Humanistic behaviorism: The essence of effective behavior-based safety
My September issue ISHN contribution illustrated the complexity of the human side of safety by reviewing seven dimensions of people–Behavior, Attitude, Sensation, Imagery, Cognition, Interpersonal, and Drugs (BASIC ID). I recommended addressing the human dynamics of safety by starting with behavior and the mission to “act people into constructive safety-related attitudes, perceptions, cognitions, images, and interpersonal support.”
This follow-up article provides the evidence-based framework for my recommendation, and practical intervention strategies.
Humanism vs. behaviorism
Behaviorism was made popular by B.F. Skinner1 and humanism was developed by Carl Rogers2. These philosophies are often presented as opposing, even competing, perspectives.
Behaviorists treat only the behavior of their clients, applying positive consequences for desirable behavior and removing positive consequences for undesirable behavior. Humanists target people‘s intentions, focusing on discovering a client’s personal perceptions, motives, and self-concept.
The humanist’s clinical approach is nondirective. The therapist does more listening than instructing. Behavioral therapists are directive. They define behavioral consequences that can be changed to increase desired behavior and decrease undesirable behavior.
Still, B.F. Skinner was honored with “Humanist of the Year” in 1972, and he affirmed that “Behaviorism makes it possible to achieve the goals of humanism more effectively.”3 For years I have proposed “humanistic behaviorism” as an intervention approach.
A beneficial compromise
I propose that “Humanism makes it possible to achieve the goals of behaviorism more effectively.” Application of select principles from humanism can optimize the essential intervention process of BBS — peer-to-peer observation and feedback. Let’s consider three critical principles of humanistic therapy.
1) Listen first with empathy
Listening to another person’s opinion or perspective with empathy before providing advice or direction reflects Stephen Covey‘s fifth habit of highly effective people — “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”4 Empathic listening is more than feeling sympathy for another person’s plight. We truly empathize when we identify with another person’s situation and try to understand what it’s like to be in the other person’s steel-toed shoes.
The critical behavior checklist (CBC) used in BBS to observe safe and at-risk behavior is developed by a team of workers on a particular job, and they modify the CBC when their job and/or the environmental setting changes. This is empathy in action.
Plus, when coworkers, safety professionals and supervisors give an employee corrective feedback for observed at-risk behavior, they practice empathy. They don’t begin with behavior-change directives. They ask questions to understand the rationale for the at-risk behavior and learn if aspects of the situation can be altered to facilitate safety.
2) Develop self-accountability
A humanistic observer asks a worker what s/he could do to reduce the probability of an injury and set the safe example for others. The employee is not told what safe behavior should replace an observed at-risk behavior.
After identifying a work problem, humanistic supervisors do not specify a resolution. They challenge employees to discuss possible solutions and propose an action plan. Ownership and self-accountability happens when individuals perceive some autonomy and receive respect and appreciation for their competence to collaborate with peers to solve an issue.
This strategy for facilitating self-accountability is based on evidence-based self-determination theory derived from humanism. Perceptions of autonomy (or choice), competence, and relatedness (or interdependence) enhance self-accountability.
3) Appreciate Maslow‘s Hierarchy of Needs.
Humanist Abraham Maslow created this approach to understanding variations in human motives. Needs are arranged hierarchically, and people don’t attempt to satisfy needs at one level until the needs at the lower levels are satisfied to some degree.
We first are motivated to fulfill our physiological needs — basic survival requirements for food, water, shelter, and sleep. When these needs are satisfied, we are motivated by the desire to feel secure and safe from potential dangers. Next, we have our social-acceptance needs — to have friends and feel a sense of belongingness. With these needs gratified, our concern focuses on self-esteem — earning self-respect and feeling worthwhile.
Now we presumably reach the top of the need hierarchy — self-actualization or reaching one’s full potential. Maslow revised his hierarchy near the end of his life by placing another ultimate achievement at the top — self-transcendence. We are the best we can be when we reach beyond our own self-interests and contribute to the needs of others. This is what safety pros do on a daily basis. They intervene whenever possible to keep others safe from personal injury.
How satisfying to realize you reach the top of Maslow‘s Hierarchy of Needs every time you act on behalf of another person’s safety. Doing this helps satisfy your lower-level needs that never get completely satiated -- social acceptance, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Achieving self-transcendence is the ultimate, and is self-reinforcing because it naturally satisfies other higher-level needs.
I hope you are convinced that these three basic principles of humanism are relevant to making BBS more effective -- empathy, self-motivation, and self-transcendence. The academic term underlying effective BBS is humanistic (caring) behaviorism (acting). Yes, this intervention approach is the foundation of the Actively Caring for People (AC4P) Movement–www.AC4P.org.
- Skinner, B.F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf
- Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; Rogers, C. R. (1980). A way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Skinner, B.F. (1978). Reflection on behaviorism and society (pp.9-10). Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Covey, S.R. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic (pp. 236-260). New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Deci, E.L., & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books; Geller, E.S. (2016). The psychology of self-motivation. In E.S. Geller. (Ed.). Applied psychology: Actively caring for people (pp.83-118). New York: Cambridge University Press.