“What was he thinking?” is often hard to answer.

Behavioral coaching has evolved through several generations as we have learned what works best. The first generation was the most straightforward. The coach observed the trainee’s (which could be a subordinate or a coworker) behavior over time to identify procedures or behaviors that were inappropriate, and then in a very positive and friendly way explained why the preferred behavior was better. Ideally, follow-up was integrated directly into the process because the observations were ongoing – becoming a natural part of the work environment. Observations could be focused on safety, productivity, and/or any of a number of performance metrics. Historically, this was how the apprentice/ master relationship worked.

Command and control coaching
In these early approaches, intervention was often top down and authoritative. The coach or supervisor simply informed the individual of what the correct behavior was and used a combination of carrots and sticks to make sure that he or she complied. The problem with this approach is that incentives are only effective when the behaviors are constantly monitored and when management follows through with both the carrots and the sticks. This is particularly problematic when the behavior is performed when no one is around to notice. Employees can switch to the preferred behavior when other people are around, but lapse into bad habits when no one is looking. Employees also can be tempted to hide failures if it will lead to lost incentives.

Conversational coaching
As time went by, we learned that interventions could be made more effective if the trainee is given a rational explanation for why the preferred behavior is better. The rationale establishes the credibility of the preferred method and is intended to increase the trainee’s acceptance of the method. They would not just be complying with the preferred method because of the carrots and sticks, but also because they recognize that it is better. Perhaps it is safer or will lead to higher levels of production.

But whether intervention is based on tangible incentives or rational explanations, compliance depends on a basic assumption that the employee is going to behave rationally. The employee has to be more than just motivated by the carrots, fearful of the sticks, and accept the justification of the preferred behavior. The rationality has to drive his or her behavior.

Five keys to improving coaching
Recent advances in our understanding of human behavior have added several wrinkles that everyone involved in behavioral coaching should be aware of. Employees often agree with the justification in theory, positively rate the value of the incentives, but then in practice fail to follow through with the behavior. This inconsistency may seem irrational on the surface, but a great deal of recent research in brain science and in the field has uncovered some fascinating aspects of human behavior. Here are some of the findings and how they can help you improve your behavioral coaching.

1 — Preservation of self-image
When we are first told that we are doing something wrong, our first instinct is to defend ourselves, even when we logically recognize our error. The accusation activates an emotionally sensitive part of our brain that resists admitting fallibility, at least to ourselves. So we may externally agree that the coach is right, but something still pulls at us to continue the original behavior. Self-image is a powerful force, so it may overwhelm the effects of the carrots, sticks, and behavioral justifications combined. This instinct grows the longer we have been engaging in the behavior, so coaching interventions need to be implemented quickly whenever new hires enter the workplace or new procedures are established.

2 — Rationalization
Preferred behaviors often trade off one metric for another. Perhaps we are recommending a safety practice that may take a little more time, more thinking, or more physical effort. The problem here is that evolution has taught us to be naturally lazy, both physically and mentally. All else being equal, we instinctively would rather use the faster or easier method. So when a recommended practice violates this instinct, we have a tendency to rationalize it away. “OK, it is safer, but is it REALLY safer?” or “How bad can my current practice be; I haven’t been injured yet.”

Here is where the coach needs to go beyond a rational explanation. You need to have a salient story that emotionally resonates with the trainee. The next time he/she faces this situation, your story needs to emerge irresistibly from his/her imagination and be powerful enough to counteract our natural attraction to the easier path.

3 — Better than average effect
We are all familiar with the famous statistic that 90 percent of all drivers think they are better than average. This is a much more pervasive effect than you may think. Instinctively, we assume that we are better than average at most activities.

Why is this important for safety?

An important part of behavioral coaching is to convince the trainee that the non-preferred behaviors are hazardous in some way. Our credible rationale is usually based on a risk analysis for the worker population at large. What we have to watch out for is when the trainee assumes that he/she is particularly skillful or careful and will not fall victim to the hazard. Behavioral change is therefore not necessary. We need to show each trainee that he or she is not as good as he/she thinks. Some companies use personalized videotapes, showing trainees examples of their own fallibility. Generic video is ineffective because trainees just assume the subject in the video is just one of those average workers that he or she is superior to.

4 — Illusion of control
Another instinctive need that most of us have is a need to feel like we are in control. Even when we know that an event is completely random, we still develop superstitions and practices that “control” it.

Safety compliance 100 percent of the time is important because we can’t predict when something will fall down from the rafters and hit us on the head or when a chip will fly out of a machine and lodge into the soft tissue of our cornea. But somehow, we think that we will be safe without a hard hat “just this once” if we psychically concentrate on it. To overcome this instinct, live demonstrations are better because video can selectively record the one in a million case that would not have occurred if the trainee was engaged in their psychic concentration. Of course, it still helps to have your live demo secretly staged so that the hazard will appear on cue.

5 — Downward comparison
Downward comparison is another mental crutch we can use to justify unsafe behaviors. If we want to act unsafely, we simply stop comparing our behavior to the required safety behaviors and our safe behaving teammates. Instead, we look toward others on our teams that are violating the behavior. If they can do it, why can’t we? Or we can compare ourselves to imaginary behaviors that are even less safe. At least we aren’t doing it THAT way.

By finding a middle ground, we can rationalize that we are making smart tradeoffs and compromises. The best way to prevent any kind of downward comparison is to get everyone on board with the behavioral program and to enforce it widely. If no one is violating the preferred behaviors, there is no one to downwardly compare to. And if there are no second best behaviors that are even implicitly accepted, there are no behaviors to downwardly compare to either. Consistency is the key.