Invited to do a workshop for a very large international corporation, I went out to a dinner where I sat next to the “grand poohbah” vice president in charge of all things quality and safety. He leaned over to me and said:

“Tim, you should know I think firing someone every now and again gets me great results. What do you think about that?”

I was asked a similar question from an HSE executive of a textile corporation:

“There are some plant managers who insist that punishment is the way to manage safety. Does punishment work?”

The answer, my friends, is “absolutely.”

B.F. Skinner defined punishment as any consequence that decreases behavior. It is the opposite of reinforcement, which he defined as any consequence that increases behavior. So, “yes,” punishment fundamentally works.

Yeah, but probably not.

Punishment is really a threat

By the time someone gets hurt, or otherwise gets caught because they committed an unsafe act, we’ve already lost and so have they. They suffer pain and/or some employment sanction. Here punishment works and this person will probably not do that at-risk behavior again. This point is most certainly true if they lost their job and lose the chance to try again.

But we assume the rest of the workforce

will avoid the at-risk behavior that got the person in trouble. We assume our discipline programs
that outline rules and punishments will keep all people in line. Now we are leveling threats to our workforce.

For a consequence like punishment to be effective, we must come in contact with the consequence.  You have to do the at-risk behavior and it has to be followed with punishment. When you are threatening, you are trying to stop the at-risk behavior before it starts. The problem is most all of your people have not had experience with the punishing consequence. So you are left making idle threats that can be a dysfunctional practice that kills your safety culture.

The problems with threats

Threats are merely antecedents that suggest a punishing consequence will come if you behave in a way that violates rules. Those threats must be acted on to work. To work, the punishment threatened must be:

Personal – A person’s job is quite personal to them.

Prompt – Punishment often is delivered quite distant from the behavior. 

Probable – First, the person has to get caught.  Second, the supervisor decides if the paperwork and disgruntled workers are worth following through on discipline. The probability a rule violations at your site will result in discipline I bet is below one percent.

Workers learn that threats are not acted on. This makes the discipline program an ineffective deterrent compared to the personal, prompt and probable reinforcing benefits of taking the short cuts.  Our system of punishment will not protect them.

We build a fortress of rules with a discipline program that can give us the illusion that we have control over the risks that could be taken in our workforce. This shapes complacency among leaders and reinforces a culture of finding faults instead of working toward solutions.  This dysfunctional practice truly kills your safety culture.

Now don’t get me wrong 

There need to be cardinal rules. Those who violate these rules, putting themselves and others in grave danger, do need to come in contact with consequences within proper justice procedures. 

Discipline must be part of an active safety management system because it can work. But it should be the last line of defense and not depended on as the primary behavior management tactic. Like I said, by the time someone needs to be disciplined, we’ve already lost.

The fact of the matter is the at-risk behavior is being reinforced by something. Take that something away. It’s called extinction. This may be hard to do because it is difficult to make short cuts more difficult.

A more functional way is to reinforce the safe behaviors -- and the at-risk behaviors will be replaced.  Reinforcing safe behaviors is a big part of behavioral safety programs fostering cultures where reinforcement is the norm. Build discipline through reinforcement instead of punishment and you get more sustainable results.

“I get results…”

The notion that when people see someone get fired they begin to comply with the rules and expectations is an illusion. Yes, they saw what happened and know it would suck for them too. The problem is most people don’t know specifically what they need to do to avoid this punishment. 

This leads to “superstitious behavior.” Folks just start doing whatever to avoid being on the bad side of the boss. They learn quickly when the boss comes around they need to alert each other with a whistle and then pull out the tape measure because no one gets in trouble measuring stuff.

My answer to that VP at dinner: “Sir, what you are really getting is a bunch of random activity from your reports in an attempt to gain your favor or avoid you. My guess is that your bosses did the same over your career and you’re the one that figured it out how to suck up to them. Is sucking up behavior what you’re looking for?”

I earned a laugh for that reply.