What Do You Want Me to Do, Exactly?

The oxygen of any BBS program lies in "Positive Reinforcement," or R+, of the right behavior

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 approach.

Preparation: Baselining of existing safety performance in the organization and identifying the Key Safe Behaviors that go into improvement happen here.

Measurement: This involves a cycle of observation, feedback, goal setting, and continued improvement.

Ownership: All levels of the organization recognize that the success of the program rests with them and change their own behavior to deliver ongoing improvement.

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 of experience.

  • 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 alluded to.
  • 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 behavior.
  • They get some constructive feedback on how to behave more safely.
  • They feel that someone is looking out for them.
  • They feel they can start looking out for others.
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 speed limit.

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/ supervisor.

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 a program.

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 for improvement.

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.

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