Written by: Sierra Morris
Behavior-based safety is often touted as one of the greatest models for improving workplace safety culture and performance. For the most part, I would have to agree. The greatest challenge and most central element of workplace safety and health is that your job involves human beings – which are flawed, instinctual, and emotional. A lot of the time, safety professionals are fighting an uphill battle against deeply engrained instincts and habitual behaviors. In theory, behavior-based safety is really the only way to go; after all, how can you change an action or behavior if you don’t understand it and don’t know how to influence it? But the one problem with behavior based safety programs is that they often go about it in an ineffective way. It appears the individuals / consulting firms propagating these systems only have a fractured understanding of human psychology, which has resulted in a menagerie of problems. One of the most common problems I’ve ever noticed is within the observation model.
First, it is important to note that behavior-based safety simply could not occur without some form of observation. To even know what behaviors are present and need to be modified, we must first observe those performing them. But the application of this concept is often a bit off the mark.
Most companies with an observational model tend to put the duty of observing into the hands of all their employees. Safety professionals tout this as a splendid way to get everyone involved in the safety process. The belief tends to be that initiating a peer-to-peer observational model will give the employees a sense of control and empowerment, which all sounds great in theory. But the reality is somewhat different.
The “Empowerment Element” is Somewhat False
To those who believe employees observing one another makes them feel in control of their workplace / more involved in the safety process, I ask you this: what part of observing their coworkers truly gives them a sense of control over their workplace destiny? Does this allow them to make the rules about what is considered safe and what is unsafe? Does this allow them to choose or modify punishments or rewards for their behavior? Does this allow them to give significant input into the enforcement of the program? Does this change their day-to-day life in any way, other than they must observe and be observed? What element of the safety program are they being involved in, other than reporting the behaviors of others? The answer is … none. And the fact is, employees aren’t stupid, and they will see through the false notion that they are being given power over / significant involvement in their safety program. The facade is, in all actuality, rather insulting. Employees know that their supposed empowerment in this situation is all smoke and mirrors. They have no new empowerment in the system as a whole; however, they do gain some small modicum of power over their coworkers.
The System Depends on Altruism as the Motivator
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln
No matter how altruistic we want to believe our workforce is, it simply isn’t true. It is a seriously rare thing to find an employee whose number one priority at work is the welfare of the company as a whole. If we’re being honest, most people’s number one priority is their own livelihood, providing for themselves and their family. The ideal employee for a peer-to-peer observational method would be invested in the good of the company and the workgroup as a whole, otherwise he or she has little to no incentive to participate. So what’s the motivator for the Average Joe here? Well, on the flip side, giving employees the chance to perpetuate their own interests by reporting the inadequacies (whether real or invented) of their coworkers is an excellent incentive to participate. When you hand people direct power over their coworker’s performance evaluation at work, someone is bound to use it for their own self-interests, whether for emotional reasons or for strategic ones. Humans are genetically predisposed to promote their own survival; it’s how we pass on our genetic material and perpetuate the species. You’ll be hard-pressed to contend altruism against natural human selfishness.
The System Causes a Shift in Group Dynamics
When you require people to report the behaviors of their group members, even if the system is used altruistically, you invite new group dynamics: distrust, suspicion, and indeed the very dissolution of the workplace “tribe” mentality. When you create an environment in which employees will be reporting the behaviors of others – for which there will be some consequence – you reduce the tribe from “the work group” to “me vs. everyone who can report me.” Think about it. While it’d be great to live in a world where we can make honest observations about other people without those people getting upset, we simply don’t. People don’t like to be observed and they certainly don’t appreciate scrutiny coming from every rung of the ladder. What people like even less is to be observed and then have their deficiencies in performance reported to people in charge of their livelihood. Even those employees consistently engaging in safe behaviors will feel as though they can no longer trust their coworkers.
This sort of “me vs. them” mentality dissolves whatever “us” tribal mentality that existed before. This is a mistake, as far as behavioral psychology is concerned. Tribal mentality / groupthink is one of safety’s greatest secret weapons when it comes to facilitating a healthy safety culture. When employees feel as though they belong to a tribe, they will inevitably succumb to tribal pressure and adopt the culture, thought processes, and behaviors of their tribal members. These behaviors and culture, with the appointment of effective leadership and the use of proper reinforcement techniques, can be safety-positive. It’s difficult to facilitate any type of culture without an “us” tribal mentality. You cripple your ability to perpetuate positive safety culture when you divide your employees – and this divide is inevitable.
What’s the Point?
Observation of employee behaviors is crucial to behavior-based safety. You must know what behaviors are present in the workforce before you can hope to modify them. But the answer, in my opinion, is not peer-to-peer observation. Human beings are not strictly logical, and the emotional and instinctual aspects of human psychology will inevitably play a part in peer-to-peer observation, to the detriment of its success. Yes, peer-to-peer observation would be fantastically effective in another world; but in the meantime, our solutions must match our problems.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sierra Morris resides in Fort Polk, LA
with her husband and two dogs. Still relatively new to the OSH world,
Morris seeks to make sense of occupational safety and health
issues through a lens of behavioral and social psychology.