Scott Geller
Why do employees often revert to unsafe ways after being lectured about safety? Why do the goggles come off or the earplugs come out after you leave the area?

This is one of safety’s ongoing challenges: How do you sustain safe behavior without constant supervision? In this article I want to compare direct versus indirect approaches to influence behavior — and I hope to convince you that the indirect approach is usually more effective.

The direct approach

Advertisers use direct persuasion by showing us people using their products and enjoying positive consequences or avoiding negative ones. They apply the ABC contingency of behavior analysis to sell their wares. The activator (“A”) announces the availability of a reinforcing consequence (“C”) if the purchasing behavior is performed (“B”).

Advertisers also apply research-based principles from social psychology to make their messages more persuasive. Social scientists have shown advantages in using highly credible communicators, so we see sales pitches often given by authority figures.

But these attempts at direct persuasion do not ask for a significant change in behavior. Normally, the purpose of an ad message is to persuade a consumer to select a certain brand of merchandise. This boils down to merely choosing one commodity over another.

Safety-related behavior is usually more inconvenient and requires more effort than switching brands at a supermarket. It often requires a significant adjustment to an ingrained routine at work, at home, or on the road.

Here’s my point: Direct persuasion is frequently not the best approach to increase safety-related behavior or promote long-term participation in a safety process. Direct attempts to persuade people to make challenging changes in their lifestyle usually yield disappointing outcomes. Communication strategies have generally been unsuccessful when designed to persuade smokers to quit smoking, drivers to stop speeding, bigoted individuals to cease prejudicial behavior, homeowners to conserve water, or sexually active people to use condoms.

I can quote rigorous research to support each of these failures of direct persuasion. But you probably don’t need research results to convince you that the direct approach has its limits when applied to safety. Your own experience has likely been the best teacher here.

The problem with direct persuasion is that it’s direct. It comes across as someone else’s idea. And it can give the impression that the desired behavior is primarily for someone else’s benefit.

The indirect approach

These days many safety professionals have learned from experience that the best way to increase safety involvement is to allow the workforce to have substantial control and authority over desired safety procedures. Increasing choice, ownership, and empowerment reflects indirect persuasion. You’re not telling people what to do in order to remain safe. Rather, you’re giving people the knowledge, tools, and resources to implement a particular process that will help keep them safe.

I realize all of this empowerment stuff is easier said than done. But surely you see advantages to this way of motivating long-term participation. It enables a reciprocal relationship between behavior and self-perception, which facilitates self-persuasion and increases the probability of a sustained effort.

As I discussed in my column last month, to improve safety participation and performance we want to create a link between overt behavior and self-perception. Remember, how we behave influences how we think about and define ourselves. And these self-perceptions affect the quantity and quality of subsequent behavior. This is self-directed behavior, and it can persist without external control.

Self-persuasion is more likely to occur when the motivational strategy is less direct, less obvious. For example, behavioral research has shown that compliments are more powerful when they are more indirect than direct. Have you ever been flattered by someone’s compliment and thought, “That person is only trying to get something from me”? But if a friend shares with you what another person said about your special talents, it tends to have more influence on your self-perception. Why? Because the direct approach is tainted by the possibility of an ulterior motive.

Indirect persuasion deviates significantly from the standard direct and top-down method of obtaining compliance with safety regulations. Both approaches might be equally effective at motivating behavior change, but the indirect approach will be far more successful at enhancing the kind of internal dialogue needed to maintain behavior once you leave the shop floor and return to your office.