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The ABCs of Human Behaviour

Published: 10th Nov 2010

Humans behave. We do things. We speak to each other and we take actions that others can observe, if they just take the time to look and listen. Even doing nothing is doing something.

The fascinating thing about human behaviour is that we know a great deal about it. We know the ways to motivate people, we can test our theories to see if they work, we can observe the outcomes and we can help each other to have behaviours that increase our chances of being safe.

There are many excellent human behaviour books and internet sites available for you to explore, so I won’t turn this into everything you need to know about human behaviour. I will give you an overview of the essential elements we believe, through over seven decades of research, is the model for human behaviour.

There are always exceptions to the rules, but here are the basics of the ABC model of human behaviour:

Activators - What happens to motivate the behaviour Behaviour - The observable action(s) taken by people Consequences - What results from the behaviour (actions)

Using these definitions we can see the only things we can actually manage are activators and consequences, since the way people behave is their choice based on the other two. We simply can’t manage behaviour, but the way we manage and control the activators and consequences will drastically affect people’s safe behaviours. This is extremely powerful if we do it with people instead of to them.

If we are to influence safe behaviour we need to realise that we can’t force anyone to do anything. What we can do is give people activators and consequences; they will decide how to react to them. If we want to positively increase the chances of safe behaviours all we can do is manage the As and the Cs.

In a Practical Based Safety Culture© people have a great understanding of human behaviour and are actively working with each other to make safe behaviours much more likely.

Manage behaviour, not attitude

If behaviour is what people do, then attitude is what people think. If you believe we can motivate human behaviour by the activators we use to help them predict the consequences of their behaviour, then what can we do to change people’s attitudes?

Early in my career I was told that a ‘safety attitude’ is essential and that everyone should have a good attitude towards safety. I tried to get people to think that safety was good and that they should really want to be safe. The problem I found with this approach was there was not a good way to influence people’s attitudes towards safety. Sure, I could give them all the information, I could find about why safety is good.

I could perhaps show them bloody pictures of injured body parts in hopes that they would be disgusted into thinking safety was good for them. I could preach to them the virtues of a good safety attitude. None of these things would change the way they were behaving. They would tell me that after a “rah, rah” safety meeting they were on board, but I honestly believed they were telling me that so the meeting would be over sooner.

As I became wiser about human behaviour I became much more effective in helping people become safer. I abandoned my attempts to influence attitude and started challenging folks to find ways to improve their safe behaviours. Probably to no one’s surprise I became much more effective.

You see, behaviour will change when we motivate safe behaviour, which is the most important thing we can do. How someone feels about a hard hat or bump cap is of little consequence, but if they wear it, it makes a big difference. I’d like to love wearing my hard hat (I don’t by the way), but how I feel about my hard hat has little to do with it protecting my head. In fact, wearing it has a great deal to do with how much my head will hurt or not hurt if something hits me on the head.

If we’re successful in motivating safe human behaviour, I believe that over time my employees will have a more positive attitude about safety. If they don’t change their attitude but change their behaviour, I’m good with that for now.

Attitude is internal and is difficult to measure. Behaviour is external and can be observed. Saving time and making yourself more comfortable is all too human. As imperfect humans, we often choose to do what is not always consistent with what we think. Regardless of what we think, our behaviours don’t lie.

Manage an activator

The ABC model of human behaviour tells us the importance of activators. These are the attention getting things in our lives that trigger us to take action.

A ringing telephone, a stop sign, a sticky note pasted on our door reminding us to do something as we leave in the morning are all simply activators.

These are powerful tools used to enhance the chance that we will have a particular behaviour. Activators have manageable features and are an important part of any Practical Based Safety Culture©. When managed well they can improve the chances we will do those critical things that need to be done to make our work and/or play safe.

Signs, reminders, other humans talking to us, forms, meetings, notes, even our electronic calendars all work as activators to our behaviours. They are powerful if used properly.

The process of designing and using activators is simple enough:

1. Select the critical behaviour you need to have. In this example let’s use: wearing head protection where there is a danger of head injury. It becomes critical to have this behaviour because, if we don’t, we run the risk of unwanted energy (gravity) acting upon an object that is above us, or the kinetic energy of something swinging into us from the side coming into contact with our head.

2. Create an activator to remind you to follow the critical process. The people doing the work need to ask themselves “What things can we do today to remind us to follow the Hard Hat rules?” Perhaps it’s a co-worker who reminds us to wear the hard hat before we head out to the worksite. Perhaps it’s adding it to a pre-job meeting checklist that must be discussed and filled out before work can start. Maybe if this kind of work is done often, the workers can keep the hard hat hanging on the hook on top of their tool belts so they see it every time the go out to work.

These clues to tipping off the behaviour are only powerful if they work for the people doing the work. Indeed, this is personal. You need to ask yourself and work with others to make the activators for critical behaviours work. There is no sense in putting in place activators that get ignored. The activators that get ignored are usually the activators designed by someone else!

