Expectations in organizations
Safety might be a paramount concern in organizations, but what exactly do organizations expect from their members when it comes to maintaining safety? The answer lies in a dynamic interplay of values, programs, roles, and individual characteristics. From lofty mission statements to intricate job descriptions, expectations take shape in both formal and informal organizational structures. Below, I explore these different organizational expectations regarding safety, illustrated by anonymized quotes I collected.
“Valuing safety acknowledges its utmost significance, transcending every decision and endeavor as an underlying thread."
Values represent the most abstract form of expectation formation. They are conceptualizations of the desired outcomes that influence decision-making without providing clear criteria for right or wrong behaviour. Safety is a popular value in organizations. Values are so abstract that they can be easily incorporated into the mission statements of almost any organization.
Formalized values are present in organizations. They can be found in glossy mission statements, expected to be recited by members when prompted, and reflected upon in values workshops. As we delve deeper, we discover the existence of informal values, quietly cherished by employees beyond official declarations. These values shape behaviors that protect colleagues, conceal organizational irregularities, and shield against excessive workloads.
“We hear management say “Safety is our number one priority”, but we also see that workers had to remain on site for 30 hours while the train track was out of service.”
Beyond values, programs provide explicit guidelines for “correct” expectations and actions. They specify the goals and procedures of various organizational processes, allowing members to discern between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. Formal programs consist of the official goals and rules of the organization, specifying how certain work processes should be carried out. These formal programs can be found in strategy papers, goal agreements, work instructions, process manuals, or software programs.
“A health and safety program is a necessary plan of action mandated by occupational health and safety legislation, aiming to prevent incidents and occupational diseases. This program must include the minimum elements required by the legislation, with customization based on the specific requirements and needs of each workplace.”
For example, leading safety indicators are a program element that enables clear differentiation between correct and incorrect behaviour, e.g. a “sufficient” number of activities deemed necessary for safety. Discussion is needed about the usefulness and fidelity of these indicators, but that’s for some other time.
Beneath the formal surface, informal programs also develop, which are not documented in official records. These include locally developed departmental goals that are not aligned with overarching plans, strategic deviations not discussed in official meetings, proven workarounds that adapt formal programs, and established processes that are not described in any manuals.
“I know that management wants us to report more incidents, but when I saw how Susan was treated after reporting an accident on-site, we know not to bother with reporting and just fix what we can fix.”
Roles, performed by individuals, represent bundles of expectations tied to specific positions. The expectations associated with a role can be fulfilled by different individuals occupying that role, but the expectations themselves are not specific to any particular person. For instance, one expects an emergency response officer to come to one's aid when suffering a stroke at work, regardless of the specific person involved. Role expectations are not tied to particular individuals but rather to a bundle of expectations encompassed by a specific role. When considering roles in organizations, formal manifestations are typically the first to come to mind. Job descriptions and specifications are classic examples of formal role expectations, often further detailed through formal specifications and instructions. Hyper-formalized organizations have highly detailed role descriptions.
“The Safety Practitioner role supports the Director of Operations in ensuring the overall safety of the organization, providing expertise and guidance about safety, and promoting and monitoring the implementation of safety measures in the entire organization, including advising on risk management, safety planning, training programs, safety culture, interorganizational coordination, incident analysis and providing safety related advice to the management team and employees.”
Alongside formal role descriptions, informal role expectations also arise. These informal role expectations are not formally documented but exert pressure on individuals to conform to specific behavioural expectations.
“Because the site manager is transferred to another project, you [safety manager] have to take his role.”
Expectation formation based on individuals differs from that based on roles. Intuitively we know that experiences with one person cannot be easily transferred to another individual. Developing expectation certainty regarding individuals requires encountering them in various situations that reveal their unique characteristics. This process is particularly important in intimate relationships, small families, and friendship groups but also manifests within organizations. It becomes apparent that individuals in the same position can behave quite differently, and assessing the personalities of different position holders allows for a more accurate understanding of what can be expected.
“John has a difficult time at home, so we have made arrangements so that he can attend to private matters whenever necessary.”
Expectations directed at individuals may seem challenging to formalize, as they address the person as a whole rather than as a member, so organizations establish which expectations can be directed at individuals and which cannot. Questions about personal quirks, serious illnesses, or future family plans must be justified by formal requirements. Knowledge about individuals becomes relevant in forming informal expectations. Even in organizations where roles are minutely described, individual characteristics shape the execution of roles. While the significance of personal expectations cannot be completely eliminated, even with a perfected organizational operating system, organizations invest considerable time in scanning members for their personal qualities to align their expectations accordingly.
“Steve has a tendency to explode when noticing non-conforming behaviour, so I asked him to attend communication training sessions.”
Expectations regarding safety in organizations are formed through a combination of values, programs, roles, and individual characteristics. These expectations exist in both formal and informal forms, shaping the behavior and decision-making of organizational members.
Knowing how expectations regarding safety are formed in organizations provides insights for improving safety, managing risks, aligning the organization, optimizing performance, and enhancing communication and engagement.
Kühl, S. (2022), Der ganz formale Wahnsinn. 111 Einsichten in die Welt der Organisationen. München: Vahlen.
Luhmann, N. (2000), Organisation und Entscheidung, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.