Too often "retraining" or "discipline" is selected impulsively to correct a discrepancy between what people do and what we want them to do. As I mentioned last month, workers will take risks for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they don't know what's expected, or they don't have the right tools or enough time. Sometimes people are rewarded for the wrong behavior, or ignored or punished for performing the safe way. Useful feedback may be missing.

In these cases, people know what to do, but they just aren't doing it. They are "consciously incompetent." The problem is not lack of knowledge or skill. Training is not the answer. You need to analyze and change organizational systems, workplace conditions, and interpersonal relations.

In their 1997 book, Analyzing Performance Problems, Robert Mager and Peter Pipe suggest a number of ways to get the performance you want before concluding that formal training is needed. Ask yourself these four questions:

1. Can the task be simplified?

Before developing a training program to increase on-the-job safety, make sure all possible engineering "fixes" have been implemented. Explore the many ways the environment could be changed to reduce physical effort, reach, and repetition. Entertain ways to make the job more user-friendly before deciding what behaviors are needed to prevent injury.

2. Is there a skill discrepancy?

What about those times when employees are "unconsciously incompetent" - they really don't know how to work safely? This might call for training. But Mager and Pipe claim that most behavioral discrepancies are not caused by a genuine lack of skill. Usually, people can work safely if conditions and consequences are right. So training should really be the least-used approach for corrective action.

3. What kind of training is needed?

If you determine that someone has forgotten how to perform a task, a skill maintenance program may be in order. This is the rationale behind periodic emergency training. Fortunately, emergencies don't happen very often, but since they don't, people need to go through the motions just to "stay in practice."
Skill maintenance training is also needed when a person gets plenty of practice doing the wrong thing. Here, practice only reinforces a bad (or risky) habit. For example, most people know how to drive a vehicle safely, and once showed little at-risk driving. But safe driving often deteriorates over time.
Behavior-based feedback is critical for solving both of these skill discrepancies. Especially when desired skills have deteriorated into poor habits (as in the driving example), it's often necessary to use behavior-based coaching. The coach needs to systematically complete a critical behavior checklist while watching for safe versus at-risk actions, and then give both supportive and corrective feedback.
Of course, there is also the training needed to introduce a new procedure or process.

4. Is the person right for the job?

A skill discrepancy can be handled by changing the job or changing the person. But what if a person's interests, skills, or prior experiences are incompatible for the job?
Before investing in skill training for a particular individual, it's a good idea to assess whether the person is right for the job. If a person does not have the motivation or the physical and mental capabilities for a particular job, the cost-effective solution is to find a replacement. If you don't, you'll lower productivity and increase the risk for personal injury.
Remember, if you're not getting the performance you want from employees, the reasons often will be found in the work environment or the task itself. Don't impulsively assume the answer lies in training or discipline. Analyze the situation, the behavior, and the individuals involved to prioritize possible solutions.

By E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Virginia Tech and senior partner with Safety Performance Solutions. SPS helps companies analyze occupational safety and health discrepancies related to employee behavior - from the line worker to the plant manager. Contact SPS at (540) 951-7233;