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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Benefits of behavioral safety (part 2)

May 6, 2006
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Last month I reviewed five basic principles of the behavioral approach to occupational safety. Each of those fundamentals, including the use of behavioral language to define accountability systems and provide constructive feedback, is relevant for problem-solving beyond the workplace and for more than injury prevention. Here I discuss five additional principles of behavioral safety, each relevant for increasing the competence of individuals and groups in any setting, and for improving the output of any system. The first principle is critical for the success of the behavioral feedback and accountability tools presented last month.

6) Make feedback strictly behavioral

It’s easier said than done, but it is essential to separate behavior from person factors when giving and receiving feedback. Corrective feedback is not an indictment of one’s personality or an indicator of a character flaw. Feedback must not be related to an individual’s attitude, motivation, professional competence, or family history. Feedback is only about behavior. Yes, responding well to supportive or corrective feedback can lead to improved attitude, motivation, competence, and even a personality state. But the purpose of feedback is only to pinpoint desirable and/or undesirable behavior. When this is realized by those who give and receive feedback, the beneficial outcome of behavioral coaching is maximized.

Incidentally, the common term “constructive criticism" is an oxymoron. How can you criticize and be constructive at the same time? For most people, criticism reflects something negative about a person’s attitude, character, or personality — characteristics presumed to influence behavior. But “constructive" implies positive change following the “criticism," and sometimes a change in person factors beyond behavior is requested and expected.

When the focus is on behavior, without any implications of person factors or character flaws, feedback that gives specific direction can be constructive.

7) Learn by observing behaviors

In his classic 1996 text, Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance, Tom Gilbert emphasized that behavioral observation is key to improving personal competence. Effective people do things differently. Effective managers act differently than ineffective managers. The best teachers demonstrate certain behaviors the average teachers do not.

I’ve heard several safety pros claim 10-20 percent of their workers contribute to 80-90 percent of their OSHA recordables and lost-time injuries. And safety pros report many employees never get hurt. Behavior makes the difference. Productive workers who never get hurt nor put others at risk emit certain behavioral patterns or best practices.

Individuals can learn how to improve their own behavior by observing others, especially when they use a checklist that defines standards of desirable performance. I’m convinced the remarkable success of behavior-based safety is due more to the learning and accountability aspects of interpersonal observation and feedback than by the “percent-safe" scores and graphs derived from compiling the checks on daily behavioral observation cards.

8) Examine consequences to understand and change behavior

The topic of “motivation" can be very complex, involving a variety of person-based unobservables like “personal drive," “intention," “self-esteem," “self-affirmation," “optimism," “need to achieve," “need for person control," and even “free will."

Research supports the validity of these motivational concepts, but their utility is limited, especially in work settings. The complexity of motivation is simplified and made practical with a behavioral approach. As defined by this principle, behavior is motivated by consequences. People act to gain pleasant consequences or avoid unpleasant consequences.

Inconvenience and discomfort are negative consequences that inhibit safe behavior, and convenience and efficiency are positive consequences that motivate at-risk behavior. These consequences are natural or intrinsic, in contrast to incentive/reward programs that attempt to motivate various inconvenient or uncomfortable behaviors with extra extrinsic consequences like a financial bonus.

Adding positive consequences to situations in order to motivate certain behavior can be costly. Plus, it can be de-motivational to discontinue a financial bonus or incentive/reward program. As a result, it’s useful to understand and apply the principle of intrinsic reinforcement, as reviewed next.

9) Promote intrinsic reinforcement

Many recognition programs include extrinsic rewards — individuals may be selected for special acknowledgement and given praise and a material reward for their noteworthy performance. But this extrinsic approach to recognition is not optimal.

Instead, show interest in what people are doing, and you help them appreciate the intrinsic consequences of this ongoing work behavior. All work produces results, but sometimes the output is not obvious or is taken for granted. When others point out the fruits of our labor, the labor can feel more worthwhile, meaning intrinsic consequences are noted and appreciated.

What are the intrinsic reinforcers of taking extra precautions to do a job safely?

Since injuries are generally rare, workers do not experience injury avoidance related to their safe behaviors. Through appropriate interpersonal recognition, the value of safety-related behavior can be realized, including the long-term natural consequences of setting the safe example for others to follow.

Do your employees continually offer practical suggestions for making their workplace safer, from modifying equipment or environmental conditions to making safe behavior more convenient? Such safety advice increases in quantity and quality when it affects intrinsic consequences. In other words, when workers see adjustments related to their safety suggestion, they are intrinsically reinforced and more likely to offer more suggestions.`

10) Realize the disadvantages of punishment

As regular readers of ISHN know, I’ve decried the use of punishment numerous times. Punishment does work when the undesirable behavior is followed by a soon, certain, and sizable punitive consequence. But it’s usually impossible to administer this kind of contingency, especially in a work setting. And even when punishment can be implemented appropriately, it can do more harm than good, as Drs. Jon Bailey and Mary Burch emphasize in their 2006 book, Thinking Like a Behavior Analyst.

Punishment promotes aggression, links negative affect to the punisher, and can disengage the punished person from an entire work process. Plus, the negative emotions promoted by punishment can spread to other workers and work settings.

In his 2005 book, Praise for Profit, Jerry Pounds starts his critique of punishment with this memorable quote from ex-GE CEO Jack Welch, “When people make mistakes, the last thing they need is discipline. It’s time for encouragement and confidence-building."

When it comes to safety, it’s critical to learn from near hits and injuries, whether they result from mistakes or calculated risks. Punishment, incorrectly referred to as “discipline" in industry, severely stifles the type of open and frank conversations needed for this kind of learning.

But when conversation following an undesirable incident is viewed as corrective feedback and leads to observable change in process behaviors and/or environmental conditions, beneficial learning and intrinsic reinforcement are the rewards — increasing the quantity and quality of future safety-improving conversation.

Note: For information on Dr. Geller’s new book on People-Based Safety, as well as five video/DVD/CD programs, accompanied by workbooks and leader guides produced by Coastal Training Technologies, visit www.people-based-safety.com; email: pbs@coastal.com; (888) 201-8740.

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