The Safety of Work

Ep.33 Can institutional logics help us move beyond safety culture?

Episode Summary

On today’s episode of Safety of Work, we discuss whether institutional logics help us move beyond safety culture.

Episode Notes

We use the paper How Logical is Safety? to frame our discussion.





“There’s some real challenges with the way that we’ve applied organizational culture and safety culture in our organizations.”

“They tried to look at how the participants were explaining or justifying their own behavior, to see if these explanations matched with the logics.”

“[Institutional logics] not something that you capture on a survey at a single point in time. It’s not something you change with a cultural intervention program.”



Episode Transcription

David: You're listening to Safety of Work Podcast episode 33. Today, we’re asking the question, can institutional logics help us move beyond safety culture? Let's get started. My name's David Provan and I'm here with Drew Rae. This week we’re going to jump straight into our discussion. Again, Drew, what's today’s question?

Drew: David, I'm glad we’re jumping straight into the discussion because I think we're going to spend longer explaining the question than we are talking about the paper we have for today. Shoutout to Kevin Jones and his Safety of Work blog who drew attention to the particular paper that we are going to talk about. I think it drew your attention, David, because it has a very similar title to one that you and I have had half-written for two years now.

David: Yeah, about that, it was originally going to be the fifth chapter in my PhD but we realized that we probably only needed four to get it across the line. It's been sitting there maybe three quarters done for a few years.

Drew: Listeners might remember from some of our previous episodes that there's a body of literature that is tangential to safety called institutional work. David and I are both fans of using this. In fact, we used it as our model for Safety of Work versus The Safety of Work which gave the title for this podcast. The central idea of the institutional work theory is that it doesn't make sense to think of organizations just as things that emerge from the individual behavior of all the people inside the organization, but it also doesn't make sense to think of organizations as these big controlling things and we’re just stuck inside them.

Instead, we need to realize that a lot of the work that we do as workers is about building, maintaining, changing, or tearing down the institutions that we work inside of. Even though the most interesting parts are obviously when you build, tear down, or change, most work that we do is really just maintaining an institution that we’re a part of working within. That's roughly what institutional work theory is about.

There's a related discipline in organizational studies called institutional logics. Institutional logics and institutional work are sometimes parallel and sometimes competing ways of looking at the world. If you compare them to other theories, they seem very, very similar. If you compare them to each other, they're quite different and the scholars within each one have lots of arguments.

The key difference is, whereas institutional work pays attention to small dynamic details of organizations, institutional logic tries to pay more attention to the broad, fixed ideas, and structures that guide and constrain the work. David, we've both read a fair bit about institutional theory, and you used it in your paper. Did ever sort of make an explicit choice between whether you're going to use institutional work or institutional logic as the main theory?

David: Yeah. I think my decision sort of evolved because I was really fascinated by the practice of safety professionals. The work, the task, and the activities that safety professionals were performing, how that was driven by their organization, and how much of that was driven by themselves. That really lends itself to an institutional work type of theory. But then once I got the data, I started really being curious about what was driving the thought processes of safety people in their organization, and that's where I started reading a lot of institutional logics theory.

The downside was that I already had my data collected. To do that institutional logics theory justice, I would have to go and collect a whole lot of data from a whole lot of people also in the organization, not just the safety professionals, to understand the logics, the logic multiplicity, and all these other terms that we’ll talk about shortly would have made me go back out into the field and getting information from managers, workers, and other professionals in the organization to deal with the institutional logic more fulsomely.

Drew: That certainly seems to be one of the distinctions between the two approaches to institutions. Institutional logic people tend to look at management structures and lots of management documents in order to get their understanding of the institution. Whereas institutional work theorists tend to focus on frontline people and how they make sense of and operate within the institution.

David: Yes. Both flavors or both institutional theories provide us frameworks to understand how people think, how they make decisions, and how they behave in institutional and their organizational settings. Right now, I think some of our listeners are going to be thinking, well, isn't that just culture? Isn’t that just organizational culture? Isn't that just a safety culture? How do people think, feel, and behave within the organization? I suppose my short answer to that is, well, yes and no.

