Why Zero Injuries Does NOT Always Mean Your Worksite is Safe

Why Enforcement is Not Enough to Become World-Class

The active ingredient in motivation is the outcome a person receives for performing a given behavior.  Put simply, people will behave either to avoid unpleasant consequences or to receive pleasant consequences. Given this interpretation of motivation, enforcement can be seen as an antecedent-consequence relationship we call a threat (antecedent) of a penalty (consequence) given some behavior that we don’t want to occur. This will work, but generally produces only the minimum behavior necessary to avoid the penalty. We call this compliance. 

Compliance is exemplified by the fact that the threat of a ticket for speeding does not motivate us to drive the speed limit, but rather just under the threshold for getting the ticket (often 9 mph above the speed limit!). So, although some control is produced, we don’t tap into what behavioral scientists call “discretionary behavior” (the potential for improvement represented by the 9 mph liberty we often take).

Another characteristic of enforcement is that compliance often occurs only when the threat of the penalty is imminent–we slow down when we see the police officer and speed back up after we can no longer see the police car in our rear view mirror.  I believe an over-reliance on enforcement at the expense of recognizing good behaviors is a major contributor to the “safety plateau.” Additionally, if we don’t acknowledge the good things people do and always point out their failings, we create people who don’t feel good about themselves and who are less motivated to perform for our benefit in general.

To avoid these problems when managing people, we must learn to use positive-focused consequence management. That is, we need to create an antecedent-consequence relationship that is a promise (antecedent) of recognition (consequence) for good behavior (i.e., behavior we want to occur again). When the application of the positive consequence results in an increase in the behavior that produces it, we call the process positive reinforcement and the consequence a reinforcer. Reinforcers can be either social (e.g., a thank you) or material (tangible rewards, money, etc.).

To understand reinforcement you must realize that it is defined by its effect on increasing behavior. In contrast, rewards may be seen as pleasant, but may not necessarily produce the behavior change we are seeking. An advantage of positive reinforcement is that it helps us tap into the range of discretionary behavior that enforcement does not, and also produces more enduring behavior change (and behavior that occurs even when the “enforcer” or reinforcer is not present).

Put differently, positive reinforcement helps people to feel better about themselves and jump starts the “internal motivation system”—the ability of people to self-reward. This is the core of building responsibility or self-accountability. Having employees demonstrate personal responsibility for safety is the key to getting off the safety plateau.

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