Alliance Manchester Business School - AMBS
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The coloured fins of the Alliance Manchester Business School building

David Holman, Lina Siegl, Sharon Clarke

Professors and Lecturer in Organisational Psychology

Safety Culture

Regular assessment of culture is essential in high reliability industries.

A research team from AMBS and the Thomas Ashton Institute has completed a major study assessing the culture at the Office for Nuclear Regulation, the UK’s nuclear industry regulator.

In high reliability industries, and particularly the nuclear sector, a healthy safety culture is paramount for the maintenance of the safety of workers, the environment, and the public. But this is not just the case for nuclear organisations, but also for their regulators.

Commenting on a major AMBS study assessing the culture at the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), project lead and report co-author, Dr Sharon Clarke, Professor in Organisational Psychology at AMBS, said: "Incidents such as the nuclear power plant disaster at Fukushima in 2011 in the wake of a major earthquake off Japan, and the more recent fatal crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, have highlighted the important role of the regulator and the need for periodic assessment of cultures within regulators.

"ONR commissioned us to carry out its first ever independent assessment of its internal culture. Being seen as an effective regulator is key to its ability to influence nuclear licensees and subsequent achievement of its mission, namely to protect society by securing safe nuclear operations. We were pleased with the openness with which we were met by ONR staff throughout the assessment."

ONR study

For the study, the team interviewed ONR staff and external stakeholders, ran focus groups, carried out a staff survey, and also sat in on internal ONR inspections and industry meetings. Based on this analysis, it then developed a cultural model which identified the underlying beliefs, assumptions, and values at ONR. The team found many positive aspects to the culture, but also that these lead to challenges for ONR.

A key finding was the central role of reputation in ONR’s culture. Dr Lina Siegl, Lecturer in Organisational Psychology at AMBS, and report co-author, said: “Having a strong reputation as an effective regulator is important, as it helps when working with and influencing nuclear licensees. But our report also highlighted some potential downsides of seeking to protect ONRs reputation and avoidance of reputational damage.

"We found a consistent and high level of commitment to the achievement of ONR’s mission amongst all staff. Technical expertise is highly valued and while this contributes to its reputation and achievement of core aims, the high levels of commitment combined with technical expertise could lead to striving for perfection, and consequently, long working hours."

Dr David Holman, Professor in Organisational Psychology at AMBS and a fellow report co-author, added: "A focus on protecting reputation can result in a risk-averse approach that slows down change, particularly when applied to internal processes."

Another key cultural value was independence and, although this is critical for effective regulation, the report found this may make it difficult for external stakeholders to collaborate with ONR, which can impact its ability to achieve its mission.


The report found that a predominant style of leadership in ONR is based on consensus. A consensual leadership style can be effective, as creating consensus leads to ownership and buy-in. However, achieving a consensus can be time-consuming, thereby slowing the pace of change.

Dr Holman added: "Consensual leadership gains buy-in, but leaders at ONR must also be responsible for driving change in the organisation." In addition, the achievement of consensus can sometimes stifle debate, as people are afraid of challenging the status quo.

The report concluded that of ONR's espoused values (supportive, open-minded, fair, and accountable), only 'supportive' clearly emerged as an enacted value that was reflected in both internal and external behaviour. ONR's remaining values were less well embedded, particularly from an internal perspective, but were apparent externally.

Areas of focus

Mark Foy, ONR’s Chief Executive and Chief Nuclear Inspector, said: "We commissioned this study with the aim of understanding what we do well and where there is a need for us to improve, and it is pleasing that our staff feel we are a supportive organisation.

"While the study confirmed positive features expected of a regulator, it also identified important areas where we need to focus and do better. This was always our expectation for such a comprehensive self-reflection exercise, and we are already progressing a range of initiatives to collectively influence the changes that are required.

"Work such as this is vital to ensure we are an adaptable and inclusive organisation, a key enabler as we strive to achieve our vision to be a modern, transparent regulator delivering trusted outcomes. We thank the team at AMBS for their diligent and skilful work on this assessment of ONR’s culture."

Featured report

Culture assessment of the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR)

Our major study of the culture at the UK's nuclear industry regulator.

Read the report

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