There are papers in the literature which talk about how institutional logics and organizational culture are very similar concepts. There are papers within the literature that talk about them as very different ways of looking at the world. I think safety culture is a particularly confusing space. Drew, I'm going to make a few comments about safety culture now, and then I'm really interested to hear your perspective on it.

I think the problem isn't necessarily so much with the theory of culture because cultural theory has been around for nearly 100 years. It's being used to look at different civilizations and different cultures all around the world. One of the challenges is when we think about culture as this normative thing where there are certain categories of cultures and certain ideal cultures. I think the difference between the way that we think about safety culture in organizations and institutional logics is that when we take an institutional logics perspective, we're trying to be very descriptive. We’re starting with a blank piece of paper and we’re just saying, how do people think? We're not trying to put them into a curve, trying to put them into a ladder, or try to put them inside some other box. That's the first thing.

I think the other thing is that organizations are quite artificial. You've been in your family all your life or you might be born into a particular ethnic background, but you also might change organizations every six months. How much does that organization have to become part of you in a deep cultural sense? This is where I struggle with the approaches to safety culture in a lot of organizations, where we’re actually trying to think that we’re changing the values of an individual as opposed to thinking that organizational behavior is just more of a rational choice.

I think there are some challenges with cultural theory. There are some real challenges with the way that we've applied organizational culture and safety culture in our organizations. I think that institutional logic just gives us a whole fresh start without thinking about what's driving people’s actions.

Drew: I think you're absolutely right that safety culture has a lot of baggage that doesn't even necessarily come with the theory. It just comes with the way people have used the theory for so long. That we do need even something that might technically be correctly called culture. We just need a fresh way of looking at it to get rid of some of that baggage. Particularly, both the value judgments and the beliefs about how changeable and manageable it definitely needs to be set aside.

I would like to throw in through, this is a direct quote from Tammar Zilber who is one of the institutional theorists. This is him explaining the difference between what is reality when you're looking at an organization and what is the perspective you're using to look at reality. He says, “There are neither institutional logics out there in the world, which we are trying to capture and explain, nor is there any institutional work. Rather these are analytical perspectives that allow scholars to perceive and discuss certain phenomena. And while at this, there are no institutions in reality. Institutions, institutionalization, institutional logics, institutional work are but scholars’ modest attempts to organize and interpret some complex, ambiguous, and evolving events, actions, meanings, and experiences.”

I think you can easily just substitute in safety culture and safety climate, and add them in as well as institutions and institutional logics. Culture and climate aren't real-world things. They're perspectives that we bring to look at the real world. That's why often some of these theories seem very similar because they're trying to explain the same real-world things. It's not that we’re thinking there are institutional logics, there are cultures, and what's the difference between them, they're both just different lenses we bring to look at organizations with. You think of them as a pair of glasses that you put on to look at an organization, not a property of the organization itself.

David: I think our listeners might gather that we’re not probably big fans of the way that organizations approach their safety culture work broadly, as a broad generalization. Are there other problems with safety culture that you see that might provide another reason for us to move forward?

Drew: We talked a little bit about the problems for organizations trying to manage safety culture. I think it's also a problem for researchers. Safety culture isn't asking, it's not giving us interesting questions to ask. I think you've experienced this, too. If I pick up a paper and it's got safety culture in the title or in the abstract, my eyes start to glaze over because I already know most of what it's going to say. 

Sadly, I already know most of the mistakes the authors are likely to make. I know what their conclusion is going to look like. There's very little chance of it offering something new. If it is generally new, my immediate response is, why did you call this safety culture? Because you're talking about something different. Whereas every time I pick up a paper that’s got institutional theory in, it's got something interesting and different to at least ask a question even if it doesn't have a good answer to it yet.

David: Yeah, thanks, Drew. Just a shoutout to researchers whose finding out the editorial board is Drew sitting on before you submit your paper with culture in the title. Early in this paper, an author says something that I totally agree with. They say that in a lot of our safety theories that accidents are attributed to some sort of irrational or out of the ordinary behavior of individuals. We find ourselves in hindsight asking the questions, why did the person do that? Why did the engineer design a system like that? Why did the operator behave like that?

