As I write this, I’m sitting at Gate A4 of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, waiting for my flight back to Minnesota. I was honored to have been invited to be a guest speaker at the MHI conference yesterday.
The title of my speech was “observations from the outside”, and as the name implies, it was about my observations as a safety consultant on why some organizations are motivated to invest in safety, and other companies aren’t.
One of the motivations I discussed was “emotional connections”. In other words, some organizations and their leadership have had experiences that caused them to develop emotional connections to safety. Many years, ago, I was consulting with a local workers’ compensation carrier, and I was assigned to investigate a workplace fatality. At the end of my investigation, I had a close out meeting with the President of the company where the accident occurred, and as our meeting ended, he said to me “you will NEVER see me again”. In other words; “there will NEVER be another incident like this on my watch”. The emotional consequences (not to mention financial ones) of this accident were something that he never anticipated, and they were overwhelming. He was now committed to doing everything in his power to make sure he would never in a similar situation again. He now had an “emotional connection”.
At the center of the idea of emotional connections, are consequences. When people or organizations are overcome with the consequences of their behaviors – something they did, or didn’t do – they form emotional connections. In this case, that emotional connection is a positive one, because it causes future behaviors which are good or positive, although the opposite may be true as well. But for this idea to work, the consequences must be sufficient to trigger the reaction. In other words, the consequences must be substantial enough to shape future behavior.
This brings us to the idea of the “A-B-C’s” of behavior.
All of us make dozens or even hundreds of decisions every day. Some of them are so subtle that you don’t even realize you’re making them. Take a look at the shoes you’re wearing right now. At some point today, you chose to wear those particular shoes. Why? Was it because they were weather or activity appropriate? Maybe you like the style, or they matched your outfit? Or are they just more comfortable?
What about the route you chose to get to work today? How about what you had for breakfast? Did you shave or not shave today? All of this occurred before you even got to work.
Each one of the countless decisions we make, has consequences, both positive and negative. If these consequences are significant enough, they may shape our future behavior. In other words, they become “antecedents”, also sometimes called “actuators”. An antecedent is anything that shapes our future behavior. So the “ABC’s” of behavior go something like this; Antecedents affect future Behaviors which have Consequences, which become Antecedents, and the cycle continues.
But if these consequences aren’t powerful enough, they might not become antecedents and therefore won’t shift future behavior. The cycle becomes broken. To be effective or powerful enough to change future behavior, the consequence must be:
- Soon. The consequence must occur immediately after the behavior.
- Certain. This means that the consequence must be relatively certain to occur on a consistent basis.
- Significant. The magnitude of the consequence must be meaningful and substantial.
Here’s an example; have you ever driven your car faster than the speed limit allows? All of us have. But why? You undoubtedly understand that you can get a speeding ticket, but you do it anyway. In this case, the consequence (the speeding ticket) is not sufficient to change our behavior. Why? Because that consequence isn’t soon (if you get a ticket you have several weeks to pay it), it’s definitely not certain (there are millions of drivers on the road at any given moment, but only a small percentage of them are ticketed for speeding), and it might not be viewed as significant (you might not be concerned about a $100 speeding ticket). But what if your car had a computer that was able to detect the posted speed limit and whenever your speed exceeded the limit, it automatically and immediately deducted $25 from your checking account? Speeding would be eliminated tomorrow!
Another example is the death penalty. If the death penalty is intended to be a deterrent to crime, it has failed miserably. States with the death penalty consistently have the highest capital punishment crime rates, and vice versa. The reason for this may be that the penalty or consequence (execution) is not soon (the average wait on death row is greater than 12 years), it’s not certain, and in many cases the criminals don’t even view it as significant.
The theory described above not only applies to organizations, but to coaching and counseling of individual employees as well. I’m frequently asked “what do I do with employees who continually disobey safety rules”, and the answer is simple. You need to provide meaningful, and effective consequences for those employees.
One of the business owners at the conference this week was telling me that he has to tell the same employee over and over again, to wear his safety glasses. He asked me what I thought of that scenario. I told him it’s all too easy to put the blame on the employee for the continued lapses, but we need to look in the mirror as well. I told him that he needed to think about the A-B-C’s of behavior. The consequences he’s been providing to this employee to date (verbal reminders, and maybe the occasional lecture) clearly aren’t working and it’s because they haven’t been impactful enough to shape the employee’s behavior. They might be “soon”, because he always talks to the employee as soon as he observes the violation. He doesn’t wait until annual performance review time. The consequence might also be “certain” because he talks to the employee every time he sees the behavior, but the consequence lacks “significance”. The employee is willing to accept a lecture in exchange for not wearing his glasses, especially since he knows consequences won’t go beyond that.