Education, Skill Development, and Behavior Change
They're not the same, but it's all called training. . . .
- By Larry Wilson
- Jun 01, 2019
When people talk about safety training, they can easily be referring to education or skill development. They can also be talking about what they really want out of the training, which is a change in behavior. Sometimes education alone will be enough to change behavior. And skill development is typically going to change behavior, but it's more about learning how to weld or how to parallel park in the first place. Changing existing behaviors to something new or better is much different and, unfortunately, much more difficult.
Think about driving. The education part is relatively straightforward: This is how the pedals work, this is how the lights work, this is how the turn indicator works, the steering wheel, etc. Skill development, such as learning how to parallel park, is going to take practice. How much practice will depend on the individual, but education alone will not be enough to develop or master the skill.
Now let's look at changing your spouse's or partner's driving behavior. Perhaps you've tried? How did it go? Were you sleeping on the couch or did you have to go sleep in the car? And yet, as mentioned, the purpose of almost all safety training is to achieve "safe behavior." Rarely is it to merely inform the people about the hazards, although that can be part of it. But just getting people to pass the pencil and paper test on air brakes or confined space entry is not the end goal. The real purpose is to get the person to actually check the brakes before driving the truck or to test the atmosphere before going in. But many times, unfortunately, the only accomplishment was the passing of the test.
Many educators or teachers think (at least when they start out) that education is the most important thing. But when they go to conferences, the sessions they attend are almost all aimed at changing the behavior of students or difficult students. Consider some of the more popular sessions: How to deal with cyber bullying, girl drama, defiant students, etc. What's also interesting is that out of the 1,200 or so of these teachers or principals who attend these conferences, there is probably not one of them who is uninformed or uneducated about the dangers of obesity or extreme obesity. But how much would you be willing to bet that there was not one obese or extremely obese teacher or principal in attendance. If you had to take a guess what percentage of them cannot (obviously) manage their own eating behavior: higher or lower than the national average? So, education or knowing the risks isn't going to be enough. Do you think it is skill development? That they just don't know how to cook healthy meals or they don't know how to exercise or work out? Perhaps, the most extreme example of this are the people who ask smokers, "Don't you know that smoking is bad for you?" Really? I thought coughing your lungs out every morning is what all people did. . . .
So when you talk about safety training, are you simply trying to get a check mark in the box or are you trying to get safe behavior?
If the answer (hopefully) is safe behavior, then it's important to look at successful behavior change initiatives to see what components they have in common, how long they take, and really delve into why they work. This is called studying "positive deviance." Unfortunately, when it comes to real behavior change, there are lots of programs or initiatives out there but very few that actually work. But there are some. Alas, they usually require more than education or reading a book or a magazine article on a new diet. Why would anyone bother to go to meetings, whether it was Weight Watchers, AA, NA, or, for that matter, church, temple, or mosque, when you can just buy the magazine with the new "miracle" diet, stop buying the booze, and simply read the Bible or Koran, etc.?
Self-help books are available in every bookstore, and yet hardly anyone else became Tony Robbins. Most people have read the "7 Habits of Highly Effective People." Can you even remember the 7 habits? Furthermore, are you practicing them? So what does it take to change behavior? What does it take to get people to change their habits? The answer is more than education and skill development. But they all get called training.
Beyond Carrots and Sticks
We are all familiar with the ABC model from Skinner. However, the ABC model requires that external consequences are provided. The old carrot and stick methodology. But that requires that someone provides the carrot, or someone beats you with a stick. If you can get someone to provide carrots, it works, and if someone beats you with a stick, it works. Both cost time and money. Not to mention that the stick rarely makes people happy, which is why there's a comical expression: "The beatings will continue until morale improves." Or perhaps you've heard the corporate version: "The firings will continue until morale improves." But with safety, you can only enforce so many things.
You can enforce wearing seat belts when driving and, to a lesser extent, you can enforce not driving with a hand-held device. But you can't enforce "eyes on task" and "mind on task" when driving or working. It's difficult to enforce "moving your eyes before you move." And yet, how important is it for people to be paying attention when driving a car, truck, forklift, or some other piece of mobile equipment like a Genie boom? How important is moving your eyes first before you move the vehicle? Isn't it more important than the seat belt? Not that I'm saying get rid of the seat belt, or anything else. But if you could enforce everything you needed to in safety, I know some companies who would gladly beat the people to death if that would produce zero injuries or zero harm.
(Hopefully you found that humorous.)
Can you change behavior from the inside out, instead of supplying external consequences?
After all, nobody is ever trying to get hurt, and with the exception of combat and contact sports, nobody is ever trying to hurt anybody else, either. So it shouldn't be a problem, right? All we need to do is educate them and they will all change, right? Better still, we'll put it online and manage it with an LMS (learning management system) and it will all improve automatically, right? Perhaps the latest folly is that we will educate people on the neuroscience so that, once they know how their brains work, they will experience zero injuries.
Daniel Kahneman wrote a brilliant book called "Thinking, Fast and Slow." However, he also expressed his extreme disappointment that even the students he taught—with the proof he developed through scientific experiments—didn't change their behavior.
Okay, so enough with the ideas that don't work. What does work? And what does it really take to change behavior?
Well, it takes a lot, and it almost always takes time, especially if you have to change a habitual behavior. There are a few common things: It usually takes a "live body" at the front of the room. And this person has to believe in what he or she is saying (nothing worse than a preacher who looks like he doesn't believe). In other words, they have to be speaking from the heart and have to be "practicing what they're preaching." Safety people are notorious for preaching—but off the job . . . sometimes they talk or text when they drive, or they don't tie the ladder off when working at home. They don't do a risk assessment before starting a renovation project, or they don't shut all the power off when rewiring the basement, or they don't wear eye protection and hearing protection when mowing the lawn.