The author is saying that calling a behavior irrational is basically just an admission that you don't understand the context in which the behavior occurred or that you don't have concepts available to explain it. I think that's where cultures really struggled with, just not providing us with a framework to understand why things work the way that they do inside organizations. 

Drew, we're going to take some time to explain institutional logic, hopefully not too much because it is a big, big body of work, but it's important to the study that we're going to talk about. The way I conceptualize institutional logics is to start with what I think is one of the most important concepts in safety which is local rationality, which is what we all know is why did something make sense for someone to do something the way that they did it or acting a certain way, or make a certain decision. This definition of local rationality goes something like, that behaviors and decisions at a given moment are based on their knowledge perspective and understanding people have of the situation at that time. That situation is the work in front of them as well as the organization that they're sitting within.

I think before we got into the broader definition, we might simplistically think of institutional logics as just some kind of shared local rationality. How does that sort of idea sit with you?

Drew: I think that makes a lot of sense because if you think of local rationality as the behavior at a given moment, then you got to understand what is the broader picture that gave rise to that knowledge and perspective at that moment. It didn’t just come out of nowhere. It came from patterns of thinking, patterns of behavior, and patterns of making sense that led people to make sense in this particular time, in this particular way. Otherwise, if you just think of it as a spontaneous sense-making, then you lose all opportunity to predict or influence it.

David: Yeah, I like that because that's what we're really for in proactive safety. We’re really about understanding these patterns as best we can in a complex socio-technical system, but understanding these patterns as best we can so that we can influence and predict what might happen next. 

The more formal definition of institutional logic is the socially constructed historical patterns of material practices, assumptions, values, beliefs, and rules by which individuals produce and reproduce their material subsistence, organized time and space, and provide meaning to their social reality. There are a lot of words in there. I'm not sure I even got them all outright. Basically, it's a combination of the individual’s experience, this situation, and the sense that they make out of the situation that exists within.

Drew: That produce and reproduce is very much the type of language that sociology scholars like to use to sound more academic. But in this particular case, it is really important because it gives you the sense that this isn't just something that you do once. This is a pattern that you repeat over and over. 

One that particularly springs to mind is Karl Weick’s look at the Mann Gulch Disaster. One of the things that he uses in talking about that accident that no one else does is he says, look, you can't ignore the fact that this is just after a World War. These are all young men who come out of the military, and this is the way that they trained to think. It's that produce and reproduce. You can't ignore how people have been trained to think and you can't ignore how their organization trains them to think, by the way the organization routinely thinks about things.

David: I think that's a good stepping point to be really practical here for our listeners. When we say produce and reproduce, we mean my behavior in an organization is going to be influenced by how I think the organization wants me to behave. When I behave like that, I'm going to see how the organization responds to that behavior and that’s going to either adjust or reinforce the way I did behave or adjust what I did. But then, my behavior is also going to influence the way others perceive the world as well.

As you said, Drew, about social theory structuration talks about, that structures shape behavior and behavior shapes structure. We might just stop there before we start a whole new podcast. One of the things about logic is that life is never simple in organizations and there's lots of different logics and (I suppose) influences all decision-making behavior, some things that line up nicely but lots of things that compete and contradict each other in the organization. We’ve talked about production versus safety and things like that.

The paper introduces this idea which they don't really use in the analysis too much, but they talked about this idea of the multiplicity of logics. This is that basically different people or different stakeholders in an organization rarely have the same sets of logic, or rarely consider the same behaviors as rational. We would have heard of this in safety a lot, which is something that happens at an operational level in the business, and then when it gets played up to senior management, senior management is aghast that people could behave like that within their organization.

Behaviors are seen very differently and in very different parts of the organization, which lets us think that logics can also be very different for different groups in the organization. I think this is an important benefit of institutional logics approach as opposed to a cultural approach, which says that the organization has a culture like this, and doesn't really distinguish too much between different groups of people.

