Organizational Culture Drives (Safety) Performance

Organizational Culture Drives (Safety) Performance

Organizational culture involves a set of assumptions and beliefs that guides customary and traditional ways of thinking.


People come together and join forces for a reason. To achieve the purpose effectively and efficiently, they create an organization. The sum total of those individuals' shared beliefs, norms, attitudes and skills is then reflected in the organizational values, vision, goals, systems, functions, policies, procedures as well as practices. This can then be loosely said to be that organization's culture. The organization's culture develops over time.

By its very nature, culture ensures that its members continue conforming to the governing norms. To make any permanent significant change to the organizational systems, practices or procedures, one has to change the culture. Changing the culture is difficult, and it takes concerted effort as well as time to do so. To some degree, the organization's culture is influenced by both internal (leadership, employees and their interaction) as well as external (business, national, legal, global, etc.) factors. All cultures have subcultures.

Management and Culture

All organizational cultures are somewhat unique to that entity. Organizational culture involves a set of assumptions and beliefs that guides customary and traditional ways of thinking and doing things, which is shared to a greater or lesser degree by all its members. Newcomers are expected to learn, conform and, at the very least, accept the main ideas in order to be accepted into service at the firm. Thus, organizational culture affects the way people and groups interact with each other, as well as partners, clients and with any other stakeholders.

The "safety culture" is a subculture of the organizational culture and therefore constrained and influenced by it. The safety culture may be defined as the truths, ideas and beliefs that all members of the organization share about risk, accidents, injuries and occupational health. An effective safety culture can be described as the corporate atmosphere in which safety and health is understood to be and accepted as an important core value. The safety culture is influenced by actual or perceived management’s actions, expectations, the work environment and leader-member exchange.

Written and Unwritten Rules of Engagement

If you think about it, in every realm of our lives, there are rules of engagement. These rules are either written or unwritten. The written rules tell us how we are supposed to behave in different situations. The unwritten rules reflect the way we actually do behave. They come about as a result of an individual's understanding or interpretation of the written rules, their perception of what they think is expected of them, or their reaction to management's actions, pronouncements, and expectations in order to be successful and thrive within any situation.

Unwritten rules tend to have some undesirable side effects, such as possibly lower productivity, poor work quality, inefficiencies, waste, disruptions, or even accidents, losses or injuries. Think of this as it relates to safety. The written rules represent safety programs, training, etc., which are supposed to be there to keep workers safe. It's the organization's "official" position of how its employees are supposed to behave. The unsafe behaviors may be reflective of the employees' perception of what is expected of them in terms of performance, which may cause them to consciously decide to take risks in order to succeed, which are contrary to the written rules, with potential unacceptable consequences.

Ineffective and Failed Solutions

Although well intentioned, some try to improve safety performance by focusing on the individual employee and the immediate physical work environment. There are many who advocate focusing on safety standards, programs, training, retraining, inspections, incentives and/or punishment in order to accomplish improved safety results. This does have some immediate and short-term effect (see Hawthorne effect), but in the end, all of these interventions are doomed to produce inferior results. This is an unfortunate outcome of the fundamental lack of understanding, leading to an ineffective use of resources with inferior results.

Yet another misguided approach is to try to find an organization that has a successful safety program and/or process and try to copy it. This, too, is doomed to fail because that program was successful in that particular organization with its unique culture, leadership, systems and people. To devise an effective safety process that garners superior results, one has to identify the salient components of that organization's particular culture, climate, leadership, management and employees. They must make specific modifications to the existing means and methods.

The United Story

In 1994, United Airlines launched United Shuttle with the intent of copying Southwest’s business model of offering no frill flights with the added advantage of assigning seats; so, people would not need to come hours early and get in line for preferred seating. The intent was to take away much of Southwest’s business. By 2001, United shuttle went out of business. The missing ingredient in this move was the fact that United could not copy Southwest’s culture which was the key ingredient in Southwest’s success.

Taking a Holistic Approach

If the intent is to dramatically improve safety outcomes, then one has to start with identifying all the other subcultures the safety subculture is competing with. Other potential subculture may include, focus on profits, beating the schedule, exceeding goals, internal “friendly” competition, individual achievement, etc. Subcultures tend to influence people’s beliefs and, therefore, impact their behavior.

Another important factor is the relationship between workers and their immediate supervisor. Supervisors have a huge influence on how workers feel about their work, management and the organization. The positive “quality” of this relationship will play a significant role in the employee’s engagement, as well as job satisfaction. Some elements of this relationship are:

  • Empowering Management style

The supervisor's management style can make or break an employee's engagement and how they feel about their job and the organization. If employees perceive that their supervisor is overly controlling or micromanaging their work, they are much more likely to become disenchanted and actively disengage. But by fostering a style that is more participative, facilitative and empathic, supervisors empower their employees to get involved and contribute to the organization’s success.

  • Communication and Empathy

Multiple research studies have confirmed that some of the strongest drivers of employee engagement is ongoing direct supervisory communication, coaching, feedback as well as empathic listening. Supervisors with positive relationships with their employees are twice as likely to encourage engagement than those who have negative ones. Supervisors who take an interest in enabling their employee’s growth and success gets them to actively care about their organization and its success.

  • Trusting Relationship Supervisors who have a positive working relationship with their employees gain their trust and are perceived as honest and authentic. Employees arrive at this conclusion if they believe that their supervisor is good at his/her own job, words match actions and whether he/she has gained the respect of peers and managers in the company. Those who take an active role in developing employees and who actively recognize contributions, reap the rewards of a trusting and engaged workforce as well as the recognition of his/her own managers.

  • Feedback and Coaching Research has shown that a supervisor's ability to provide support and guidance is directly linked to strong engagement and job satisfaction. Ways to support employees include showing openness and availability by listening to ideas, holding regular discussions, both formal and informal to give employees a chance to feel safe to express thoughts and creating opportunities for growth and development.


An important consideration is that organizations exist in an ever-changing business environment. Successful organizations are able to identify or, better yet, predict possible future changes and factor these eventualities into their overall operations. Therefore, to stay competitive, organizations must anticipate and respond to multiple external and even some internal drivers of performance. The organization must be a "learning" one if it expects to continue being successful going forward. This applies to their production, quality, safety as well as customer satisfaction and loyalty. All their processes practices and procedures need to be aligned as well as integrated into the business and operational systems as well as aligned with organizational business goals to contribute positively to the bottom line.

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OH&S Digital Edition

  • OHS Magazine Digital Edition - June 2022

    June 2022


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