Various forms of research suggest that when leaders have higher types of expectations for their followers, those followers often live up to the expectations.  In contrast, when a leader’s expectations are low, followers often live down to those expectations (Eden, 1984, 1990; McNatt, 2000). Expectations drive both the leader and follower. 

Setting safety expectations, early and often, is critically important. There are many opportunities to set daily expectations with our people, especially at the point and place where work gets accomplished. Tools such as task hazard analyses, risk assessments, inspection or audit forms, or behavioral inventories allow for expectations to be appropriately set for our front-line leaders and their workers. 

Your toolkit

From a behavioral standpoint, these tools allow for focused and detailed praise for safety-related actions, but also for correcting at-risk behaviors.  And these kinds of tools afford opportunities to observe and measure ongoing improvements and deficiencies that need to be addressed.

From an affective or emotional perspective, expectations help to establish acceptable norms for the group. Are there performance gaps that need to be discussed when it comes to actual job performance and expectations? Do expectations prompt the ongoing improvement of materials, tools, equipment, people, and processes?

When people are brought together in small groups, before, during and after a task or shift, there’s an emotional component that helps workers to create a team-like bond and positive forms of peer pressure. This in turn helps to create a psychological presence that helps others work more safely, even when nobody’s around. 

From a cognitive standpoint, expectations set early and often create regular opportunities to discuss how meeting and exceeding expectations helps everyone remain healthy and go home safely.  Expectations set by credible leaders that help align personal values with desired actions tend to lead to more durable changes in individual attitudes and actions. Working safely becomes something people want to do, rather than, something they have to do. 

When front-line leaders set higher expectations, their investment in their workers should also increase. Yes, in terms of time and quality of contact, serving and supporting their workers’ on-the-job needs. This may come about in the form of using more time-outs to identify concerns, hazards, exposures, and the abatement of those exposures. 

Leaders need to self-monitor employee interactions. Are expectations set in clear and concrete terms? From a worker perspective, what do high safety-related expectations really look like? Do your leaders cite specific examples and tell stories to create clear mental images regarding culturally accepted behaviors? 

Let’s be clear & concise

Throughout my career, I’ve watched leaders give clear examples of what behaviors are expected and what actions will not be tolerated. These leaders regularly use examples of PPE use, procedures, protocols, peculiar or high-risk work. When credible leaders give clear and concise, job-relevant details regarding expectations, followers are more apt to get the message and stand tall to meet their challenges, especially with appropriate leadership support. 

We should be mindful of the fact that high standards and expectations should be set for every leader and worker. Don’t lower expectations based on past performance; raise the bar and watch people rise to the task. Closely monitor the way you provide support for both higher and lower achievement individuals and groups – there shouldn’t be a marked difference. Make personal and meaningful contact with both higher and lower performing groups a priority. Don’t show favoritism in support, which can negatively impact worker performance.  Finally, be careful not to use constructive criticism to humiliate - use it to build people up.  

Lots of variables influence safe performance, including failure. When leader-driven expectations are not met by the worker, proceed with caution because people may tend to give up (Dai, Dietvorst, Tuckfield, Milkman & Schweitzer, 2017). Great safety leaders don’t simply lower their expectations when challenged; they raise their level of support to match the safety expectations they establish.  The return on investment: greater forms of trust, in-group support, communications, autonomy and performance. 


  • Dai, H., Dietvorst, B.J., Tuckfield, B., Milkman, K.L. & Schweitzer, M.E. 2017.  Quitting when the going gets tough: A downside of high performance expectations.  Academy of Management Journal, August 21, 2017 (Published online before print).
  • Eden, D. 1984. Self-fulfilling prophecy as a management tool:  Harnessing Pygmalion. Academy of Management Review. 9(1), 64-73.
  • Eden, D. 1990. Pygmalion in management:  Productivity as self-fulfilling prophecy.  Lexington, MA, England:  Lexington Books. 
  • McNatt, D.B. 2000. Ancient Pygmalion joins contemporary management:  A meta-analysis of the result.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(2): 314-322.