Drew: We've been poking around for a bit, but it's probably time to get to the core question for today. The paper is basically just trying to take this institutional logics idea and apply it to some data that the authors have collected, and to see whether it helps make sense of it. That's really the question that we wanted to ask as well which is, can an institutional logics approach help us to understand things that might be invisible or unclear to us when we use ideas like safety culture instead? Do you want to introduce the paper, David?

David: Yeah. The paper for today is titled, How logical is safety? An institutional logics perspective on safety at work. I love the title, Drew. You're usually the best at coming up with new titles, but this is a good one. Unfortunately, I'm not sure when we get to the end of the research, has it really answered that question of how logical is safety, but it's a great title nonetheless.

The authors are Pieter A. Cornelissen, Mark Van Vuuren, and Joris J. Van Hoof. They're all from the same department at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Drew, you did a bit of digging into the authors.

Drew: This is the PhD work as far as we can tell of the first author. The other two authors are both professors in the department of communications. With the exception of the first author who has clearly got an occupation in health and safety interest, these are not safety scholars. Their emphasis is on communication and organizations. But I don't think that's particularly relevant when it comes to credibility for this particular paper. What they're doing is taking some well-collected frontline data, and then they're appropriately applying institutional theory to try to make some new sense out of that data.

The paper is published, by the way in a journal, that I've never heard of before. David had encountered a couple of papers from it. The journal is just called Work, the one word. It's a respectable journal. It's published out of the Netherlands, its small, low volume of papers going through it, but some of them are like tiny gems. They're really quite interesting. It was published in June 2020. It just came out.

David: Basically, the data from this, from what I can tell, the author is saying in the paper that the data was reanalyzed from a larger study, which is kind of what we're doing with the draft paper that we got sitting there on this topic.

It looks like during the first author's PhD studies, they collected a whole lot of interview data and as part of that, they decided that they could use that data to try and understand these institutional logics. The interviews were of 22 supervisors, all within a single organization in the railway construction and maintenance industry. [...] service provider to the Dutch railway, something like that from reading between the lines. 

All 22 participants were male, all were at least 40 years old, and their time in the company ranged from 3–37 years. It's one of those things when you're going to a single organization, looking at a specific role, you tend to get a fairly homogenous sample, Drew, and the authors recognize this in the limitations of the paper.

What the interviews contain is, they're semistructured interviews and we've talked a bit about that before. In fact, in episode 30 where we talked about our own research into the professional identity of safety professionals, we talked about that. 

What they had was a series of questions like, "Can you tell me about the day to day activities of your work? And how many people do you supervise? What role does safety play in your work? Do you ever experience tensions between safety and other organizational demands? Does it ever happen that other demands get prioritized over safety?"

It doesn't look too many more questions other than that and they just had a really open ranging conversation that lasted between ¾ of an hour and 1½ hours from these 22 interviews. That's a pretty big data set, that 22 hours of interview data is a big set of data.

Drew: It's certainly as much as you would expect for a study of this type and the fact that it's homogenous doesn't have to be. It's a limitation in one sense, but it also means you're getting away from characteristics that might be defined by the individual and in these patterns that you start to see, you can start saying these patterns are clearly from the organization that they're part of and the work that they're doing all together.

You've got to make a trade-off. You got a bunch of totally different people in which case you see a very little pattern or you got a bunch of people who are the same and you start seeing the pattern emerging. 

That's exactly what they're doing in the analysis, is they were trying to match patterns of institutional logics that they took out of some existing theory and they tried to look at how the participants were explaining or justifying their own behavior to see if these explanations match with the logics. 

We won't go through all seven of the logics because they really only found three of the seven and maybe we'll talk about those as they came out of the data.

David: I think directly relevant to safety, they talked about market logics and this is the broader logic of the industry and the environment that the organization sits within so it relates to contractors, clients, industry and so on. That's what they call market logic. 

Then, they have this professional logic so as a group of supervisors, you need to think of your profession as the occupation or the profession then the logic is held by that profession or occupation. Then, the corporation or the company level logics which are the ones that I suppose are more consistent across the organization and more driven from senior management in the organization.

This market, profession, corporation type of sets of logics. They had a fair amount of data in relation to these three broad categories of logic and we might go into each of these three, then we can talk a little bit about what it might mean. 

