What Were You Thinking? The Key to Communicating More Effectively
The occurrence of experientially based at-risk behaviors driven by anticipated gains that outweigh any perceived costs is not limited to the highways or to drivers; it occurs all too often in the workplace.
- By Joseph White
- Jul 01, 2015
Safety authorities, practitioners, and organizational leaders have long struggled to effectively regulate, govern, and influence human behavior in a manner that consistently and uniformly yields desired results. While management systems, standardized operating procedures, and defined safe practices have reduced the frequency of injuries and illnesses in the workplace, they have not fully eliminated these unfortunate events, nor the causal factors involving at-risk behaviors associated with them.
A comprehensive and holistic strategy, designed to bring about the next step change in the practice of safety, cannot be limited to a traditional approach based exclusively on logic, reason, and rational thinking. Most at-risk behaviors occur automatically and intuitively and are the result of experientially based feelings associated with anticipated outcomes. The role of feelings and emotions as a primary source of motivation appears to be of increasing importance. The key to further advancing the effectiveness of safety management practices involves a better understanding of human motivational factors and their subsequent impact on the decision-making process.
The modern safety movement began in the 1970s and has several basic premises. First, organizations must clearly establish and effectively convey expectations regarding behaviors in the workplace. Second, a process must be implemented to observe and monitor actions and behaviors to ensure conformance against standardized work practices. Finally, feedback must be offered to the workforce to reinforce or modify behaviors, based on observations. This technique is deeply rooted in operant conditioning, most commonly associated with B.F. Skinner, a behaviorist, and research he conducted in the first half of the 20th century.
Relative to the outlined management practice, broadly referred to as behavior-based safety, there are several important considerations. To begin with, the number of expectations opposite standardized work practices, whether regulatory or organizationally based, has and will likely continue to increase with time. However, for many companies that administer the observation process through line supervision, the number of resources and available time to perform this task has diminished during the past 10 to 20 years. Subsequently, the feedback process necessary to modify or condition desired behaviors has been reduced. The effectiveness of this model, when executed as a line function, is further strained when applied to remote, distributed, or self-directed workforces.
As part of the research conducted by Skinner, the schedule of reinforcement is an important consideration in terms of the learning process and behavior modification. As it applies to the workplace and for the reasons outlined above, this presents a genuine and seemingly insurmountable challenge for many organizations. When at-risk behaviors occur without consistent or uniform feedback, the effectiveness of the process is greatly diminished. Furthermore, the immediacy in which this process takes place also is very important. The most effective application of feedback is immediately following the occurrence of the behavior itself. It's for this very reason that long latency health conditions associated with delayed or inconsistent visceral factors, such as those associated with cigarette smoking or poor eating habits, are so problematic.
While Skinner’s work has had profound influence and impact on modern safety practices, there is a collective and growing body of research reinforced through recent advancements in neuroscience that shed new light and perspective on human behavior. As previously noted, the role of feelings and emotions as a primary source of motivation appear to be of increasing importance, a revelation that could offer new insight into why we don’t always follow the rules and, on occasion, act irrationally. Translated and applied to actions occurring within the workplace, this notion suggests how employees "feel" about any given situation or circumstance may be more representative of subsequent behaviors than what they may actually "think" about it.
The Basis for At-Risk Behaviors
The notion of a two-track mind, one characterized by feelings and the other thoughts, is certainly not new, as references to it were made by philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato more than 2,000 years ago. Its systematic application to the practice of safety, however, is new and could hold the answer to some of our biggest challenges associated with achieving and sustaining world-class safety performance. The basis of most defined safety practices is logic-oriented. The basis of most human behavior, however, is not.
Most behaviors are intuitive, occurring automatically, and are the result of our affective response to a given situation or circumstance. As referenced, our affective response is defined as a "gut feeling." Its significance in judgment and subsequent decision-making cannot be overstated. Daniel Kahneman, a 2003 Nobel Prize winner, referred to the affect heuristic, a shortcut to a decision based on an automatic and intuitive response, as "probably the most important development in the study of judgment heuristics in the past few decades."
