The organizational culture drives (safety) performance

February 10, 2024 | by

People generally come together and join forces for a reason. In order to achieve the purpose effectively and efficiently, they create an organization. The sum total of those individuals’ shared beliefs, norms, attitudes, as well as skills is then reflected in the organizational values, vision, goals, systems, functions, policies, procedures and practices. It takes some time for this to develop, mature, and become universally accepted. This can then be loosely said to be that organization’s culture

By its very nature, culture ensures that its members continue to conform to the governing norms, assumptions and beliefs. To make any permanent significant change to the organizational systems, practices, or procedures, one has to modify the culture. Changing the culture is difficult, and it takes a concerted effort as well as time to do so. To some degree, the organization’s culture is influenced by both internal factors (leadership, employees, and their interaction, which creates the work climate) as well as external (business, national, legal, global, etc.) factors. All cultures have specific 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 function and 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 potential stakeholders.

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 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 hold and share about risk, accidents, injuries, as well as 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 interaction and exchange.

Written and unwritten rules of engagement

If you think about it, in every realm of our lives, there are basic accepted 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 the typical work conditions or situations.

Unwritten rules sometimes 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, practices, 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 conduct themselves. 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 achieve goals or succeed, which may be contrary to the written rules, with potentially unexpected or unacceptable consequences.

Ineffective and/or failed outcomes

Although well intentioned, some try to improve safety performance by focusing on the individual employee’s behavior 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 The 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 which produce 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 replicate or copy it. This, too, is doomed to fail because that program was successful in that particular organization due 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 in order to make specific salient modifications to the existing means and methods.

The United Airlines 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 so as to secure preferred seating. The intent was to take away much of Southwest’s business. By 2001 United shuttle went out of business due to failed results. The missing ingredient in this move was the fact that United could no copy Southwest’s culture which was the key ingredient in Southwest’s business 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 production schedule, exceeding stated goals, internal “friendly” competition, individual achievement, teamwork, etc. Subcultures tend to influence people’s beliefs and therefore impact their behavior or action.

Supervisors have a huge influence on how workers feel about their work, management or leadership in particular, and the organization in general.

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 or leadership in particular, and the organization in general. The positive “quality” of this relationship will play a significant role in the employee’s perception, engagement, as well as job satisfaction. Some elements of this relationship are: 

An 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 leadership style that is more participative, facilitative, and empathic supervisors empower their employees to get involved and contribute to the organization’s success.

Empathic communication 

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 who have 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 contribute to its success.

Trusting relationship

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

Feedback and coaching

Research has shown that a supervisor’s ability to provide support and guidance is directly linked to strong employee engagement and enhancing their job satisfaction. Ways to support employees include showing openness and availability by listening to suggestions, soliciting 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.

Challenging work and growth opportunities

Over time some work may become repetitive or boring, This, may tend to demotivate the workforce and adversely affect productivity and/or the quality of the work . Astute supervisors can combat this by modifying the task design, to give the worker greater control, expand their responsibility, make the task more challenging, enhance growth, to name a few options. The supervisors may also provide guidance, solicit suggestions, provide feedback, recognize improved performance, as well as create an open and friendly work environment will foster greater worker involvement.



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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