When they talk about the logic of the market, this broader context for the company and for safety within a company, this is where it becomes important to go back to noting that institutional logic’s perspective is a very descriptive perspective. There's no right and wrong. There are no categories. It's just saying what are the logics in the market and starting with a blank piece of paper.

For this company, within this context, they were an organization contracting to a state rail authority. That state rail authority had a cultural certification in place, which meant that preference was given to contracting companies that were (I supposed) certified against this cultural system and they got preferential treatment in bids. This led workers to have this motivation to work safely to keep their job because if they work safely, then they could maintain this certification which means that their company would win work and they would keep their job.

At the company level, it led to competitive tenders reducing by 40% because the people who weren't certified were discounting their bids to compensate for the fact that they weren't getting their preferential treatment, which led the whole market to reduce basically their bids overall. This led to the contractors winning work at a reduced amount, which led to greater tension between cost and safety because the company was then having to push workout for a much cheaper price. 

In that narrative and discourse about the market, you can see how logic is quite complex within organizations. That's just the market logic and how it was driving the behavior of managers, supervisors, and workers. We see how we never get that nuance out of our traditional responses to culture surveys and things like that.

Drew: I think maybe there's a couple of different ways we can look at this. One way is to oversimplify it a bit and just say they're using market logic, in which case you put it in a bucket and say the explanation they are using is to do with the competitive relationship. They have to do with these trade-offs between cost and safety. They're justifying decisions based on cost, therefore market logic.

The other is to say it's not just a bucket. It's going to be different for each organization. So this particular organization, you got to spell out all of those things to understand what market logic is. If someone is having a conversation about safety in this organization and they're drawing on the market logic, they're going to be drawing on all of these background factors, as arguments they've had before, as conversations they've had before, as reasons they've made previous decisions. All of that is your background context when they have a conversation about, will it be cheaper to do it this way or that way? 

David: I agree and knowing that nuance means (like you said) patterns and predictions earlier in just telling people to spend more in safety or just telling people to behave in a different way without understanding and addressing the underlying logic is something that doesn't necessarily help you make a change in your organization or support people better in your organization.

The logic of the profession, this is the subgroups of roles in an organization. This is not that dissimilar to episode 30 where we talked about the professional identity of safety professionals. We could draw or both say that within that data was a lot of insight into the logics that were held by the safety profession in that organization, in that study.

But inherent to supervisors in this study, they used their professional expertise to prioritize safety over conflicting organizational demands. They're relying on themselves to make those decisions. They actually are quite clear and open that they prioritize work over following standard working procedures. 

They took their value and they also built their reputation on getting the work done. They didn't build their reputation or their value in the organization as following standard working procedures. It's about getting stuff done which is why they relied on their own professional expertise to balance all of the different organization demands. Then they basically just said that it's up to them and their workers to make skilled and independent judgments about what is safe and what is not. 

This was really clear that the logic they're applying was not one of compliance or following standard working procedures. It was about expertise and decision-making. This is where we start to see the logic of the profession like workers and supervisors running counter to what we're about to talk about next which is the logic of the corporation.

Drew: I think we need to read a little bit between the lines to fully know what people mean by some of the things they're saying here. My interpretation is that we're getting statements like people deciding that particular rules aren't really safety rules. The interesting thing is that's an acceptable thing to say. 

To say that I'm experienced. I understand the work. I am able to say that this rule is not actually there for the sake of safety so I don't have to follow it, whereas this rule actually is important so I do have to follow it. That's an acceptable ongoing conversation in the organization about what rules do and don't count.

David: Yeah, you're right, Drew. I was going to say this little bit later, but it makes sense to talk about it now. There was a really good quote towards the end that I like and the authors then reinterpreted it. It basically talked about this interface between the profession logic and the corporation logic which I know we haven't spoken about yet, but it basically says the company expects supervisors to get the work done. 

Professionals know that getting the work done relies on them basically making a translation from the general rules of the organization into an approach that fits with the specific situation. In doing so, they're always likely to deviate from or violate these corporate requirements, therefore they'll violate some of the corporation logics.

