You can look at compliance as a matter of behavior- following a demand, request, or wish. Compliance is a key component of a Total Safety Culture (TSC). In a TSC, people comply with all the rules, and they comply with requests from others to contribute to the safety mission. This can mean developing techniques to increase safe behavior or leading training sessions.

Social psychologists have researched techniques to strengthen compliance, and those most relevant to safety are reviewed in this article. Some might seem like common sense steps; that's because we use them everyday. After reading this article, think about putting some of these principles to work in your own action plans.

Personal appeal

In general, a person is most likely to comply with the wishes or instructions of someone they like. This is obvious, and points up the need for ingratiation. Anyone seeking to get others to comply must ingratiate themselves to that group, at least to some extent.

Social psychology research has verified a number of common techniques to boost one's appeal to another person, or persons, for the sake of bringing them into compliance:

  • Demonstrate your agreement with the person or group on other matters before making the request;

  • Offer genuine praise, recognition, or rewarding feedback;

  • Use "name dropping" to show your association with people respected by the group you've targeted for compliance;

  • Radiate positive nonverbal cues, such as smiles and friendly gestures, that show appreciation and interest in the people you want to reach;

  • Modify your personal appearance to be more acceptable and appealing to the group you want to influence. Maybe you put on a tie- or take one off- to appear more similar to your audience.

We frequently experience the opposite of ingratiation in industrial safety. Safety management is too often a confrontation between an authoritative individual and a subordinate who is not following a rule. Or, a request to serve on a steering committee or special task force is given in an impersonal memo by a computer e-mail message. Although we understand this principle of ingratiation on a personal level, it's often not followed when making a safety request.

Starting small

Social influence research demonstrates that someone who follows a small request is likely to comply with a larger request later. During the Korean War, the Chinese communists used this technique on American prisoners by gradually escalating their demands that started with a few harmless requests. First, the prisoners were persuaded to speak or write trivial statements; then they were urged to copy or create statements that criticized American capitalism; eventually the prisoners participated in group discussions of the advantages of communism, wrote self-criticisms, and gave public confessions of their wrong doing.

This "start small and build" strategy is successful in boosting product sales, monetary contributions to charities, and blood donations. In one study, researchers posed as volunteers in a local traffic safety campaign and went "cold calling" door-to-door to ask residents permission to install a large ugly sign in their front yards with the message "Drive Carefully." Only about 17 percent consented to this request. But 76 percent of residents who two weeks earlier had signed a safety legislation petition or had agreed to display a 3-inch square "Be a Safe Driver" sign in their home allowed the installation of the large sign.

The "safe behavior permission card" which I described in a May, 1994, ISHN article ("Tools for Promoting Safe Behavior") uses this principle. After people sign a promise card that commits them to a certain behavior for a specified period of time, such as using vehicle safety belts for a month or using a particular type of personal protective gear for two months, they are more likely to actually do the safe behavior.

These "foot-in-the-door" techniques only work to increase safe behaviors when people comply with the initial small request. In fact, if the individual says "no" to the first request, this person might find it easier to refuse a subsequent, more important request. Thus, it might be important to build up your appeal (ingratiation) to assure compliance with an initial small request. Or, if the circumstances suggest that resistance could be forthcoming, you might consider using the next social influence technique, which I call "door-in-the-face."

Shooting high

Here you start with an outrageous request. Something like, "Would you chair our safety steering committee?" Then when you receive the expected "no" you later make a smaller request- the one you wanted all along. This could be, "Would you participate in a safety steering committee meeting?" Since you showed willingness to "back down" from your initial request, subtle pressure is put on the person you want to influence to make a similar concession and agree this time. This exchange relates to the principle of reciprocity- another social psychology principle to consider when attempting to increase compliance with safe work practices.

One good turn...

Some sociologists, anthropologists, and moral philosophers consider reciprocity a universal norm which motivates a good deal of interpersonal behavior. Simply put, people are expected to help those who have helped them. Thus, you can expect people to comply with your request if you have done a favor for them in the past.

I witnessed this idea of reciprocity rather dramatically when I worked in the Virginia prison system in the mid-1970s. Several inmates used gifts and other forms of personal assistance to dominate other inmates. I knew an inmate, for example, who went to great length to place a gift in the cell of a new inmate he wanted to dominate. Accepting such a gift meant that the target inmate (or victim) was now obligated to return a favor in order to "save face."

Have you ever felt uncomfortable after someone did a favor for you? I certainly have felt this way, and I interpreted my discomfort as the reciprocity principle in action. Another person's favor made me feel obligated to reciprocate. What does this mean for safety management? I think it means we should look for opportunities to go out of our way for another person's safety. And this must be done in all sincerity. When we sincerely, actively care for someone else's safety, we increase the likelihood they will reciprocate when we need them.

Develop your own safety situations that relate to each of these social influence strategies. You will probably be able to identify past situations where these techniques were used intuitively without anyone realizing it. Or, you might pick out certain situations that could have benefited from one or more of these tactics. Most importantly, however, you will be able to define specific ways to use these interpersonal influence techniques in the future to increase people's willingness to comply with safety needs and get more involved in achieving a total safety culture.

And please try to apply these principles whenever an opportunity occurs. You'll be setting an example, or modeling. This is another powerful social influence technique.