Whether you succeed in increasing safe behaviors or decreasing risky behaviors at work depends on many factors. What behaviors are you targeting? What are the personal characteristics of the individual you are coaching? Context or the environmental setting also influences behavior. The type of intervention strategy you select is important, too. Some work better than others, depending on the complex interplay between targeted behaviors, environmental circumstances, and personal dynamics.

In this article, I want to give you some basic guidelines for selecting the most appropriate behavioral intervention.

Three types of behavior

All voluntary behavior starts out as 'other-directed,' in the sense that we follow someone else's instructions. Direction can come from a training program, operation's manual or policy statement.

After learning what to do, essentially by memorizing or internalizing the instructions, our behavior becomes 'self-directed.' We talk to ourselves before acting, cueing memories of what we've learned to guide ourselves. At this point, we're usually open to corrective feedback if it's delivered well.

Some behaviors become automatic after we perform them frequently and consistently over a period of time. Automatic behavior, or a habit, is formed. Some habits are good and some are not, depending on their short and long-term consequences.

Let's discuss what intervention strategies are appropriate to bring about this sequence of behavioral change:

  • Turning a risky habit (where the employee is unconsciously incompetent) into a self-directed behavior;

  • Changing risky self-directed behavior (again, unconscious incompetence) to safe self-directed behavior;

  • Taking safe self-directed behavior (where the employee is consciously competent) and turning it into a safe habit (unconscious competence).

Three intervention strategies

First we have instructional interventions. They typically serve to activate or direct behavior prior to it happening. (Remember the ABC model that is the foundation of behavior-based safety: 'A' represents activators or antecedent events that precede behavior, indicated by 'B', and 'C' is the consequences following behavior and produced by it. Activators typically direct behavior and consequences motivate behavior.)

Instructions can turn automatic habits and into self-directed behaviors, or improve behavior that is already self-directed. The aim is to get an individual's attention and change unconscious incompetence into conscious competence.

Instructional intervention consists primarily of activators: education sessions, training exercises, and directive feedback. Since your purpose is to instruct, the intervention comes before the target behavior occurs, and focuses on helping the individual internalize your instructions. This approach is more effective when instructions are given one-to-one. Role-playing exercises give instructors opportunities to customize their directions.

Once a person learns the right way to do something, practice is important. This is how behavior becomes part of a natural routine. Continued practice leads to fluency and in many cases to automatic or habitual behavior. But practice does not come easy, and can benefit greatly from supportive intervention. Encouragement keeps us going and reassures us that we're doing the right thing.

Supportive intervention focuses on applying behavioral consequences. When we give people rewarding feedback or recognition for some particular safe behavior, we show our appreciation and increase the likelihood they will perform the behavior again.

Supportive intervention is used when a person knows what to do. This kind of support assumes that the person is already motivated to do the right thing. Incentives or disincentives, promises or threats, are not needed.

When someone knows how to work safely but doesn't do it, motivational intervention is needed. In this case, the person is consciously incompetent about safety-related behavior. Instruction alone is obviously insufficient. And we don't want to support their calculated risk-taking.

Why do we take calculated risks? Usually it's because we perceive the positive consequences to be more powerful than the negative ones. The reasons for taking the risk - comfort, convenience, and efficiency - are immediate and certain. Injury, on the other hand, is improbable and seems remote. Plus, the safe way is relatively inconvenient, uncomfortable, or inefficient. In this situation, we often need both activators and consequences to move people from conscious incompetence to conscious competence.

An incentive/reward program attempts to motivate a certain target behavior by promising people a positive consequence if they perform it. The promise is the incentive and the consequence is the reward. In safety, this kind of motivational intervention is much less common than a disincentive/penalty program. Employers typically use rules, policies, or laws to threaten employees with a negative consequence if they fail to comply, or if they take a calculated risk.

But this approach is often ineffective. Like an injury, the negative consequence or penalty seems remote and improbable. Enforcement programs can have an impact by increasing the severity of the penalty and catching more people taking the calculated risk, but large-scale enforcement can seem inconsistent and unfair. Plus, threats of punishment appear to challenge individual freedom and choice. The result can be more calculated risk-taking, even sabotage, theft, or workplace violence.

Motivational intervention is clearly the most challenging of the three strategies outlined here. You want to influence behavior without triggering a person's desire to assert personal freedom.

Remember, powerful external consequences might work - but only as long as the intervention is in place. The individual is consciously competent, but their behavior is not self-directed - it comes from excessive outside control. It's possible that a long-term motivational intervention, coupled with consistent supportive intervention, can lead to a good habit. This is how other-directed safe behavior can move to unconscious competence without first becoming self-directed.

The critical question

How can we change consciously competent/other-directed behavior to consciously competent/self-directed behavior? My recent book published by J. J. Keller, "Beyond safety accountability: How to increase personal responsibility," deals exclusively with this issue.

Here are five general recommendations, all based on behavioral research:

1. Decrease top-down control for safety. Focus on fact-finding rather than fault-finding. Consider the disadvantages of punishment, and the differences between a human error and a calculated risk. Recognize how interpersonal and environmental context influences at-risk behavior.

2. Increase feelings of empowerment. Hold people accountable for safety performance numbers they can control. Set goals that are specific, motivational, achievable, recordable, and trackable. Recognize progress and milestones toward major accomplishments. And increase the use of supportive interventions.

3. Help people feel important. Increase opportunities for choice. Teach principles and guide how employees customize procedures. Demonstrate the significance of proactive, behavior-based safety, and teach the value of emotional intelligence, including techniques for communicating more effectively with others and with oneself.

4. Cultivate belonging and interpersonal trust. Improve interpersonal communication. Build group consensus for important decisions. Promote systems thinking and interdependence. And teach and demonstrate the principle of reciprocity - the fact that helping others activates an obligation to return the favor.

5. Teach and support safety self-management. You can use guidelines I outlined in the July and August 1998 issues of ISHN.