The Million-Dollar Answer

Picture this, if you will: An administrator looks at a year-end injury/accident report, head propped up by one hand and one finger across the lips with a baffling look of "Why are these costs so high?" Or picture a department's leader not reporting a small injury on the last day of a flawless (injury-free) month and saying, "I want my bonus for an injury-free month."

Got the picture? Before pinpointing why employees take risks and their motivation for changing a behavior, let's take a field trip to radio station WII FM (What's In It For Me) to be enlightened on human behavior. This enlightenment will help you answer the million-dollar questions: Why do employees take risks, and how can this be changed?

Our tour begins on the first floor of a five-story building. On the other side of the observation window are employees who are working well enough to get a paycheck. The paycheck helps to meet their basic biological and physiological needs, such as food, shelter, warmth, and sleep. Unannounced to co-workers or management, one of these employees may be providing a car or small camper as shelter for his or her significant other and children.

Fortunately, employees on the second floor have quickly moved up from the first floor because of a steady paycheck that provides safety needs, such as stability and security. Physical and emotional well-being are being satisfied by order and protection given by a place called home.

Employees on the third floor are showing a different type of behavior that isn't as predominant on the first two floors. Third-floor employees are demonstrating cooperation, group work, and signs of belonging—teamwork. This is not to say they are no longer concerned with biological, physical, or safety needs; these issues aren't on the forefront of their thoughts.

Moving up to the fourth floor of WII FM, employees are finally taking responsibility. Employees have telltale signs of increased self-esteem by wanting to achieve, and they are motivated by recognition of how their friends and co-workers perceive them.

There is limited access to the fifth floor. Only a small percentage of employees achieve this level. At the top are those who aim for self-actualization; self-knowledge; those who realize ultimate personal potential; those who search for personal growth without wanting recognition for an achievement. At this point, the WII FM tour has concluded. If you didn't notice, WII FM resembles Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Hierarchy of Motivation). Maslow says even though an employee may achieve a higher order of need, if things in a lower order are taken away, he is no longer concerned with the maintenance of the higher level. Looking at today's economy, for example, it is hard to motivate an employee to meet target goals when he's next to be laid off.

Which floor of employees does your current safety/wellness program motivate? Before answering that question or thinking you can answer the million-dollar question of why employees take unsafe risks, add another dimension to each floor: Add past experiences, both positive and negative; nonwork (external) influences; and willingness to change to the formula of motivation. (Don't shoot! I'm just the messenger; it's not my fault people are complex.)

Lasting Results from Positive Reinforcement

I believe the million-dollar question should read, "How can we motivate employees to change a risky behavior that accommodates all levels of employees' needs?"

Answer: The first step is to stop dictating requirements and promote/develop/reward (whichever word you want to use) employees as individuals. Hence, a learned behavior that is internalized and was learned with "fun." Dictating (negative reinforcement) requirements, though possibly vital to the organization, can build soundproof walls between "what's right" (the organization) and "what's in it for me" (the employee). Helping an employee discover the requirement through guided, positive reinforcement can be fun and personally rewarding, making a behavioral change more likely.

The following situation perfectly depicts negative and positive reinforcement for behavior change in the workplace. In his webinar at, Bill Sims tells a story about negative reinforcement and construction workers in the United Kingdom:

"The first story is about four guys that I encountered in the U.K. who were working on a brick wall.

"Specifically, the law over there says that all employees have to wear hard hats. Well, three guys were wearing a hard hat, and they were obviously complying with the rule. However, one guy wasn't. Sure enough, around the corner walks the manager and what does he do? He uses negative reinforcement, the stick approach. 'If you don't put on your hard hat, you're off the project.'

"So this guy quickly finds his hard hat, and he puts it on. Unfortunately, he's embarrassed and his buddies are laughing at him. So now the manager walks away from that side of the project to the other side because he has to yell at more people—because that's what managers do, right? After the manager leaves, what do you think the guy with hard hat issue does? Bingo, he takes it off.

"From this scenario, we can learn that negative reinforcement gets you the behavior change—as long as you're there to yell or scream at the person. The minute you leave, guess what? Their behavior goes back to where it was originally. "Now, contrast this phenomenon with another story. The same problem: A safety director was trying to get employees to wear hard hats, and they wouldn't. So as their consultant, we said, 'Look, why don't you stop nagging and screaming since that isn't working. Instead, perhaps you should consider positively reinforcing the right behavior.'

"After some buy-in and setting up a tangible incentive as positive reinforcement, the safety director went back to the same site and, instead of yelling at all those who weren't in compliance, she picked one guy out of the crowd that was indeed wearing his hard hat. She goes over to the guy, she hands him a little 'you did it right' card on the spot thanking him for complying with the rules. She also tells him that she appreciates what he's doing and to keep up the good work. The gift card allowed the employee to obtain a nice gift for himself.

"Everyone on the construction project took notice of that behavior." Immediate, frequent, positive reinforcement is the key to guided behavior change. This method may take a longer time to get the results you want. However, in the long run, the results will be lasting and more cost effective. Employees will figure out WII FM for themselves. Do you have a million-dollar answer yet?

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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