I've even heard some of them say, "I hope nobody I work with sees me." But whether they see you or not, chances are they have their doubts. And if they don't believe that you believe, there's little chance you'll really influence them positively.
So we need a live body at the front of the room who can influence people positively, or someone on camera who can come across equally convincingly on the screen (only so many of those).
Next, there has to be a group of people who mean something to you who are also participating or involved, like the other people at the meeting or in the congregation, etc. This relevant community, or the people you are with, are very important. It has to matter to you what they think of you. A group of total strangers isn't going to be nearly as effective.
And of course, the change has to be achievable. In other words, it has to be possible: Dunking the basketball like Michael Jordan won't be possible unless, in my case, they lower the rim to six feet. So it has to be doable. But we can all put seat belts and safety glasses on, so being able to do it isn't really much of an issue with safety. The real issue is, "Is the change worth it or worth the effort?"
This gets complicated with certain decisions, but it's much more difficult if the behavior has already become a habit or if we are dealing with what people have been doing for years. They may not want to change. If they have to spend some money, like buy a bike helmet or ski helmet, this gets even harder. Now, the really interesting thing is that a lecture or statistics are almost totally ineffective—but a story, well told, from a convincing person (live usually, but on screen if delivered well) usually does work. Even better is a real experience, but that gets right to learning the hard way, or, as Benjamin Franklin said, "Experience keeps a dear school but a fool will learn in no other."
Learning from the Experiences of Others
We can't afford to have everyone learn the hard way. It's too painful and too expensive. But we can learn from the experiences of others as long as there is enough "voltage and current." Meaning that a lot of stories from a lot of people will work, and if there is a lot of emotion in the story or it provokes a lot of emotion, then you might not need quite as many. Let me give you an example: Ski helmets came along after some people died of head injuries. When they became readily available, most people made their children wear them. Some parents who weren't good skiers also wore them, but most good skiers didn't. I was one of those parents.
My kids bought me a helmet for Christmas. But it didn't fit quite right, and I didn't like the color. And since they had bought it with my money, I took it back. But I couldn't find one that fit right when I went to the store and they didn't have the right color, so I just took the refund. Next year for my birthday, they bought me another one, but it didn't fit right, and it wasn't the right color. Same thing happened at Christmas.
Then there was an extreme ski competition at the mountain. A lot of really good skiers were out practicing and warming up for the competition the next day. I was going up the chairlift when I saw one of these guys coming down. It was really foggy, though, and just as the chairlift was going over his head, he turned left sharply. I got a funny feeling like, "Dude, you shouldn't be doing that," but as I said, it was foggy, so I couldn't really see where he was going. But I knew the hill really well. It was a sixth sense sort of thing.
When I got to the top I skied down the other side, did a couple of runs and then went in for lunch. That was when I heard that someone had died on the mountain. But that's all. No details were provided. Later that afternoon, it cleared up. I was back over at the hill where I saw the really good skier go under the chair, and I was on that same chairlift again when I saw one of the ski patrollers, an old gray-haired guy I'd seen for years, ski down and stop. He planted both his ski poles with force. Then he kicked his skis off and sort of threw them aside. Then he grabbed his shovel out of his pack and threw it down. He was obviously really mad. I figured he had probably just had an argument with his boss or something. Then, as the chairlift got closer, he knelt down and started shoveling snow and turning it over. As I got closer, I still couldn't really see what he was doing. But as the chairlift continued up the hill, the angle of sight changed. Now I saw the rocks and the bloody snow. He was trying to cover up all the blood that was around the rocks. Instantly, I knew what had happened. The cool guy skier I saw earlier, the one who took the sharp left turn, had skied right into a "rock garden." I kind of knew the rock garden was there when I saw him, and that's why I had that funny feeling even though I couldn't see it for the fog.
As I watched the old gray-haired ski patroller turn the bloody snow over, my heart sank. I knew I was probably the last guy to see him alive. I thought about his parents, probably only worried about the risk of competing in an extreme ski competition. Not likely thinking about the risk of skiing in the fog on an unfamiliar mountain. I thought about how many falls I had taken where I was thrown forward head-first: too many to count. So many thoughts flashed through my head in such a short time.
Well, that night I went to the store and surprisingly enough, there was a helmet that fit right and was just the right color. But that's not the point. I told this story to all my other "legend in their own mind" skier friends. Next year, I was skiing with Jim, who is a great skier and has little kids who also ski. We don't ski together all that much, but he's a nice guy and, as I said, a really good skier, so it's always enjoyable. We were on the chairlift and he asked me, "So how do you like my helmet?" I said, "It's nice," but I doubt if I hid my disinterested tone.
"Do you know why I bought it?"
"No," I said, equally disinterested. He picked up on the tone and I realized I was being a bit rude, so I said, "Because you have kids?"
"Because of the statistics?" (More than 40 percent of skier fatalities are from head injuries.)
Now I was getting a bit annoyed, I almost wanted to say, "Why don't you just tell me instead of going on with the 20 questions?" But before I could say anything, he said, "Because of that story you told me."
As it turned out, almost all my friends had bought helmets that year. We all had kids. We all knew the statistics. We all had come up with excuses. Now, we all had helmets.
So the actual experience did it for me, but it was the story that did it for them. And it's the stories in AA and NA that do it for most of them, too. Parables instead of lectures, a group of people who mean something to you and something that makes sense, enough time, so they can decide for themselves and, obviously, the ability to do it in the first place.
It would be nice if you could get people to change their decisions and habits by taking an online course, but as far as I know, the only person who has ever changed behavior with media alone was Steven Spielberg and the movie "Jaws." And unless you've got a spare hundred million dollars and his talent, don't overestimate the ability of your online training to change habitual behavior.
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.