Safety program management Professional development Safety culture

Positive reinforcement done right

Change your approach to change safety culture

Photo: Bevan Goldswain/gettyimages

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Since early childhood, we’ve been reprimanded – sometimes sharply – when doing something that might be unsafe.

In the working world, that presents a challenge for safety professionals and supervisors. Those who want to praise someone for a job done safely may find that past experiences have “hardwired” workers to expect a “but …” and a negative comment immediately afterward, says Tim Neubauer, president and owner of Exceed Safety LLC.

By changing traditional approaches, safety pros can help build trust and cultivate a culture of positive reinforcement, Neubauer and other experts say. Here, they share their experiences.

Why is positive reinforcement important?

Daniel Maiden, director of environmental, health and safety at FabSouth LLC: The way that I look at it is there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach anything – and that’s with all aspects of life. You don’t really get anything by attacking an individual or disrespecting them for violating rules.

Amy Seymour, director of safety at Port Houston: For me, safety is all about people. You have to treat people as people, and so a positive approach to safety really is kind of the way I’ve always gone. I think early on in my career I probably tried to rule with an iron fist, and that only gets you so far. With a positive approach, there’s so much that can come from that. There’s motivation for commending workers. When you can show their achievement, it really gives them a higher job satisfaction and, really, a sense of ownership over what they’re doing.

Workers out there want to feel valued, and they want to be motivated. I know for myself, I perform at my best when everything that I’m doing is being acknowledged. And so why wouldn’t somebody else want that?

What are some important elements of a positive-reinforcement approach?

Neubauer: We need to train managers that if they want to actually address some of these safety hazards, to stop only addressing safety hazards and start addressing the good behavior. Because the good behavior, when it gets acknowledged, will get repeated. I’m not saying stop pointing out a hazard, but what I’m saying is, as a manager, as a leader in a workplace, we need to lead differently. And part of that is we need to communicate differently, so we need to start pointing out the positives.

Bryce Lawlor, manager of health, safety and environment – Americas at Cubic Corp.: You only find success approaching and commending workers if you’ve built a trust-based relationship. Even positive reinforcement may not mean much to someone you haven’t built a relationship with. It’s just an empty compliment from an unknown person. This can happen over days, weeks, years, or it can happen the first time you meet them. How you carry and handle yourself will mean more to who is on the receiving end than the message itself. It’s like the saying, “People remember less about what you said and more about how you made them feel.”

When and how have you seen workers respond to it?

Neubauer: It takes a little bit of time, because at the beginning, if your boss comes up to you and says, “Good job,” you’re going to say, “What the heck? They’re getting ready to fire me.” So, you actually have to coach the employees that we’re going to be communicating differently. We’re going to be communicating better. And it takes a while. When I teach first-line supervisors, I say, “Tell them, ‘Good job,’ say, ‘Thank you,’ and then shut your mouth.” Let them process that they’ve been told “good job.” When they’re done processing, say, “How does that make you feel?”

When people don’t get told “good job” and they don’t know how to process it, you actually have to teach them how to accept a positive “attaboy.”

It’s not just saying “good job” – sometimes it’s showing “good job.” But it starts with the first-line supervisor knowing how to show appreciation or to positively reward somebody. And there’s a lot of different methods for it, including public acknowledgment, putting a worker’s name on a whiteboard or website, or simply doing an act of service to reward that person.

Seymour: Working with a fleet of trucks, you really must have a team understanding of driver behaviors. So, if you’re solely focusing on the errors, it’s always a negative connotation: “Oh, safety is calling because there’s a problem.” So, when you switch back, from focusing solely on errors to emphasizing their positive actions, that’s when you can really see that effectiveness take hold, because you’re creating more of a safety-conscious fleet. People want that and they want to be involved, and I think people’s nature, we enjoy things that are positive and made fun.

It’s the look on people’s faces. Because you can read somebody who’s happy and actually engaged in the conversation versus someone who isn’t interested anymore.

How can you effectively combine positive reinforcement with addressing unsafe actions?

Maiden: You don’t really want to attack somebody personally. But be specific about what you’re talking about. Provide good examples of that. Be direct. I’m as direct as I possibly can, but in the same sense, you need to take the specific examples that you have and separate things. My programs are based on three main categories: education, communication and accountability. These three subjects tend to collaborate hand in hand and keep a good base for all my programs – both in the working environment and at home.

When it comes to something disciplinary, I always like to end those talks on high notes. If we’re working toward this goal, “You can help out by doing this. This will be the end result.”

Neubauer: One personal thing that I have, if I find one negative when I visit a client, I have to find seven positives to thank them for. “I saw you wear your PPE. Thank you.” “I saw you lift that box up properly. Thank you.”

Seymour: I think every person is different, and I think if you know the people you’re working with, there’s different ways that you can approach a situation. I have found that just being honest and open and recognizing what you’re seeing, recognizing that they’re working in a one-on-one environment when you’re approaching an individual, that works really well.

Even if you’re trying to take something from a safety standpoint where you want to give them a constructive piece of criticism as well, or maybe there’s some topics that you want to make sure you bring up, being able to sandwich a little nugget in there – or something that maybe you want them to work to improve on in between something that’s positive – really helps change that conversation. And I think people receive that better.

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