To better understand this expanded view of information processing, and in particular how feelings associated with a given set of circumstances could dictate the most likely course of actions to be taken, let's take a closer look at several important factors. As humans, we live in an environment that is forever changing. We are constantly processing information related to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensory input involving touch. Simultaneously, we are monitoring situations and circumstances for potential risks or rewards, experienced intuitively as feelings and even emotions. By our very nature, we are extremely efficient and effective at managing this enormous amount of information. So much so, we are seldom aware of most of what we are exposed to. So how do we determine what gets processed and remains below the threshold of our awareness and what gets flagged for further attention and processing? It's a filtration process of sorts, and it's influenced in large measure by past experience.
The role of experience is a key to understanding why many at-risk behaviors occur and to better understanding ultimately what can be done about it. Consider for a moment a typical behavior one might expect of a driver on a highway with unobstructed traffic flow. Many will set cruise-control speeds slightly above posted speed limits. The balance between traveling at a faster rate of speed for an anticipated benefit and the possible cost of going too fast and getting a ticket is influenced heavily by past experience. This process occurs intuitively and automatically and doesn't involve analytical risk assessments supported by data. Each time the benefit is realized without a negative consequence, be it an accident or ticket, the behavior becomes more habitual and more automatic. The occurrence of experientially based at-risk behaviors driven by anticipated gains that outweigh any perceived costs is not limited to the highways or to drivers; it occurs all too often in the workplace for the same reasons outlined above.
Regarding the basis for at-risk behaviors in the workplace, it's important to consider several factors. First, T. Dell and J. Berkhout conducted a study in which they found that injuries were 88 percent more likely to occur in a perceived "safe" job, as compared to the workforce's interpretation of the site’s most dangerous job. This data is supported broadly by a number of organizations; perceived low-risk tasks typically involve the highest frequency of injury. As noted above, the reason for this phenomenon is strongly linked to the role of experience.
Second, when people make repeated choices, including those involving at-risk behaviors, and experience firsthand subsequent outcomes aligned with anticipated outcomes, they tend to underestimate the actual risks involved with their actions. This can and does lead to "drift." Employees realize anticipated benefits associated with shortcuts and chances taken, reinforced through experience over time, which leads to habituated behaviors.
Finally, when there is a conflict between intuition and our rational system, our intuitive response, which is experientially based, appears to have the strongest influence on decisions made and subsequent actions taken. This explains in part why words and data may have very little influence on someone’s behavior. Labeling a behavior as "unsafe," when it may have been performed hundreds or even thousands of times before without negative consequence, is more than a challenge. Furthermore, if the behavior was associated with a forecasted benefit that was realized, you are now at odds with actual experience, a hurdle that logic and reason alone will have limited abilities to overcome. (The only source of knowledge is experience, said Albert Einstein.)
How to Influence Behaviors
While experience may be the driving factor behind most at-risk behaviors, it also is the key to overcoming them. For most people, the portal of entry for influencing automatic and intuitive behaviors is through the heart and not the head. To reach the heart, you must speak its language, which requires an emotional appeal. While logic and reason are influenced by words, data, and analytical comparisons, our intuitive system is not. To effectively influence behaviors, you must employ images, emotions, personal stories, and experiential techniques that connect with your workforce and subsequently move those workers.
An industry that has embraced experiential techniques as a means of improving on-the-job safety performance is commercial aviation. In spite of numerous efforts to improve pilot performance, crashes due to pilot error remained at 65 percent for more than 50 years. That all changed in 1990 when the industry implemented the use of flight simulators, a tool designed to provide experiential learning in a safe and controlled setting. Since that time, crashes due to pilot error have declined by more than 54 percent. Since 2001, only one fatal jetliner crash in the United States has been attributed to pilot error. While even one fatal crash represents a tragedy, it is by any measure a remarkable level of performance, considering there are more than 30,000 flights daily in the United States. The field stands alone with six sigma operational performance, demonstrating fewer than 3.4 defects per 1 million opportunities.
The next frontier for the practice of safety, and an area of emerging interest and exploration for DuPont Sustainable Solutions (DSS), involves the practical application of affective-based research to address some of the world’s biggest challenges related to health, safety, and overall well-being. Within this research is a wealth of information regarding the means to more effectively communicate using techniques that inspire and influence, and not just inform. Somewhere within this burgeoning movement is the hope and promise of the next step-change in the practice of safety, characterized by, but not limited to, a foundation in sound management practices.
Opportunities to further advance the practice of safety and any subsequent improvements in performance will be the result of leaders who rely on influence, and not just edict, as a means to reduce the occurrence of at-risk behaviors.
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.