3. Put consequences in place to support the behaviour. Activators without consequences don’t work very well. Writing notes to yourself to do something won’t get you to do the behaviour if nothing happens if you don’t do it, now will it? We do what we do because of what happens when we do it. We happily do things that give us positive outcomes. So build a reward system into your activator plan. What will happen when I do this thing? Is there a process to measure that it gets done? Will someone notice? Will the consequence be positive? These are all important questions to ask yourself.

4. Review how your plans and activities are working. Are you seeing evidence that behaviours are changing?

5. Adjust if necessary and refit or change as the evidence indicates. If you’ve reached your goal then move on to the next critical behaviours your group needs to make habitual.

So the next time you look at a form that needs to be filled out or you’re going to a meeting, ask yourself if this activator works to motivate critical safety behaviour. If it doesn’t, improve it so it does.

Give them a consequence that they want

The basic formula of human behaviour includes activators, behaviour and consequences. By now we know that behaviour is a function of the motivation humans get from both the activators and the consequences. Using the power of this knowledge we have about human behaviour we can start to positively influence safe behaviours by working with those people who we rely on to have positive behaviours. It’s best if we engage people in the management of their own behaviour. Asking them what activators would help them have the critical behaviours they need to be safe and successful can be powerful. An even more powerful part of the discussion needs to be how we recognise the behaviours through consequences.

Consequences are the results of our behaviours. They are the things that happen as a result of our behaviour. We can manage consequences and in fact, we must if we hope to influence behaviours. Here’s where things can go dramatically wrong. Consequences can either make it more likely that the behaviour will be repeated or less likely that the behaviour will happen again. If we like what happened, we’re likely to do what we need to do to make that consequence happen again. If we dislike what happened then we will do what we can to not get that consequence in the future.

Let’s work through an example:

If we work in an environment that requires us to wear head protection, then there are a few things we can do to activate the required behaviour of wearing the protection. We can manage these three factors:

Activators

These are the things we create to trigger behaviours of the people we hope to influence. Typical examples include:

• Write a policy and make it available

• Train workers

• Provide signs

• Discuss the requirement at safety meetings

• Send reminder emails

• Have fellow workers remind each other

• Have our supervisors remind their staff

Behaviours

In this example there are only a few possible common behaviours:

• Wear the hard hat

• Don’t wear the hard hat

• Wear the hard hat incorrectly (backwards)

• Wear a bump cap where a hard hat is required

Consequences

• Nothing happens

• People remind us

• We feel more comfortable without them

• We get a positive remark from coworkers

• We get an injury because something struck our head

• We have to take the time to find the hard hat

Practically putting this to work TODAY

Activators set the stage for behaviour, and consequences re-enforce the behaviour through both positive and negative results of our behaviour.

Our lives are filled with activators and consequences. If you want to actively help fellow humans be safer then you need to do one of two things.

1. Provide an Activator Take the time to remind folks to be safe and to ensure that if we do see someone taking unnecessary risks, ‘We’re’ going to react. We are, after all, our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

2. Provide someone with a Consequence The C in the ABCs of behaviour is what happens after our behaviour. The outcomes that we experience after our behaviours are the consequences. Consequences are powerful motivators. They can be both positive and negative and can increase or decrease the chance our behaviour will be repeated. Thanking people for doing something that reduces risk and increases safety is worth the time and effort. It increases the chance that they will do it again if something positive happens to them. We can help provide the consequences for others. A positive comment to a co-worker for behaving safely increases anyone’s chances that they will do it again.

The best part is that it’s free!

Give real rewards, not trinkets

Rewarding and recognising safety activities and celebrating positive results is a powerful way to make safe behaviours much more likely. This process of making the things we want to happen noteworthy to make our workplace safe is very effective. Creating positive accountabilities for the people doing the work required to make activities less risky is a proactive way to lead us to believe we will be successful.

Providing negative incentives is part of the human behaviour model, but this is never the preferred method. Using negative consequences to get humans to behave in a predictable way is only effective as long as the negative things happen with some certainty. The all too common practice of threatening to fire someone for breaking the safety rules only works when you actually carry out the threat. Threatening employees with dismissal for safety violations and then not doing it can create a culture you simply don’t want. No one I know wants to work for a company that lies to itself.

Acknowledging the behaviours we want with something the workforce wants is powerful. This is so powerful that when you finally get your plans in place to do it, you will be overwhelmed with the success of this stage of your safety culture evolution.

Congratulate and celebrate the successful creation of safety and you will continue to get safe production as an outcome. If you recognise people with things they don’t value, you fail to motivate them and frankly, make them cynical and somewhat bitter that you haven’t taken the time to find out what is important to them.

Providing a fellow worker with a negative consequence by not letting them work at-risk also makes it more likely they will do the right thing. After a while I’m sure my co-workers will start thinking things like “No need trying to do this job without the right head protection - that safety guy will just stop me and make me go and get it. I might as well just put it on now.”

Good luck with your ABC challenges. Remember to always be practical with your knowledge of why people do what they do!

Published: 10th Nov 2010 in Health and Safety Middle East

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