What Do You Want Me to Do, Exactly?
The oxygen of any BBS program lies in "Positive Reinforcement," or R+, of the right behavior
- By Doug Hamilton
- Sep 01, 2009
It is generally accepted that around 80 to 85
percent of workplace "accidents" are traceable
to some specific human behavior, either
at the time of the accident or preceding it.
Therefore, to achieve improvement, it is necessary
to understand the root cause(s) of the
unsafe behavior taking place and how that
behavior can be replaced by new, safe behavior.
Many organizations recognize behavior
as the strategic route to improvement. They
have spent time and effort on improving systems
and processes — rightly so — and then
see their safety performance plateauing. Addressing
behavioral issues at this point forms
the next crucial step toward continuous improvement.
Several models are available on the market.
However, any valid behavioral approach
has to be based on the proven ABC (Antecedent
— Behavior — Consequence) model.
Other models that have the "behavioral" label
should be tested against this standard. The
ABC model indicates that, to change behavior,
one has to change the consequences experienced
after the behavior takes place. It is
often the case that existing unsafe behavior
either goes unnoticed or, in many cases, a
personal "reward" exists for the person when
it does takes place.
So how do we change behavior? In order
to implement a sustainable program, several
principles must be present. Typically, these
involve the following elements:
Environment: Management and workforce
come to terms with their existing safety culture
and what they need to do to improve it.
Awareness: Training is delivered to all levels
of the workforce to raise awareness of the correct
Preparation: Baselining of existing safety
performance in the organization and identifying
the Key Safe Behaviors that go into improvement
Measurement: This involves a cycle of observation,
feedback, goal setting, and continued
Ownership: All levels of the organization recognize
that the success of the program rests with
them and change their own behavior to deliver
All of that sounds great, so why is it that
feedback from the front line of some behavioral
programs reads like this (posted recently
on our Web site from a person who contacted
us to seek our help in rejuvenating safety performance
at his workplace):
"I am a believer in behavior based safety.
I have, however, never been a believer in the
way it has ever been put forth by the so called
professionals. Why? Well the few reasons below
come from much thought and 30+ years
- The so-called "observations" by rank
and file employees are basically viewed as a
means of "ratting-out" each other, and this
undermines employee harmony.
- It tends to encourage employees to look
for things to write up.
- It encourages "pencil whipping" as you
- Often safety programs are little more
than a bunch of rules.
- The sad thing is that this behavior-based
safety involvement is "coerced" employee involvement
which I am thoroughly opposed
to. But, at least in the short term, it works.
And since most companies think in the
short-term and really don't care about their
employees beyond what they can get out of
them in the short-term, it's what they push."
Ouch! The saddest part about this feedback
is that the person says he believes in the
principle of BBS — but, obviously, not the
practice. Where did it go wrong?
Using Positive Reinforcement
The oxygen of any BBS program lies in
"Positive Reinforcement" of the right behavior.
(The term "Positive Reinforcement" is
normally shortened to "R+.") Any program
that does not have this element is relying on
"Negative Reinforcement," where the people
being expected to behave safely are doing
so because they feel they are under threat
of punishment if they don't. And any behavioral
scientist will tell you that Negative
Reinforcement will never deliver a high performance
on the behavior you want.
So, if you want more safe behavior, start
delivering some R+ when it takes place. And
the sooner the R+ is delivered after the behavior,
the better; this has the greatest impact.
Sadly, some so-called "behavioral" programs
fail to address this need for R+ at all.
Some suppliers of behavioral programs
will smile benignly at this point and say their
program delivers R+. How, exactly? They
will list things such as:
- Employees will feel safer.
- They get verbal feedback on their safe
- They get some constructive feedback
on how to behave more safely.
- They feel that someone is looking out
- They feel they can start looking out for
These are worthy, and noble, forms of
R+. In the long run, they may well form part
of the organizational norms. But did our person providing feedback in the example
above experience these forms of R+ or indicate
that any of his colleagues did? Believing
that this will work from day one is akin
to believing that drivers will welcome a new
speed limit enforced by multiple police patrols.
The drivers will be safer, won't they?
And if they do transgress, they have that policeman
to give them some feedback on how
to drive slower — as well as threaten them
with a loss of their license. The trouble is that
if you want the safe behavior, it's a lot easier
to negatively reinforce it by sending out the
policemen than think about delivering R+
for the safe behavior of driving within the
Now, think about your workplace. What
positive reinforcement can you deliver for
safe behavior? Even the so-called "positive
reinforcement" of verbal feedback on safe
behaviors is often received as patronizing,
condescending, and demeaning, especially
where it exists outside of a meaningful business
relationship between worker and manager/
What Kind of R+ Works Best?
If you were to ask your staff what they want,
they would probably respond "cash." Apart
from the moral argument against this, we
would argue that your money is better spent
delivering tangible reinforcement (rewards
in the form of gifts selected by your staff).
There are studies that demonstrate a tangible
reward has up to six times more impact than
cash in affecting performance.
Of course, you will still need to use negative
reinforcement from time to time. In fact,
studies have shown the best-performing environments
are where the ratio of positive
to negative reinforcement is about 4:1. But
don't expect high performance on a particular
behavior if all you use is negative reinforcement
in an attempt to get it.
Use a recognition and reward system that
equips all levels of staff in the organization
with the ability to spot and reinforce the correct
behaviors for safety. An experienced and
fl exible behavioral consulting approach gives
you a complete behavioral change solution
with the following features:
Environment: Workplace assessment is performed
to understand existing issues and develop
Awareness: All levels of staff are trained on
how to deliver positive and negative reinforcement
and use the recognition and reward system.
Preparation: Key Safe Behaviors are developed
from the company's safety data to form the basis
Measurement: The recognition and reward
system is allied to observation, group feedback,
and continued improvement.
Ownership: The program enables reinforcement
of management and supervisory behaviors,
as well as at the workforce level.
This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.