But what the supervisor say is that it's accepted by the organization that these occur and it's even expected by managers that they'll make this happen as long as things go well, but when things go wrong, the managers then defer to this corporation logic to protect themselves and talk about the rules that should have been followed. 

This is where we start with the institutional logic theories to get into a deeper level of understanding of the way the organization functions. It’s probably long for this podcast, but you can see how these conflicting logics and then how it ties back down into trade-offs and decisions and then based on the outcomes how it reverts back to different types of logic is quite fascinating and is also quite complex.

Drew: This is something I would love to understand and investigate further because it's beyond what's in this particular paper, but it's almost like there's one logic that is acceptable for making decisions. There's a totally separate logic that's acceptable for writing down. So, the way you can justify decisions in a conversation with a supervisor is using things like market pressure and needing to get things done, and the supervisor can answer back with their professionalism using their experience. That's an acceptable conversation, but the recorded version or the version at the disciplinary hearing is the logic about making safe choices and following the rules. 

David: Yeah, very much so. Drew, that logic of the corporation, basically they were talking in this paper or what came out of the quote in this paper is that supervisors take up their responsibility to help their employees make safe choices. In this case, there's a quote about a supervisor calling out senior managers and saying, “My workers aren't going to work because we don't have the resources we need to work safely.”

There was a really strong logic in the organization about supervisors taking up their responsibility to support their workers. In this case, also, there was a strong logic at play where employees didn't have to deal with higher managers and the feeling was if employees couldn't get supported by their supervisor and they had to go to a high level of management, they may be more willing to sacrifice safety because of the negative consequences of cost and production by going to a high level of manager. However, managers also use their hierarchical power to request actions from supervisors that conflicted with safety that was beneficial for market positioning. 

I need you as a supervisor to get this done cheaper or I need you to get it done faster for the client. When you look at the intersection of these logics of the corporation which is to make money, follow rules, defer to hierarchy, and the logics of the profession which rely on ourselves and deviate when we need to to get work done, you can see how that tensions and tradeoffs can exist and without actually taking the effort to understand how these logics are at play at an organization, you can understand why you couldn't make progress on improving the functioning.

Drew: I'm just imagining, for example, taking the logic of the market with the broad history of the organization and arguments that don't just happen in a single meeting, but arguments that have taken place over a couple of years happening over and over again as this pressure increasingly mounts, as the competitors keep undercutting, as the market position gets more precarious.

Just imagining someone walking to a meeting, nice and fresh in their brand new [...] saying no amount spent on safety is too much, and just what a numpty they would look, just how out of touch with the rationale and reasoning that drive all of the real decision-making. 

David: Yeah, I think you can try to make an argument. I'm not sure how you'll feel about this, but Diane Vaughan's ethnography into NASA was really a study in institutional logics over eight or nine years. What do people think in that organization? How do they behave? And why does that make sense?

Drew: It's not something that you capture on a survey at a single point in time. It's not something you change with a cultural intervention program.

David: For a case study, Drew, like you said about the conversations in an organization over years and years, it will be fascinating to look at institutional logics case study of Boeing over the last five years or so, just how those decisions get made, the conversations that occurred, and why things were done the way that they were.

I'm not sure how well their discussion landed in terms of presenting those findings, but you got (I suppose) some insight into the way that the data showed the logics at play at a market level, the logics at play within the supervisor profession, and the logics of the company. Then the authors talked I supposed only superficially about the relationships between these logics. How does market logic relate to professional logic? How does professional logic relate to company logic? 

I would have liked to have seen them spent pages talking about all those tradeoffs and relationships, but it probably came down to a limitation of data because like I said earlier with my research, they only had the supervisor's data and to really do that justice, they would have to go and speak with senior managers. They would have to speak with workers. They probably would have to speak with clients and so on to really make sense of that, but it really does give a taste for how potentially useful this framework and theory of institutional logics could be for people to diagnose their organization.

With a couple of conclusions, Drew, from the paper. We might just go through. I think we got three or four then we'll go into practical takeaways. The first conclusion for the paper was that institutional logic explains why people hold the views that they do about safety. It doesn't just tell you what these views are, but it helps you say why people have the views that they do. 

