In his 1871 book,Primitive Culture, Edward B. Tylor defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man [woman] as a member of society.”1 There are layers within a culture called subcultures. 

In a corporate culture, there are subcultures such as engineering, operations, safety, health, environmental, management, executive, business units, human resources, etc.  Each of these subcultures has their own knowledge, beliefs, art, laws, morals, customs, capabilities and habits that are practiced and exhibited by each member of the subculture.

Dr. Dennis O’Neal, in his online “Human Culture” course, describes culture as the full range of learned human behavior patterns.  Culture is a powerful human tool for survival, but it is a fragile phenomenon.  It is constantly changing and easily lost because it exists only in our minds.2

Today’s safety mantra is Culture Rules! 

Too often safety professionals sell improving safety performance through a culture intervention using behavior-based safety.  You know the drill — conduct a safety culture survey, introduce an observations process, train-the-trainer, leadership training, observer training for employees, collect observation data, create action plans, track actions, keep observing and collecting data, and, of course, you got to have some sort of behavior software program.

Inevitably, management changes, markets tighten, severe cost reduction measures are imposed, and recession hits. Behavior-based safety observations fall by the wayside.  Employees migrate back to their comfort zone returning to old habits. Axioms that interfere with implementing behavior-based safety under the guise of culture change are:

  • Safety is all about what people do when no one is watching.
  • People can’t even control their own behavior and yet we think we can control others.

It is time to kick the behavior-based safety habit. Start thinking about safety in the terms of the individual’s habits.  Educate employees on how to change their own safety habits and forget about trying to change the safety culture.

Fortunately, Charles Duhigg offers a framework for understanding how habits work and a guide to experimenting with how they might change in his new book The Power of Habit3. Through neurological research, MIT scientists have discovered at the core of every habit there is the Habit Loop consisting of a cue, a routine, and a reward.  As Duhigg notes, to understand your own habits, you first need to identify each component of your loops.  Once this is accomplished, you can supplant old vices with new routines leading to modifying or even changing your habits.4

Step One: Identify the routine

In a safety context, identify the routine you go through to accomplish a work task for which you would like to change your habit in accomplishing the task for whatever reason. 

Next, you will need to answer some less than obvious questions:

  • What is the cue for this routine?  Is this a work task that is done at a certain time of the day, month, quarter, etc.?  Is there a safety factor that triggers the work task?
  • What is the reward(s) for this work task?  Is the work task associated with a bonus?  Are there positive feelings tied to the work task, such as working with colleagues, getting the job done, etc.?

Figuring this out will require some experimentation.

Step Two: Experiment with rewards

Duhigg writes, “Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings.  But we’re often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors. … To figure out which cravings are driving particular habits, it’s useful to experiment with different rewards.”5

Be patient, this step may take several days, a week or longer to figure out which cravings are driving your habits.  Think of this step as the data collection stage.

Once you think you have identified your cravings, start changing your routine slightly to test different hypotheses as to which cravings are driving your habit.  Do you enjoy breaking the rules, or do you skip safety steps in order to get the job done quicker?

Duhigg explains, as you test the four or five different rewards, start looking for patterns by jotting down as soon as you can three things that come to mind.  These can be emotions, random thoughts, reflections on how you’re feeling, or just the last three words that pop into your head.  Wait 15 minutes and ask yourself, do you still have the urge for the craving?  Note which craving(s) you still have, if any.

 The reason you jot three things down is twofold: 1) it forces a momentary awareness of what you are thinking and 2) it helps you to recall later what you were thinking at the moment.  By experimenting with rewards, you can isolate the actual craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit.6

Step Three:  Isolate the cue

Identifying cues that trigger us to do one thing or another are difficult to determine. We are constantly bombarded with so much information as our habits unfold.  Duhigg notes that research has revealed that almost all habitual cues fall into one of five categories: Location, Time, Emotional State, Other People, and Immediately Preceding Action.7

To diagnose your habit and figure out the cue, answer the following questions each time the urge hits you: Where are you? What time is it? What is your emotional state?  Who else is around? What action preceded the urge?

Over the course of several days to a week of doing the habit you are diagnosing, the cue that triggers the habit will begin to emerge.

Step Four:  Have a plan

Duhigg points out, “a habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD.  To re-engineer the formula we need to make choices by creating a plan.”8  By the way, your plan can be all of one sentence.  For example: At 2:30, every afternoon, I’ll take a break from work and visit with a colleague for 10 minutes.

Duhigg concludes with the obvious.  Habits are hard to change and often take quite a bit of time to successfully change.  By using this framework, you will understand how a habit operates and how you can gain power over it.9 




1 Tylor, E.B. 1871. Primitive Culture: Researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, art, and custom. U. of Michigan Library, Ann Arbor, MI.

2 O’Neal, D. 2012. Human Culture: An Introduction to the Characteristics of Culture and the Methods Used by Anthropologists to Study It. Behavioral Sciences Department, Palomar College, San Marcos, CA. At:

3 Duhigg, C. 2012. The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House, Inc. NY, NY.

4 Ibid. pp. 276-278.

5 Ibid. pp. 278.

6 Ibid. pp. 279-280.

7 Ibid. pp. 282-284.

8 Ibid. pp. 285.

9 Ibid. pp. 286.