How can we influence behaviour at work to maximise safety? the answer lies in taking a broader view, listening to Madiba, and learning from sports greats such as Francois Pienaar and Bryan Habana.

Behavioural safety is a critical component of success for many thriving companies across a diverse array of sectors. Despite this, many organisations and safety professionals are still unsure exactly what “behavioural safety” really is. There is evidence of confusion regarding the terminology used in the fields of behavioural science, human factors and ergonomics, both anecdotally and in the scientific literature.

I’m concerned that this confusion inadvertently causes missed opportunities for a tangible and sustainable improvement in safety performance around the world.

Have you ever wondered why people behave unsafely while at work?

Are you bewildered as to why people take such unnecessary risks at work, when, surely, they know the awful consequences of their actions? There is legislation in place to force people to comply with regulations and company procedures; workers often receive mandatory training and supervision; and signage is usually placed in strategic locations to warn of dangers or remind people how to lift things properly, or work safely at height.

Performance – the product of failure or success?

Failure (or human error) in the workplace, and the occasional catastrophic events that will inevitably follow, is well documented.  However, the term “human error” is, in itself, often misleading.

Most would agree that human behaviour plays a major part in workplace accidents and injuries, but closer scrutiny may reveal that many of these behaviours were not actually errors at all, but deliberate actions towards a specific performance outcome.

In safety, we call these deliberate actions (that lead to such incidents) violations. Try to convince the person, who quickly clears a blockage on the production line, or manages to find a shortcut to speed-up a process that is failing, and the response will probably be a confused look. 

They won’t consider their actions to be erroneous at all. They intended to do those things and probably believe that their leaders and their organisation would want them to do them – in their eyes, at least, they are certainly not failing!

Understanding behaviour

To ensure a behavioural safety programme has full effect, we need to take a broader view of the factors that drive human performance. This includes knowledge of three very different (and sometimes conflicting) areas of science including behavioural, organisational and performance psychology.

It also requires consideration of the environmental, technological and ergonomic factors that influence human performance.

To understand behaviour, look at the circumstances around the behaviour

To fully understand any human behaviour, we must ascertain all the factors and circumstances surrounding it – rather than just looking at the behaviour itself. All humans are different, so it’s pointless to just look at the behaviour of a specific individual in isolation.

The great Nelson Mandela understood this perfectly. To change the world and make it a better place, he could not do it one person at a time. Madiba understood that people are different and that he would have a greater impact if he could influence the circumstances and the environments surrounding the behaviours that he sought to change.

People are different

In our consulting experience (over 20 years working in more than 120 countries), when it comes to compliance in safety, people tend to fit into one of three categories.

Of course, each individual is different and even the same individual will be very likely to behave and react differently in different environments and circumstances.

As easy as A-B-C

When analysing behaviour, the surrounding circumstances or factors are referred to as antecedents (commonly called activators) and consequences. The activators are all those things that are in place to encourage people to do things safely before they actually commit to a behaviour, such as: training, information films, signs, rules, company policy, procedures and the law itself.

Even though we might have all these activators to drive performance in safety, the truth is that these things, alone, are just not very effective at actually influencing people’s behaviour. Research suggests that activators are only about 20-percent effective in influencing people’s behaviour!

Just think how things work in everyday life: How many people do you see driving unsafely (speeding, using mobile phones, and hogging the overtaking lane) despite all the legislation, signage and safety films that our governments may have put in place? Similar behaviours can be observed within the workplace.

Give them a nudge

When it comes to workplace safety, most organisations are quite good at ensuring their activators are in place. They invest most of their time, money and resources towards these things, without realising that activators, alone, are pretty useless at driving behaviour and performance – unless we create innovative activators that really grab the attention of workers.

Improved communication and coaching skills, as well as an understanding of the Nudge Theory (see my previous article in Issue 2 of 2018 SHEQ MANAGEMENT magazine) can be much more effective at predetermining a behaviour.

Here’s a simple example. When giving a presentation, instead of asking whether there are any questions, try asking: “What questions do you have?” The reaction is likely to be very different, as most of the audience will start to formulate some sort of question in their head.

This, in itself, is a precursor to encouraging them to start to think differently and adapt their behaviour. That’s because an effective activator has been created, which has nudged a specific behaviour.

What’s the consequence?

So, is it all about the consequences then? Well yes, but we need to understand that there are four different types of consequences to our actions, and only one of the consequences is actually potentially bad for the individual carrying out the behaviour.

