Encouraging staff to adopt safe workplace practices often comes down to one simple quandary: to dangle a carrot or wield a stick.
While this may be an old question, there’s a new a reason we really don’t need to tie ourselves in knots over which method produces results. Behavioural science in occupational health and safety points firmly towards sweeteners, with one caveat—some sweeteners are far more effective than others.
Minimise the negative
“The research is very clear: it is much better to use more carrot and less stick,” says Dr Judy Agnew, senior vice-president for safety consulting firm Aubrey Daniels International. “Negative consequences certainly have a place in safety, but they are for the most part overused.”
Like slowing down for a police radar only to speed up afterwards, Agnew says the problem with negative consequences for workplace safety breaches is that the effect tends to be temporary. Put simply, people will do what they are supposed to only for as long as they have to.
Another problem is that imposing negative consequences can have unintended side effects that undermine a good safety culture, Agnew says.
“For example, people don’t want to speak up or tell you about near misses because they fear bad things will happen,” she says.
“A proactive approach to managing safety at higher levels of the organisation uses leading indicators rather than relying on lagging indicators.
“If we want to truly improve safety, we should welcome bad news, such as near misses and hazard reports, because we can only get better if we know what is really going on.”
Reinforce what’s right
Using positive reinforcement in workplace safety is by far the more effective approach as it will drive consistently safe behaviour and promote a safety culture that enables organisational learning, Agnew says.
“Positive consequences are not all about incentives and celebration. It’s about how we recognise, in a lot of subtle ways, the good things that workers are doing and make it meaningful.”
Usually seen as part of a “carrot” approach, incentives can come with their own risks.
“The typical way organisations use safety incentives is to base them on a lack of accidents—and that is very dangerous,” Agnew says.
“It is clear that such incentive systems can encourage people to hide incidents. It is impossible to be a learning organisation when people are hiding what is really going on.”
Aubrey Daniels International’s research shows that incentives based on proactive safety activities can be constructive, but Agnew and her colleagues prefer social reinforcement over incentives such as money or rewards.
“Ultimately, you want people to act on safety because it’s meaningful, it’s the right thing to do, they feel good about it, they see it makes an impact and makes the work environment better,” Agnew says.
“These are all examples of positive reinforcement and they come from interactions between people.”
One of the best tools for managers is a behavioural technique called shaping. Through feedback and positive reinforcement, staff are encouraged to improve steadily towards a target behaviour.
“We can get frontline staff to care and be invested in safety culture by using more positive reinforcement,” Agnew says.
“We must start by acknowledging that working in a consistently proper manner is hard and making it about how we want them to get home to their families safely.”
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