Safeguard Article

This story appeared in Safeguard Update of 16 November.

Positive, immediate, certain

When people tell Dr Kyle McWilliams that their organisation has reached health and safety compliance, he invariably replies: “Well, that’s not very good is it?”

The reaction? “Their jaw drops,” he told delegates at the Conferenz inaugural Total Safety Culture conference in Auckland last month.

There are two types of job performance, he said, ‘just enough’ and ‘want to’. People who do just enough to keep their job are focused on compliance, the minimum level of performance. ‘Want to’ performance includes discretionary effort and is at a much higher level. “This is the one you want for safety.”

McWilliams, director of Christchurch-based consultancy Corporate Learning, said top performance will never be achieved if it is activated by the need for compliance. Instead, he advocated focusing on the consequences of behaviour, and on providing consequences that are positive, immediate, and certain.

Positive consequences are obviously beneficial, and consequences which are immediate and certain are much more powerful motivators than those which arrive in the future or are uncertain.

He asked delegates why they answered the phone. “Because it’s ringing,” came the response. No, he said, that is just the activator of the behaviour. The positive, immediate and certain outcome was that you get to speak to someone.

“Look towards the consequences rather than the activator. Activators have about 20% effect on behaviour. They kick-start it. Consequences have the other 80% effect.”

Health and safety policies, posters, emails, even training – these are all merely activators of behaviour. “If you want to improve behaviour, shift your focus to consequences.”

However, he cautioned that just because a consequence appeared to a worker to be positive, immediate and certain (PIC), didn’t mean it was a safe behaviour. Getting down from a large truck, for example, could be done unsafely by jumping, or safely by climbing down with three points of contact at all times. The trouble is, jumping takes less time and therefore appears to the driver to have PIC consequences.

“Safety is a constant struggle against human nature, because we are programmed to conserve energy. Lots of unsafe behaviours are PIC.”

McWilliams said we are good at identifying what we don’t want people to do. The key, he said, is to define the safe behaviours you want, then work out PIC consequences for them.

He advised looking at recent incidents and listing the behaviours associated with them, and then listing the alternative safe behaviours. “I practically guarantee you will find the unsafe behaviour was PIC because of the activator.”

If you want to change unsafe behaviours, he concluded, “you absolutely must focus on the behaviours you want, and you must provide positive, immediate and certain outcomes for this behaviour.”

McWilliams Consulting