Safety Leadership: The ‘ABC’ model for influencing behavior
Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. In this monthly column, experts from global consulting firm DEKRA Organizational Safety and Reliability share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.
“But he’s a good employee,” “He’s trained” or “He’s done this before. Why would he do that?” We’ve all had this frustrating moment in safety when people do things despite our best efforts to have them do otherwise. If this sounds familiar, a technique called the “ABC analysis” may help you understand why undesired behaviors occur and how you can influence behavior to get the performance you want from your workforce.
The ABC model allows us to understand what influences and controls behavior. It’s as simple as ABC:
Antecedents: Factors that come before behavior. They set the stage for a behavior or prompt people to act in a certain way.
Behavior: An observable act – what people do or say.
Consequences: What occurs after a behavior and influences the likelihood of it in the future. Reinforcers increase the future likelihood of that behavior; punishers decrease it.
To better understand antecedents and consequences, let’s take for example a situation in which a worker reaches into a machine to clear a jam without first locking and tagging out the equipment. Why would someone break this clear safety rule? The worker has been trained, seen the standard operation procedures and been re-minded (antecedents for the desired behavior), yet still did the at-risk behavior.
First, we identify what might have prompted the worker to engage in this undesired behavior. In this case, the worker’s supervisor told him to hurry and get the equipment cleared, creating pressure on the worker. Also, he had done the same before and hadn’t been hurt. These antecedents might encourage the worker to take a shortcut.
Second, we analyze the consequences. The worker completes the task on time. His supervisor is pleased that the equipment is up and running and says so without asking how the task was completed. In fact, the task itself was easier and quicker because the extra steps weren’t taken. This means the worker now can move on to other tasks and go home on time. Could he have gotten hurt? Yes, but in his mind it was unlikely because he’d done it many times before.
What actually controls behavior?
Do antecedents or consequences control behavior? Let’s look at a situation in which a friend invites you to her favorite restaurant. At the restaurant you have great food, excellent service and a good time.
What is controlling whether you go back to the restaurant? Antecedents or consequences? Will you go back because of your friend’s recommendation (antecedent) or because you had great food and service (consequence)?
Note that the question is “Will you go back?” What if your experience (consequence) had been the opposite – dirty facilities, poor food and bad service? Will you go back? No. The antecedent triggered our behavior the first time, but it’s the consequence that controls the future behavior.
There’s an important lesson here. Although antecedents are necessary, they aren’t sufficient. The real power for long-term performance is in the consequences. Engage workers to fully understand what antecedents and consequences are affecting their behavior. Once you do that, focus on the behaviors you want by building in the appropriate antecedents, removing obstacles that are getting in the way, and building in positive consequences for the behaviors.
It’s important to remember that behavior is a direct result of its consequences. As long as a behavior “works” for a person, he or she will continue to do it. To change the behavior, you must change the consequences for it.
Interestingly, there is a paradox that exists in how organizations spend their time. Research shows that consequences have about four times more direct effect on behavior than antecedents. Yet, most organizations place four times more emphasis on antecedents than on consequences.
We can all think of dozens of examples in which people did things despite our best efforts to have them do otherwise. When this happens, keep calm and remember your ABCs.
This article represents the views of the authors and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.
Angelica Grindle, Ph.D., is vice president of client engagement for DEKRA (dekra.us). She specializes in the application of behavioral science to improve workplace safety at all organizational levels.
Erika Gwilt is vice president of client engagement for DEKRA. She coaches and develops leaders to enhance safety leadership and achieve world-class safety.
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