"Incentives don't work." "Goals motivate behavior." "Behavior-based safety produces only temporary results." "People cannot be motivated by others, they can only motivate themselves." "Slogans, posters, games and safety incentives should be eliminated."

Confusing, isn't it? Just what does motivate us to work safely? Is there any value to incentives, goals, posters? I've heard numerous consultants and safety professionals seem to deny the basic principle of behavior-based safety. That is, behavior is directed by preceding events (termed antecedent conditions or activators) and motivated by consequences. This activator-behavior-consequence (ABC) sequence is a basic principle of human motivation, founded on years of rigorous behavioral science research. The principle is indisputable.

I believe people who make statements like those above are reacting against the notion of external control, which they attribute to behavior-based safety. They might also realize the need for internal control if long-term behavior change is to be achieved.

Yes, internal control is important. But the ABC principle of external control should not be denied. In this article, we'll consider it in terms of internal activators and consequences.

Indeed, for employees to work safely over the long haul when external controls like rewards and penalties are not used, they need to develop internal control or motivation. They must give themselves internal activators to direct safe behavior, and internal rewards of pride, dignity, and self-respect after going out of their way for safety.

Really, optimal safety management requires us to intervene in ways that promote balance between external and internal control.

Reviewing the basics

To help shape this balance, let's first take a moment to review the basics of the ABC principle.

Often, certain events or conditions tell us what to do -or when to do it- if we want to obtain a pleasant consequence (a reward) or avoid a negative consequence (a penalty). These events are activators. Sign, posters, and rules, for example, provide direction or instruction for specific behavior. Incentives are activators that promote rewarding consequences if a target behavior occurs.

In contrast, disincentives threaten negative consequences if a certain behavior is performed.

Rewards support behavior and increase the likelihood it will occur again. A punisher decreases occurrences of the behavior it follows. In other words, we do things to receive positive consequences, and we stop doing things to avoid or escape negative consequences.

The power of incentives or disincentives depends on the size, immediacy, and certainty of the consequences they announce. Generally, consequences are more influential motivators of behavior when they are large (a valuable reward or severe penalty), immediate (presented soon after the behavior), and certain (likely to occur after the target behavior).

Balancing act

Let's look at how the ABC model applies to external and internal motivation. Activators and consequences can come from outside or inside. We receive external directions, rewards or punishers from others. But we also give ourselves internal directions, rewards or punishers.

For example, a goal is an activator that can be a powerful motivator if it specifies achievable consequences. This goal can be given to us by others, or we can set a goal for ourselves. A goal from others is an external activator. But if we believe in the goal and feel a sense of commitment to achieve it, the goal becomes internalized.

Receiving a reward for reaching a goal is an external consequence, of course. But this might not be the only consequence. The reward might only be seen as a token of appreciation for a job well done. Internal consequences like pride, feelings of accomplishment, greater belongingness to a work team, and increased self-confidence and self-esteem are actually more important to sustain long-term involvement in a safety effort.

Now here's a key point: Realizing the importance of internal activators and consequences influences the way we should exert external control. Let me explain. When a person does something only to get a reward or avoid a punishment, there is no internal rationale for the behavior. And the bigger the external consequence, the less need for internal motivation. If there's a big cash reward for not having accidents -or if you lose your job for getting injured -you feel no obligation to develop an internal justification for your behavior. Your actions are adequately controlled by obvious external consequences.

Now suppose external consequences are not powerful enough to fully control safe behavior all the time. Perhaps we're talking about pats on the back, coffee mugs, or other tokens. If people follow safety requirements in this situation -a big "if" sometimes- it is because they develop internal controls to justify their behavior. In other words, when people perform without sufficient external motivators they legitimize their actions with internal activators and consequences.

Instructive research

Pioneering research by professor Jonathan Freedman in 1965 demonstrated the need to limit external consequences if we want people to develop internal motivation. Dr. Freedman used a mild or severe threat to prevent seven- to nine-year-old boys from playing with an expensive battery-controlled robot.

In the mild threat condition, the boys were merely told, "It is wrong to play with the robot." Boys in the severe threat condition were told, "It is wrong to play with the robot. If you play with the robot, I'll be very angry and will have to do something about it."

Then the experimenter left the room. Four other toys were available for the boys to play with. From a one-way mirror, researchers observed that only one of 22 boys in each condition touched the robot.

About six weeks later, a young woman returned to the boys' school and took them out of class one at a time to perform in a different experiment. She made no reference to the earlier study, but instructed each boy to take a drawing test. While she scored the test, she told each boy he could play with any toy in the room. The same five toys from the previous study, including the robot, were available. Of the boys from the severe threat condition, 17 (or 77 percent) played with the robot, compared to only 7 (33 percent) from the mild threat condition.

Presumably, more boys experiencing the mild threat developed an internal rationale for avoiding the robot. As a result, they still would not play with this toy when the external pressure was absent.

Other researchers have followed up this study to demonstrate that people are more apt to develop internal motivation when external rewards or threats are relatively small and insufficient to completely justify a target behavior. This phenomenon has been referred to as the "less-leads-to-more effect." It's most likely to occur when people feel personally responsible for their choice of action and the resulting consequences.

You can see that rewards or penalties that "over justify" the target behavior can motivate people to perform safely for the wrong reasons. Under these circumstances, people are not likely to develop the kind of internal justification -or personal control- that sustains safe behavior in the absence of carrots and sticks.