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
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
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'
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 www.greenbeansandicecream.com, 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
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
This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.