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Restorative just culture: The missing link to building trust at work?


Dr Gosia Ciesielska of Northumbria University introduces us to the pioneering approach of restorative just culture, illustrating how it can ease conflict, cultivate trust and drive productivity.


6th Sep 2022
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Evidence of restorative practices exist throughout history. Typically, negotiations follow a transgression and are concluded with compensation to the victim and his or her community.

Victims, offenders and their communities are all involved or represented in the negotiations, with the process designed to restore trust between stakeholders, empower those affected, and reintegrate ‘offenders’ into the community.

Originating from the criminal justice system, Professor Sidney Dekker – thought leader and author on restorative just culture – describes the approach as, “a process where all stakeholders affected by an injustice have an opportunity to discuss how they have been affected and to decide what should be done to repair the harm”.

What is a restorative just culture?

Over the past few decades restorative justice has started to be adopted in some workplace practices.

However, only recently has this approach been adopted as an innovative new way of transforming organisational culture, through its ability to enhance people management, support staff wellbeing and, in turn, improve attraction and retention – all whilst saving money and driving productivity.

Building a trusting workplace environment can positively impact the effectiveness and efficiency of any organisation.

Building a trusting workplace environment can positively impact the effectiveness and efficiency of any organisation. But trust is not something that can be won overnight – fundamentally, it requires behaviour change.

Restorative just culture provides a proactive way of dealing with challenges, conflict and issues to find solutions and cultivate trust.

Moving away from a punitive approach

Historically in business, mistakes were often punished through disciplinary processes, which can breed a culture of blame and fear. Restorative just culture creates a new approach and – for leaders and line managers – gives them a new toolset.

It encourages an open, proactive and collaborative way of finding solutions, learning lessons and – perhaps most importantly – sharing those learnings.

Critically, it’s about understanding why an issue has occurred in the first place, as there is often a systemic or underlying problem to resolve. It’s an approach that I believe any business could benefit from.

Building new skills

The key skills required to implement a restorative just culture in an organisation are more aligned to coaching than traditional management techniques. Being able to actively listen, learn and understand the core of a problem, without judgement or blame, is vital.

Self-awareness, emotional intelligence and the ability to embrace change are also skills that successful restorative just culture practitioners should develop and hone.

Bringing business benefits

In the wake of ‘the great resignation’, with an increasingly competitive recruitment market and growing skills shortages across many sectors, organisations can no longer afford to lose key staff.

Workplace stress, bullying and harassment, sickness and absenteeism, outdated disciplinary procedures and poor workplace culture can all contribute to people leaving or losing their jobs.

Restorative just culture empowers workers at all levels to identify challenges and contribute to solutions.

Restorative just culture tackles these issues by building trust and empathy, and by empowering workers at all levels to identify challenges and contribute to solutions.

Once you’ve established a more trusting environment, people will highlight issues early and be confident in coming forward. Senior leaders can then enable and encourage their teams to resolve problems as they occur.

This solutions-focused approach helps managers to support and motivate teams, while enabling organisations to attract and retain good people. It also boosts productivity through the continuous development of more efficient and effective working practices.

Workplace implementation

Putting theory into practice, Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust worked in partnership with Northumbria University to develop its Restorative Just Culture programme.

In the 2022 book, “Restorative Just Culture in Practice”, Amanda Oates, Executive Director of Workforce at Mersey Care Trust; Joe Rafferty, Mersey Care’s CEO; and Professor Dekker, outline the Trust’s transformation, which involved engagement across a complex and geographically wide workforce, as well as with trade unions and staff networks.

Restorative just culture books in front of a Mersey Care NHS sign.

Since 2017, when the transformation began, Mersey Care has successfully seen an 89% reduction in disciplinary investigations and a 91% decrease in suspensions in comparison with 2014, despite the organisation more than doubling in size in the same period.

The Trust has achieved a significant reduction in dismissals and suspensions, leading to a substantial reduction in costs.

During the same period, it has also seen improved staff engagement and safety culture scores, as measured by the national NHS Staff Survey. Their work is ongoing, as their organisation expands, but it is increasingly seen as business as usual and a strength of the Trust.

The future of this pioneering approach

While the development of the theory into HR practice has only taken place in the health sector so far, the team at Northumbria University believe it’s hugely relevant and transferable across many industries.

Since 2017, Mersey Care has successfully seen an 89% reduction in disciplinary investigations and a 91% decrease in suspensions.

We’re currently delivering the programme for a wide range of NHS partners. As of June 2022, 1,100 people have qualified and we’re fully booked until 2023 – demonstrating the level of appetite and interest in this pioneering new programme.

We’re also talking to a diverse mix of organisations about how we can tailor it to meet their business or sector needs. The transferable skills that can be gained and the benefits that organisations enjoy as a result of a restorative just culture are compelling; we’re excited to see how the programme will grow and evolve.

Are you a forward-thinking organisation?

Restorative just culture is just one of the diverse CPD qualifications we offer. We work with progressive businesses across all sectors to upskill and reskill their teams through developing and delivering a host of successful workforce development programmes.

Find out more about restorative just culture and Northumbria University’s wider workforce development programmes.

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