When Krista Geller, Ph.D., turned 16, her father gave her a T-shirt with the name of his company on it: Actively Caring for People. It’s not the kind of gift every teenager would appreciate, but it made an impression on her.

She later joined her father, E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., at the organization, which is now called GellerAC4P. As its current president, she speaks on research-based methods for improving workplace safety.

Tapping into this lifetime of psychological and behavioral knowledge, Geller recently gave a presentation, sponsored by ASSP’s Blacks in Safety Excellence (BISE) Common Interest Group, called “The Human Dynamics of Achieving an Injury-Free Workplace: Safety Directives from Psychological Science.” 

 Based on the research of B.F. Skinner and W. Edwards Deming, Geller offers seven take-home techniques to intrinsically motivate workers to embrace safety and improve your safety culture.

Lesson 1: Employ more positive consequences

Positive consequences are the most efficient way to improve both behavior and attitude — and they have a stronger effect on behavior than negative consequences, Geller says. They encourage people to seek success rather than avoid failure.

The most effective positive consequences tick three boxes: They are soon, frequent and behavior based. 

When communicating positive consequences, which may involve sharing praise or rewards, you must help workers make meaningful connections. Give them the why, make sure they understand the context around what they’re doing and tell a story about why it’s important.

Pro tip: Be careful that you are rewarding the right behavior. Take this study, for example: Two groups took a test. When the results came in, one group was praised for studying and told to keep up the hard work. The other group was told they were naturals and simply knew what they were talking about. When the two groups came back and took another test, the group that was rewarded for studying hard did better on the test because they were motivated to study again.

Lesson 2: Benefit from observational learning

You probably do more observational learning than you think. Whether you need guidance on how to behave or help understanding the requirements of a task, your first instinct is probably to pay attention to what others around you are doing. It’s how all of us begin processing information, relationships and risks at the start of our lives, and it continues to be important as we age.

As a safety leader, it’s important to recognize moments when people are looking to you as an example and ensure that your behavior aligns with the values you’re working to instill in others.

Pro tip: Combine observational learning with education. You may know why you want something done in a certain way, but don’t assume everyone is on the same page. When you notice others watching your behavior, take the time to explain each step.

Lesson 3: Apply behavioral feedforward and feedback

When giving feedback or feedforward (where you tell someone what you want to see in the future), remember to “COACH,” Geller says: Care, observe analyze, communicate and help. Effective coaches specify which behaviors are desirable and create team environments where people feel comfortable admitting what they don’t know. 

Pro tip: Positive feedback is critical to keeping teams motivated, Geller says. If you’re giving positive feedback that doesn’t seem to land, ask yourself: Is the feedback sincere? Does it highlight something specific? Could the timing be improved?  

Lesson 4: Use more supportive than corrective feedback 

A supervisor emails a team member and says, “We need to talk.” Do you think that person feels afraid or confident? 

The manager whose employee isn’t intimidated has been using more supportive than corrective feedback and has created a culture of trust. When workers trust that safety leaders will avoid blame and listen to their concerns, they are more motivated and effective, Geller says. 

Pro tip: Part of actively caring means helping others even when you know they can’t help you back.

Lesson 5: Embrace and practice empathy

Empathy requires an emotional connection — and developing that emotional connection should be intentional. Geller recommends practicing empathic listening. It’s “special and rare,” she says, and it’s the most advanced of the five levels of listening. Those levels are:

  • Ignoring outright
  • Pretend listening
  • Selectively listening 
  • Attentively listening 
  • Empathic listening (or, listening with an intent to understand the other person’s experience)

As you’re talking with people, check in and elevate the level of listening you’re using.

Pro tip: Most people know the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. Empathy asks us to go further by treating others the way they want to be treated, Geller says.

Lesson 6: Empower yourself and your team

You can activate the behavior you want to see and create long-term, sustainable self-motivation through empowerment. To reflect on empowerment in your safety program, Geller says to consider these three concepts:

Self-efficacy: Can we do it? This requires training (the how) and education (the why). As a result of training and education, you can complete the task safely and effectively.

Response efficacy: Will it work? This means identifying expected outcomes. When performed as defined, this task will help you achieve your goals.

Outcome expectancy: Is it worth it? It’s up to you to define the value of the outcome. This is the result of your hard work.

Pro tip: Empowerment activates goal commitment. Geller has another acronym for goal-setting: SMART goals — or goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound — are the most empowering because they help you focus on what matters most and track your progress along the way, she says.  

Lesson 7: Progress from self-actualization to self-transcendence

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs is one of the best-known theories of motivation, presented as a pyramid. Self-actualization, the drive to realize our true potential and achieve our “ideal self,” used to be at the top of the pyramid. But a revised version, discovered by Maslow’s wife using his notes after his death, shows self-transcendence at the top. Self-transcendence is the highest level of motivation. It’s not about the self, but about going above and beyond to help others. 

Pro tip: Geller says to think about consequences in terms of the hierarchy of needs, particularly those at the top of the pyramid such as self-actualization, esteem and love/belonging. They should reflect choice (esteem), competence (esteem) and community (love/belonging).