The authors conclude that they've shown how you can take data from even a relatively small data set of 22 interviews and you can use that to uncover some normally easily overlooked differences between the different rationales that people employ to justify their own views about safety. 

Drew: I think that's absolutely right. I'm not sure whether we're moving to practical takeaways here or just conclusions, but I think the authors were trying to make the point that institutional logic can be applied here. I think they have definitely made that point. They've shown that they can produce statements about logic which are easily defendable from the data and which are useful statements to make about the organization.

David: Yeah, and I think they also show how this competition between organization goals plays out in the form of decision making. They talk about how different members of the organization in the study can hold competing expectations about goals and clear guidelines about which goal should prevail. This organization that they talk about encountered extensive conflict because of the differences between the market, the profession, and the corporation logic. It went on to talk about how much conflict existed within that organization that could jeopardize safety. 

I suppose if we think about all of our own organizations where we got teams that aren't working well together or parts of the organization different levels that aren't align, then this study can provide the insight that it probably got completing professional logics, or different understandings of the corporation's logic, or different interpretations of the corporation's logic that are creating the tension and the conflict between the groups in the organization.

Drew: The final conclusion which is one that I disagree with myself—it's a good transitioning into our own takeaways—is they say that if you understand the institutional logics, you can predict the amount of conflict and where it's coming from, which means you can then do something about it to reduce the conflict presumably by aligning the logics and making sure that the people are operating with the same logics. The reason I disagree is I'm not actually certain that's a good idea.

David: I think in the background theory it's funny when we think about alignment and how many in an organization is the goal. It talked about having a dominant or a singular logic and core alignment behind it. It's actually going to reduce an organization's ability to innovate. It's going to reduce the sustainability of the organization. It's going to cause a lot of problems in terms of the functioning of the business if there's just a really simplistic gain aligned with a clear view. Is that what you're talking about, Drew?

Drew: Yes, the idea that sometimes actually maybe I want other logics to be available and people who champion those logics to be able to come out of the woodwork and start to challenge when lines of thinking go in a particular way.

David: Let's go to practical takeaways, Drew, and I'm hoping that for listeners who think we might have been a bit theoretical in this discussion or talking about institutional logics and the application to safety seems to be far removed. Let's try and help make things very practical. I think the first practical takeaway for me is spending the time in your organization to know what's driving your safety-related decisions.

You say here, please don't fall into the trap of thinking it's hearts and minds. How much do my people know about safety? How much do I think they care about safety? Institutional logics will show you that any behavior and any decision in your organization is a symptom for the way the system is designed and functions.

Drew: I think one useful takeaway is those three logics that they drew out in this particular paper. Think about the logic of the market you're operating in, think about the logics of the professions you're operating with, and think about the logics of the company and the organization. A sort of good category is to look in to think about those different histories, conversations, and drives.

David: I agree, Drew. I agree completely. I think as part of that understanding this shared local rationality at all levels of the company. Why do decisions and behaviors make sense to workers? Why do they make sense to the supervisors? Why do they make sense to managers or executives? Don't judge them based on your viewpoint and they're going to be different.

I remember one project we did with an organization where we went to look at an incident that occurred. We asked about five or six different crews about it because the way that work was being performed was heavily criticized in the initial incident investigation. We went and asked a whole lot of different workgroups, five or six of them, about does it surprise you the way that this workgroup is working?

All the other group said nope. I fully understand why they made those decisions. That was really clear. The pressure they would have been under from this or that and the resources they have available. That's exactly the way we would have done it. Then we went to the supervisors and said does this surprise you? Most said a little bit, but I can see why they might have felt the need to make that decision like that.

Then we went up to managers and they said, yeah, absolutely surprised me. They shouldn't have done it like that, but I can understand that they might have made a mistake or something but surely no one else will do it like that. Then you get to senior executives and they fall off the chair which is like how could anyone possibly think that's the right way to behave? 

What we found was there was this linear thing that the further you get away from the frontline of the organization, the more gasps people respond to the behavior itself. I think what I wanted to use as a practical takeaway is that different things are going to make sense to different people in the organization. The best thing a safety person can do is not judge any of that and the same way down. Why is he always behaving the way that he or she is? You have to ask. You have to find out. You can't just judge it.

