Something’s Missing from Behavior Based Safety - The Human Factor

by Ron Ragain, Ph.d.

Since the early 1970’s, there has been an interest in the application of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) techniques to the improvement of safety performance in the workplace. The pioneering work of B.F. Skinner on Operant Conditioning in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s led to a focus on changing unsafe behavior using observation and feedback techniques. 

Thousands of organizations have attempted to use various aspects of ABA to improve safety with various levels of success. This approach (referred to as Behavior Based Safety, or BBS) typically attempts to increase the chances that desired “safe” behavior will occur in the future by first identifying the desired behavior, observing the performance of individuals in the workplace and then applying positive reinforcement (consequences) following the desired behavior. The idea is that as safe behavior is strengthened, unsafe behavior will disappear (“extinguish”).  

The Linear View
Traditionally, incidents/accidents have been viewed as a series of cause and effect events that can be understood and ultimately prevented by interrupting the chain of events in some way. With this “Linear” view of accident causation, there is an attempt to identify the root cause of the incident, which is often determined to be some form of “Human Error” due to an unsafe action. The Linear view can be depicted as follows:

Event “A” (Antecedent)  Behavior “B” Undesired Event   Consequence “C”

Driven by the views of Skinner and others, Behavioral Psychology and BBS have been concerned exclusively with what can be observed. The issue is that, while people do behave overtly, they also have “cognitive” capacity to observe their environment, think about it and make calculated decisions about how to behave in the first place. While Behavioral Psychologists acknowledge that this occurs, they argue that the “causes” of performance can be explained through an analysis of the Antecedents within the environment. However, since they also take a linear view, they tend to limit the “causal” antecedent to a single source known as the “root cause”.  

Human Factors
The field of Human Factors Psychology has provided a body of research that has demonstrated that many, if not most, accidents evolve out of complex systems that are not necessarily linear. Some researchers call this a “Systemic”  view of incidents. The argument is that incidents occur in complex environments, characterized as involving multiple interacting systems rather than just simple linear events. That is, multiple interacting events (Antecedents) combine to create the “right” context to elicit the behavior that follows. 

In such complex environments, individuals are constantly evaluating multiple contextual factors to allow them to make decisions about how to act, rather than simply responding to single Antecedents that happen to be present. In this view, the decision to act in a specific (safe or unsafe) manner is directed by sources of information, some of which are only available to the individual and not obvious to on-lookers or investigators who attempt to determine causation following an incident. 

Local Rationality
This is referred to as “Local Rationality” because the decision to act in a certain way makes perfect sense to the individual in the local context given the information that he has in the moment.  The local rationality principle says that people do what makes sense given the situation, operational pressures and organizational norms in which they find themselves.  

People don’t want to get hurt, so when they do something unsafe, it is usually because they are either not aware that what they are doing is unsafe, they don’t recognize the hazard, or they don’t fully realize the risk associated with what they are doing. In some cases they may be aware of the risk, but because of other contextual factors, they decide to act unsafely anyway. (Have you ever driven over the speed limit because you were late for an appointment?) The key here is developing an understanding of why the individual made or is making the decision to behave in a particular way.

A More Complete Understanding
We believe that the most fruitful way to understand this is to bring together the rich knowledge provided by behavioral research and human factors (including cognitive & social psychological) research to create a more complete understanding of what goes on when people make decisions to take risks and act in unsafe ways. We believe it is time to put the Human Factor into Behavior Based Safety.

Dealing with Defensiveness in Relationships

by Ron Ragain, Ph.D.

If you are a normal human, then you are regularly stuck dealing with defensiveness in relationships, both in yourself and in others. Defensiveness is the normal human reaction to threats to a person’s reputation and/or dignity. We are hardwired to protect ourselves both physically and emotionally and we do that by either fleeing or fighting. We call these “retreating” or “pushing” and both are signs of defensiveness.

When we feel threatened, some of us, at times, get quiet and don’t say anything. Others argue back or provide justification for their actions. Depending on the situation and the person with whom we are interacting, all of us can, for the most part, resort to either defense mechanism.  

The bottom line is that defensiveness, while normal, is also harmful and disruptive because it doesn’t help us think or communicate effectively. As a matter of fact, it causes us to “dumb down” and become cognitively less effective in the moment. 

We call this process “the Defensive Cycle” and it looks like this:

  • It starts when we see or hear someone do or say something.
  • We then make a bad “guess” about why they did it. That bad guess is what is called the “Fundamental Attribution Error” because we mistakenly attribute the other person's action to some internal state of theirs that puts them into a bad light (e.g. poor motivation, selfishness, personal satisfaction in insulting or devaluing you in some way).
  • That interpretation then creates a desire in us to defend. 
  • We then do so by either retreating (sulking, withdrawing, looking down, etc) or by pushing back (using harsh words, giving a harsh glare, etc).
  • The other person observes our action. 
  • They interpret our response as offensive.
  • They likewise defend by either retreating or pushing. 


