture framework supports a more structured, comprehensive, and ultimately helpful response to accidents and incidents. 

Sounds complicated – why should I bother? 

Yes – to an extent it can be complex. Adopting a Just Culture means digging deeper during investigations; it means not stopping at the individual and their actions but asking questions about the wider system, culture and processes that might have influenced them. In other words, looking beyond the symptoms to establish and address the underlying causes. This can lead to some uncomfortable questions and will inevitably take longer. However, if we don’t dig deeper, we don’t address the multiple contributory factors of the issue and the situation in which the employee found themselves.

Asking WHAT happened, WHY it happened, and HOW OUR SYSTEMS NEED TO CHANGE is far more profitable than focussing in on who did it.

When accidents happen, people often want to find someone to blame – especially when the impact has been costly (financially, operationally or morally) – but those occasions are precisely the times when a more rational approach is needed rather than a knee-jerk emotional response. 

So, is a Just Culture the same as psychological safety?

The two concepts are clearly related: Psychological safety is about creating an atmosphere of trust in which all staff understand they will be listened too, rather than ignored, belittled, or ridiculed for raising issues. A psychologically safe climate can unlock hidden potential within your team. A just culture backs that up with clear rules and processes for dealing with staff in a fair manner when things inevitably go wrong. The two concepts combine to help us improve our learning about accidents and how to continually improve our business.

Ok, I’m convinced – where do I start? 

The problem many of our clients face is where and how to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviours: which should we console, which should we coach, and which should we punish? 

The Keil Centre can help in two ways:

  • We can help you develop robust investigation practices that ensure you understand both immediate and systemic issues within your organisation that are causing accidents and incidents. Our HFAT tool has been used extensively for over 15 years to support investigations – for more info, see our offerings around Human Factors
  • We can also help you develop a Just Culture framework - that ensures you are being systematic and consistent in addressing unsafe behaviours. We work with Safety Departments, Human Resources, executive leadership and others to better understand the purpose, benefits, and pitfalls of implementing a Just Culture within your organisation.

To learn more about Psychological Safety and Just Culture, please contact James at

The Keil Centre has a strong history of helping organisations integrate psychological health and wellbeing considerations into their health & safety strategy.  Find out more about our wellbeing offerings or contact

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