Drew: You'll know if you got it right. If you have an explanation that makes them sound like the good guy. You haven't successfully explained local rationality if you've explained things in terms of they just slipped up or they made a bad call. It's got to be an explanation that actually would genuinely defend that person, shows that you really understood what's going on.

David: Yeah. There are a few [...] quotes through this paper and one of the actual quotes in the paper is people don't turn up to do a bad job. People don't come to work to do a bad job and I think that's a reflection of what you're saying there which is if you can understand why a person did something and it wasn't because they're trying to do a bad job or be a bad guy, then you probably got an explanation. If you can play that explanation back to the person and they can say yeah, that's right. That's why I did that, then you're probably pretty close to the logic.

Drew: The final practical takeaway that I wanted to throw in is that institutional logics gives us a good way to think about influencing organizations. There are two scales we can work on. One of them is we can actively try to change the logic. That is a really really long-term endeavor. That requires gradually inserting new language, gradually introducing new ways of talking about things, new conversations to have about decisions. Plays out over three, four, five years of you constantly talking about things in a particular way. 

The other thing we can do with is we can work within the logic in order to make the case for what we want to happen. We can recognize that decisions are made with particular narratives that certain explanations are justifiable. We use that language. If the language is all about cost-benefit calculations and that's logic people used to make decisions then that's how we need to present safety. If the language is about professionalism and the right thing to do, then that's how we present safety. 

David: I think when I was doing my research, it was the last time that oil prices fell dramatically. By seeing the logic, the rise in the efficiency and cost reduction logic in the organization and how that logic was dominating the compliance and safety bureaucracy logic in the organization at a corporation logic level gave me the opportunity to do a massive decluttering exercise that otherwise might have taken me 2–3 years to get across the line.

Very much is the case if you understand the logics and the way that the organization and different levels of the organization make decisions, then you have a better chance of actually making progress on the things you want to make progress on.

Drew: That's our takeaways. David, what would you like to hear from our listeners?

David: Drew, you threw this in the notes because I think you want some feedback on the academic community so I might let you ask this question.

Drew: My curiosity was just, we care a lot about this in safety research. We care about the differences between safety culture and institutional work because for us the difference matters. It matters in how we ask our questions, how we get our data, how we think about things.

What I'm curious about is this sort of thing useful for you? Is it just academics who care about it? Or is it useful for the way you see the world in doing your work to have tools available like institutional logics, institutional work, safety culture, safety climate? Is understanding those distinctions helpful?

David: I'm fascinated by the responses and I'm sure they will surprise us. The question for today was, can institutional logics help us move beyond safety culture? Do you want to have a go at the answer?

Drew: I'd like to think that we can. The authors in this case claimed that the new perspective can uncover and explain dynamics that get overlooked by other methods of safety. I think that's a fair claim that they've shown. It certainly can create new and interesting discussions to be had. 

David: I think institutional logics actually moves us back closer—just thinking about it now—to the original cultural theory which was very much blank page, descriptive, and I suppose it became bastardized in organizations and turned into safety cultures.

I think institutional logics helps us appreciate the complexity of every individual organization and helps us come up with new descriptions of what each organization likes. I think it really does help us and I think it eliminates some of the baggage of safety culture.

Drew: Your answer is institutional logics can help us back to what safety culture was intended to be?

David: I think back to safety culture, but back to culture if we think about made in some of the original 1930s, 40s, 50s work in some of the different civilizations around the world, and trying to understand why their lives make sense or what they think, believe, and act in terms of culture and community, which is where the Cultural Theory came from.

I haven't done it, but I think if we read some of the culture work before it actually became organizational culture, it will be very similar to institutional logics work with elders, family, and things like that. I think we'll find that it only became corrupted once organizations started playing with it.

Drew: That's it for this week. We hope you found the episode thought-provoking and hopefully useful in shaping the safety of work in your own organization. As always, you can contact us on LinkedIn or on

We welcome comments, questions, or ideas for future episodes.