  • We in turn  respond and the cycle goes on until someone “wins” (actually until both lose because there is always a winner and a loser and when we lose we like to get even with the winner which leads to another defensive cycle).
Notice that the defensive cycle begins when one person does or says something and the other person “guesses” bad intent. It is that “guess” that is the problem because we can't determine the true intent unless we communicate. Unfortunately, the bad guess leads to anger or frustration which impedes the very communication we need.

Dealing with Us

We suggest that the key to defusing your defensiveness is to “Learn Your Trigger”. When you become angry or frustrated, let that emotion trigger curiosity rather than blame.

When you become angry or frustrated, think to yourself, “I must be guessing something bad. Why would this person have done or said that?”

Simply stopping and asking yourself this question interrupts the defensive cycle, re-engages your brain and keeps your cognitive skills at a higher level so that you can hold a more effective, less defensive conversation. So that is how you can help control your defensiveness, but what about the other person’s defensiveness?

Dealing with Them

Remember that defensiveness starts with a bad guess, so when the other person becomes defensive it is because they have attributed bad intent to what you have done or said. Your job is to help them understand your true intent which you can do by simply telling them what that intent is.

Use what we call a “Do/Don’t Statement” to accomplish this. Tell them what you do mean and, if necessary, tell them what you don’t mean.

For example

You and your spouse are planning to attend some event and it is time to leave. You are not sure that she is aware of the time since she doesn’t wear a watch, so you say to her…”Do you know what time it is“ and she responds with “I can tell time!”  

To this you could respond with a Do/Don’t statement to clarify what you really mean…”I certainly don’t mean to insult you or make you feel rushed, I just wanted to know if you were aware that it is time to leave.”

Dealing effectively with both your defensiveness and the defensiveness of others will lead to happier, healthier relationships and a lot less “getting even”.

4 Feedback Pitfalls Every Manager Should Avoid

by Mike Allen

Giving feedback to employees is critical for improvement to occur, but effective feedback involves avoiding these four pitfalls.

1.   Avoiding feedback all together or waiting too long to give it
Research has demonstrated that feedback that follows immediately after the action will have the biggest impact on the behavior. Immediate negative feedback will weaken unwanted behavior and immediate positive feedback will strengthen behavior. But don't let not being able to give immediate feedback keep you from giving it at all. Later is still better than not-at-all! 

2.   Over-or under-boarding  

Have you ever seen a manager call someone up in front of a group for some success and go on-and-on about the success, totally embarrassing the recipient of the praise? That is what we call "over-boarding" and it should be avoided because the praise actually becomes punishing and has an effect opposite of that which is desired. On the other hand, failing to provide enough feedback for significant success can lead to reduced motivation in the future. For example, you just saved the company $2 million and the boss, in private says, "Hey, thanks". Make it appropriate to the level of success.

3.   Blaming the employee for a failure  

Blame rarely fixes anything; it usually only de-motivates. Focus on finding the real reason for a failure and fix that. Blame may be quick and satisfying, but it is not effective.

4.   Punishing in public
No one likes being "made an example of" or humiliated in front of their peers. Such humiliation leads to "getting even" and employees can be very creative when getting even ... like work slow-downs, fake injuries, bad-mouthing the boss behind his back, or talking bad about the company to potential customers. Negative feedback should always be given in private. There are instances when a witness will be present, but the witness should not be a coworker of the person receiving feedback.

3 Keys to Building and Maintaining Confidence and Confidentiality

by Ron Ragain, Ph.D.

“Confidence” is the feeling or belief that you can rely on someone to do what they say they will do, including keeping personal information confidential.  In supervisor and coaching relationships there must be mutual confidence between the parties for mutual trust to be developed.  Here are three keys to developing confidence in a relationship.

1.  Set confidentiality ground rules.  This may seem unnecessary, but just setting a ground rule that all information about each other is to be held in confidence unless there is agreement to the contrary can help create an environment of trust.  This will create an atmosphere where the parties are willing to be vulnerable with each other, making it easier to be helpful to the other person.

2.  Be honest about expectations and abilities.  In supervisor or coaching relationships it is critical that each party understand the capabilities and expectations of the other.  This requires that honest evaluation of what is expected from the other person and what the other person feels competent to deliver is made clear.  Supervisors must have confidence that the employee understands and is able to deliver.  The employee must have confidence that the supervisor is providing complete information about expectations and the resources necessary for success.  Failure in either of these areas can lead to lack of confidence. 

