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The Science of Behavioral Safety 101: A Little Praise Goes a Long Way

July 30, 2013
Never underestimate the power of acknowledging people for behaving safely or supporting others to do the same.

We probably have all heard the old adage: “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Well, there’s plenty of science to support it.

Psychological research has shown us time and again that positive reinforcement is the single most powerful tool in our arsenal for eliciting and maintaining desired behavior. It’s true when it comes to parenting children and it’s true when it comes to creating safe work environments. Strategic use of positive reinforcement is effective and highly cost-efficient.

Positive reinforcement is defined as any action that follows a behavior and makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again. An easy way to understand this is to think of something pleasant being added to a situation. If the owner of a local pizza shop gives you a free salad for being a new customer, he has provided positive reinforcement for eating at his restaurant. This reward – a token of appreciation for your visit – makes you more likely to visit again. In the workplace, acknowledging employees for adhering to safe practices is an easy and powerful form of positive reinforcement. When the boss says, “thank you,” it matters.

Someone else’s silent gratitude isn’t worth much to us. As human beings, we crave and respond to positive feedback.

Remember that safety is defined as a dynamic non-event. As such, word spreads quickly when a big safety mishap occurs but not when minor safety errors are committed without incident. So, our knowledge can be limited when it comes to understanding the current risk for error among employees.

To monitor risk, we must have awareness of how people are performing with respect to many discrete and routine tasks. Staying safe depends on doing the right thing all day every day, even when nobody is looking. Staying focused on the “little things” requires frequent reminders and reinforcements. In the absence of such feedback, human beings naturally drift away from safe practices and use of error prevention tools. To stay safe, we need others to notice and reinforce proper adherence to safety expectations.

Remember, genuine praise has tremendous value for employees: A national survey of over 2,000 people once documented that more than two-thirds of the workers said that praise and recognition from their bosses was more motivating than money. This Gallup Poll indicated that 80 percent reported that praise and recognition motivated them to do a better job.

Make It Matter

Praising people haphazardly doesn’t work. In fact, false praise can be discouraging. People know when others are shining them on and wonder what’s wrong with them to warrant disingenuous acts. As the proverbial saying goes, “False praise stinketh.” In contrast, positive reinforcement builds confidence when it is:

  • Tied to observation and fact.
  • Occurs close in time to the act.
  • Spells out what was observed and why the action is worthy of praise.

People take notice when a senior leader walks the shop floor and makes a comment like, “I appreciate you wearing your safety goggles because we’re trying to reduce eye injuries by 50 percent by the end of the year.” Or, “I heard you ask for clarification about what is on your job card. If more people demonstrated a questioning attitude like yours, we could reduce the rate of rework. That would provide more money for year-end bonuses.”

In proper measure, praise generates openness to change. Noticing and praising safe behavior doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t even come naturally. As human beings, we are conditioned to scan the environment for things that are wrong or out-of-place. Our natural tendency is to criticize or punish. We’re prone to give negative or corrective feedback. There is a time and place for both positive reinforcement and corrective feedback. However, it is important to understand that:

  • Positive reinforcement is more powerful than punishment for influencing or shaping behavior.
  • Corrective feedback is most effective when there is a history of ample positive reinforcement.
  • The necessary ratio involves at least five positive interactions for every corrective one (5:1).

Positive reinforcement builds a relationship of respect and trust between supervisors and supervisees. It affects coworkers in the same way. The trust that builds is like money in the bank because it enables people to more effectively receive corrective feedback. People are more willing to believe and respond favorably to corrective feedback that is delivered by people who have a history of noticing what they do well.

Working through Initial Resistance

Regardless of the industry – public education, daycare, healthcare, manufacturing, construction or motor repair – supervisors invariably resist the use of positive reinforcement. It’s common to hear comments like, “I shouldn’t have to reinforce employees for doing their job.”

It is helpful to have real-world evidence to make the case. For example, groups respond positively to learning that compared to their peers, teachers who use positive reinforcement in proper measure have students who exhibit fewer disruptive behaviors and achieve higher on standardized test scores.

It also is important to be prepared for the reality that managers face when they initiate systematic use of positive reinforcement. Most managers will find the process to be more challenging than expected. Initially, they will uncover a host of behaviors that need to be corrected. The process of looking for the positive also is likely to reveal that some employees are unfamiliar with the company’s safety standards, haven’t had sufficient training to appreciate their importance or don’t have the resources to perform as expected. Having a plan of action is critical.

A Plan to Build and Sustain a Culture of Safety

Companies with great safety records follow a defined process for building and sustaining a culture of safety. They:

  • Set expectations – Tell people what you want to see.
  • Educate – Give people the information and tools they need to be successful.
  • Build accountability – Prepare managers and leaders to incorporate a proper measure of positive reinforcement into daily safety rounds.

Following this process is markedly different from holding people accountable. The latter is an approach that rests on constant supervision and punishment of undesirable behavior. It is a losing proposition that involves daily grind that isn’t easy or rewarding. In contrast, building and sustaining a culture of safety includes a purposeful focus on the positive that is a daily priority. Over time, it becomes easy and fun.

Relentless use of the 5:1 positive reinforcement rule maintains widespread attention on safe and desirable actions. It may be your company’s key to getting employees to mindfully do the right thing, even when nobody is watching. As the chief nursing executive of a large healthcare system once said to me about building accountability, “It’s not about leaders being seen, but about what leaders are seen doing.”

(Editor's Note: This is the first in an ongoing series of articles from the author.)

About the Author: Gretchen LeFever-Watson, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and public health researcher who has worked in academic and healthcare settings for over 20 years. She is passionate about improving the health, education and safety of people and the environments in which they work and live.

LeFever-Watson led a public health psychology department in a community medical school, an award-winning patient safety and performance excellence program for a regional healthcare system and the development of work force programs to train professionals to use health information technology in safe and meaningful ways across an 11-state region and the District of Columbia. She served as the executive director of a regional community coalition and won millions of federal, state and non-profit grant dollars to conduct epidemiologic and system-wide intervention research.

As a popular speaker with a strong media presence, LeFever-Watson has appeared on national TV and radio programs such as CNN, the PBS News Hour and NPR’s Diane Rehm Show. She has been a frequent guest on HearSay with Cathy Lewis – a public radio program in her local community.

Results of her work appears in professional publications such as American Journal of Public Health, Scientific Review of Mental Health, Critical Care Medicine, Family and Community Health, Journal of Educational Research, Child Development, Developmental Psychology, Learning Disability Quarterly and Managing Infection Control. Her work has also been discussed in popular magazines such as Psychology Today, Science, Popular Science,and The Weekly Standard as well as newspapers across the United States and in Europe.

LeFever-Watson graduated summa cum laude from Boston University. She earned a doctorate in clinical with specialization in developmental psychology from the University of Illinois, Chicago. She also completed post-doctoral training in pediatric psychology at Georgetown University Medical School.

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