Nuclear psychology and safety culture

In Freud’s theory, the human personality is composed of 3 elements: the Id (subconscious, primitive, instinctive), the Ego (organized, rational, adapted to reality) and the SuperEgo (observer, ideal self, moral guardian). The Ego must meet the demands of the Id while adjusting itself to the external influences, including rules of the society and meeting the expectations of the SuperEgo. The most important standards, expectations and ideals acquired from figures of authority are internalized by the SuperEgo.

In Schein’s theory, the organizational culture is composed of 3 elements: the artifacts (which include „all the phenomena that you would see, hear, and feel when you encounter a new group with an unfamiliar culture”; these include behaviors), the espoused beliefs and values (which are “the articulated, publicly announced principles and values that the group claims to be trying to achieve”) and the basic underlying assumptions (which are tacit, unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs and values that “determine behavior, perception, thought, and feeling”).

A proposed illustration of a relation between the individual and the organization, using the theories of Freud and Schein (as an alternative to the the usual iceberg metaphoric visual representations for Id, Ego, SuperEgo and for the levels of organizational culture). An explanation for the relation between one’s SuperEgo and the espoused values of the organization: A leader in the organization can transfer his/her own values, principles and standards to the espoused values and principles adopted and declared in the policy documents of the organization. These values, principles and standards could then be internalized by the other people working in the same organization.

In the nuclear industry, we use Schein’s model of organizational culture to understand safety culture. One of the definitions for safety culture (“An organization’s values and behaviors – modeled by its leaders and internalized by its members – that serve to make nuclear safety the overriding priority”) refers to internalization. Although nuclear professionals do not usually discuss in detail how this internalization may occur and what is the relation with the leaders as role models, we know that in psychology and sociology, internalization refers to the integration of principles, attributes, traits, values and standards into one’s own identity or sense of self. In psychoanalytic theory, internalization is a process leading to the formation of the SuperEgo.

Knowledge of psychology is necessary for understanding individual and organizational behavior in the same way as knowledge of reactor physics is necessary for understanding reactor behavior (except that in the case of nuclear reactors we have equations, computer codes, theoretical models and reactivity management clearly validated by experience).

I hope you will reflect on this and I invite you to think about how the principles and values modelled by the leaders become espoused values for an organization and about how these can become internalized by individuals at all levels in the organization.

And speaking of figures of authority and their influence, we may think of notable examples from the history of the nuclear industry (like the “Father of the Nuclear Navy”).

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