The other three consequences, which are more likely, are usually good news for the individual carrying out the behaviour and their organisations. Let’s think about these four consequences for a moment. They are:

Punishment (or the threat of punishment): We might get hurt or killed, or disciplined or prosecuted, or fired. These are bad things, sure, but they might happen only to the individual carrying out the behaviour.

Think of the driving example again. Just how often do these bad things actually happen when people drive too fast, or look at their mobile phones? The reality is that it’s not very often.

Praise (or something good happening): It might sound bizarre, but people might well be praised or encouraged by their line manager, or supervisor, for conducting unsafe behaviour, even if it’s unintended.

A manager might thank an employee for getting things done quickly this week, without realising the safety shortcuts that might have been taken. Positive reinforcement like this makes a repetition of the behaviour more likely.

Rewards: If people are set targets or deadlines and are incentivised to achieve them, they’ll probably do just about anything they can to ensure that they hit that target, but not necessarily very safely!  Incentive schemes in any aspect of performance are extrinsic motivators and a lazy way of trying to inspire people.

They also very often lead to all kinds of unwanted outcomes. Anyone who has worked in a heavily incentivised sales environment will have many stories about what people will do to make sure the target is hit each week, month or year.

Turning a blind eye: People think this is not actually a consequence at all, but it’s actually a very strong reinforcer of the behaviour that’s observed. If someone does something wrong in front of a person they admire and their actions are ignored and that person does nothing, or just walks on by, they will be encouraged to repeat this behaviour next time.

Making decisions like Pienaar and Habana

The good news is that there are better ways of driving sustainable high performance. A good behavioural safety leadership programme will help a company’s leaders and managers to properly understand human behaviour, to be encouraged to create much more innovative activators, and become better at reinforcing the consequences appropriately.

They’ll also be encouraged to think much more like great leaders in other performance domains. An interesting aspect of elite performance, that successful leaders in the areas of sport, politics and the arts have wrestled with recently is the area of professional judgement and decision-making (PJDM).

Many leaders wish that they could trust their people to make better decisions and judgements – especially in important or critical moments. Most leaders that we speak to yearn for the same in the workplace – especially in terms of safety. Imagine if we could just retrain the rebels to think like the compliers?

The truth is, as the sporting world has started to realise, PJDM is a very complex area of performance. Teaching others to think like George Weah Jr, Francois Pienaar or Bryan Habana isn’t easy.

The really tough bit is extracting the cognition and meta-cognition process of these great individuals in the first instance. So, in sport, they’ve moved to a new area that’s easier to implement and much more effective.

Sharing mindsets

It’s known as developing a Shared Mental Model (SMM) in the team or organisation and it’s a key factor in generating sustainable elite performance in sport, the military and in many areas of business, too.

If everyone properly understands what the leader’s intent is in any given situation, then it becomes much easier for any individual to make a similar judgement or decision when placed in a similar situation.

This SMM for performance is our Holy Grail in safety and is the ultimate outcome for any effective behavioural safety leadership programme. With the right leadership in place and a better understanding of the psychology of performance, organisations are much better positioned to reduce accidents and enjoy sustainable success in safety.

In conclusion, what is behavioural safety?

Well, it’s much more than safety signs, rules and procedures. An organisation that is serious about achieving safety excellence can’t get there unless there is a shared understanding, in the middle and upper tiers of leadership, of the core aspects of human performance and psychology as outlined in this article.

Behavioural safety is about understanding what drives a company’s most important assets and how to take better care of them for superior performance outcomes.

Our Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH)-certified qualifications in Behavioural Safety Leadership can be delivered by us on site, or through our innovative, interactive e-learning systems so people can study in their own time and at their own pace.

Drop us a note at to find out more. Don’t forget: readers of this SHEQ MANAGEMENT Handbook are entitled to a massive 20 percent off all of our programmes by using the code SHEQABC when you contact us.

Join Prof Sharman online now in the IOSH certificate in Behavioural Safety Leadership. You’ll benefit from fantastic learning, video tutorials with the professor and other thought leaders, and a global qualification to boost your career.

About The Author

Professor Andrew Sharman (left) is chief executive and Darren Sutton is senior partner at RMS, consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. Find out more at RMS’s IOSH-approved and certified Behavioural Safety Leadership online learning programme takes a mindful approach to developing safety leadership and provides a low-cost, practical and easy-access route to building a robust safety culture in an organisation. E-mail us at: and mention this article to find out more and receive a free gift and special offer when you begin your online programme.

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