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Safety Leadership: Behaviorism

20181101-Safety Leadership - Behaviorism

20181101-Safety Leadership - Behaviorism

This is a continuation of our blog series on Safety Leadership. In the last article, we explained the relationship between safety, leadership, and management. To become an effective safety leader, you need to understand what makes people behave in unsafe ways. You need to know why people do the crazy things they do.

Before we dive too deeply into leadership principles and techniques, we first must take a look at human behavior.  We’re going to do that in two very different methodologies. We’ll cover the second next week. Today, we’ll focus on behaviorism. It’s perhaps the oldest methodology on trying to understand what makes prompts people to behave in certain ways.

A Quick History Lesson: What is Behaviorism?

At the turn of the 20th century, several scientific minds were interested in studying human behavior and, just as importantly, they wanted to create a science out of the study. Previously, those who studied human behavior were known as philosophers. But philosophy is not a science. Even though philosophers have deep thoughts and lengthy arguments and debates about the human condition, in the end no one knows who is right and who is wrong.

Science, on the other hand, requires the scientific process. It begins with a hypothesis, then an experiment in which the scientist measures processes, data and outcomes. Creating a science out of the study of human behavior posed the challenge. What could scientists possibly measure and quantify? Early behaviorists, such as Skinner and Pavlov, eventually achieved consensus on measuring and quantifying behaviors.  A behavior is a physical act that a human emits at a specific moment in time. Safe driving behaviors include such things as Look Ahead 15 seconds, Look Around every 2 to 3 seconds, check your mirrors every 5 to 8 seconds and Communicate your intent to change lanes by signaling with no fewer than three flashes. These behaviors can be observed and quantified.

Behaviorism is as Simple as Your ABC's

Although they agreed on studying behaviors, Skinner and Pavlov disagreed on what motivates those behaviors to occur. One argued that all human behaviors occur because people pursue rewards or try to avoid punishments. In this model, an individual human behavior will help the person achieve an expected consequence. B leads to C. The other one argued that human behaviors occur in response to demands. In this model, something happens and we respond or react to it. Scientists refer to those demands as antecedents. Thus, A leads to B.

The modern approach to behaviorism synthesizes the two models and accepts the fact that situational demands, called antecedents, placed on us cause us to behave in certain ways.  A leads to B. As we behave, we anticipate a reward for the avoidance of punishment. B leads to C.  Simplistically, every human behavior can be explained using the simple formula of A leads to B leads to C. Antecedent leads to the Behavior which leads to the expected Consequence.

Why Do People Have Accidents?

So if everyone behaves in ways to achieve expected rewards or avoid expected punishments, why do people have accidents? Afterall, accidents certainly aren’t rewards, and no one would have an accident to avoid a punishment. The key is, the consequence is expected. People act in ways that they expect will lead to rewards or avoided punishments. People speed because they want to avoid the punishment of being late to work. Professional drivers might skip their pre-trip inspection for the reward of saving a little bit of time on their run. A lot of people text and drive for the simple reward of sending a message to a friend. These are all high-risk behaviors that often times have the consequence of an accident, but the expected consequence was actually a reward or avoidance of some punishment.

When it comes to safety, we need to create an environment that helps us avoid antecedents (demands) that prompt unsafe behaviors. For example, we don’t want to encourage our drivers to speed, cut corners, or take shortcuts just to get the job done. In an organizational setting, safety leaders control the antecedents to make sure that there are no unreasonable demands placed on their drivers that would prompt unsafe behaviors.

How to Use Behaviorism as a Safety Leader

Safety leaders can also control the expected rewards and punishments. They reward safe behaviors through formalized programs or informal thank yous. They punish unsafe behaviors through reprimands, disciplinary procedures or even termination. By controlling the antecedents and consequences, safety leaders increase the number of safe behaviors and decrease the number of unsafe behaviors.

Safety leaders understand the A-B-C formula and apply it during every interaction they have with their drivers, but behaviorism is a simplistic methodology for understanding human behavior. After all, humans are complex creatures. There’s a lot more to understanding behavior than simply manipulating antecedents and consequences. The next installment will look deeper into what causes people to do the crazy things they do.

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