3.  Keep promises.  This is simple; do what you say you will do.  People need to be able to rely on others if trust is going to be maintained.  When you can’t do what you say you will do, then make sure that you make the other person aware at the earliest possible time so that surprises are eliminated.  The ability to rely on the other person to do what they say they will do and to protect that which is told in confidence is critical to the development of mutual trust in a relationship.

All They Care About Is Money!

by Ron Ragain, Ph.D.

So is money a requirement for motivating employees?  For years we have been asking students in our Performance Management classes to tell us why people leave their jobs, and for years they have told us that most people leave for more money.  

Actually, research has consistently shown that while salary increase is important, it is usually far down the list of reasons why employees decide to leave for another job.  Significantly more people leave because they want more or new challenges, they are not happy with how they are treated by their current supervisor or they believe their contributions are not valued.  Money is obviously important because it allows us to meet our basic needs and achieve some of our life goals, but it may not be as important as other factors that are in the direct control of supervisors.  

Using Extrinsic Motivators Effectively

The best supervisors understand that money is just one of the extrinsic motivators that they have at their disposal and that the way they use these motivators is more important than the motivators themselves.  Because of this, they follow what we call “The Contingency Rule” in the application of all extrinsic motivators.  So what is this rule?

The Contingency Rule:  Tie the extrinsic motivator to performance.  Extrinsic motivators that supervisors have at their disposal include such things as money, praise, job assignments, training opportunities, etc.  Making the receipt of any of these contingent on successful performance is critical to their motivational impact.  For example, it has been well documented that cost of living increases act as a satisfier and not as a motivator because they are not tied to performance.  It could be argued that not receiving an expected cost of living increase could act as a motivator to look for another job, but in this case it would be a de-motivator for improved performance in the current job.  

"Best Bosses" are clear about what they expect from employees, and they are also clear about the relationship between accomplishment of those expectations and extrinsic motivators.  When people know that successful performance leads to increase in pay, praise, desired job assignments, etc, they are much more likely to put out the effort required to receive those things.  Failure to understand these contingencies will only lead to employee confusion, dissatisfaction and lowered motivation.  It might also lead the person to look for another job.

Conflicting goals make room for performance failures

by Ron Ragain, Ph.D.

Most people do not set out to fail.  On the contrary, most of us regularly attempt to succeed; but at times we do fail none-the-less.  The role of a supervisor is to get results through the efforts of other people, so an important question for supervisors is, “Why does a specific performance failure occur?”  There are a lot of reasons - knowledge, skill, motivation, etc. - and key among them is something called “goal conflict”.  

We live in a complex work-world with multiple competing demands.  We must be safe, fast, cheap and valuable all at the same time.  It is humanly impossible to make all of these goals #1 at the same time, so we make cost-benefit tradeoffs and “choose” which objective is the most important at the time given the pressures of the environment/culture that we are in.  I may choose to “hurry” because of time pressure, but in so doing sacrifice safety and quality.  
As a supervisor I need to understand the drivers behind employees’ performance failure before I can adequately help them become successful.  What “tradeoffs” did the employee make that produced the failure?  Did his desire to “please” the supervisor outweigh his calculation of his own skill-level?  Did her perceived pressure to produce outweigh the thought to evaluate hazards associated with the task and take precautionary action?  
Unless we as supervisors take the time to evaluate the conflicting goals that drive employees’ performance, we will be less effective in reducing the opportunity for failure.

Consequence Predictability and Results

by Phillip Ragain

Have you ever worked for someone whose reactions were unpredictable? One day they were giving positive feedback for success and the next day they were dressing you down for the same results? How did/would that make you feel? What impact would that have on your desire to achieve good results? For most of us the lack of predictability would create a reduction in motivation to succeed and show initiative.

Research has shown that lack of predictability of consequences increases stress and that increased stress, beyond a certain point, reduces the ability of individuals to perform. When we know what to expect, we are less stressed and more likely to put out the effort required for success. Although we might not appreciate a “knit-picking” boss, we can live with it (for a while), if we know that it is his/her style and it is predictable. We all prefer working for someone who provides consistent positive feedback for success and consistent input (redirection) on how to be more successful when we fail.  

It is always better to hold people accountable for their results in a predictable and consistent manner. As always, we recommend fair evaluation of results followed by consistent/predictable positive feedback for success and consistent/predictable redirection of actions that have led to failure.  

By the way, parents, this goes for your children, too.  They need to know that they can expect appropriate, consistent and predictable consequences when they succeed and when they fail.