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50 Years of Failed Initiatives: Why Behavior Based Safety and Other Initiatives Often Fail

Quality initiatives, safety initiatives, and organizational change initiatives of every description often fail. The reason – the initiatives fail to change employee behavior – the way employees do things. The underlying fallacy that prevents change is leadership's belief that developing and communicating new ways of doing things will be accepted and practiced by employees. Old ways of doing their jobs are supported by strong habits, skills, behavioral shortcuts, and behavioral efficiencies. Most "improvement" initiatives require historically effective behaviors to be cast aside and replaced by new ways of doing things that require learning, practice, mistakes, and repetitive practice.

New behavior requires new consequences – positive feedback and positive reinforcement – to ensure the behaviors become habits. The things employees do prior to a change initiative are a function of what that behavior provides for the employee. Protective safety equipment is often uncomfortable to wear and many prescribed safety behaviors are time consuming and require extra effort; so that behavior leads to some negatives for the employee. Performers often do not perform behaviors because the consequences to them are discomfort and effort. In that sense, there is a payoff for not performing the safe behaviors and doing something unsafe.


All organizational initiatives face the same problem: Existing employee behaviors are being maintained by existing consequences. To change the behavior, you have to provide positive consequences for the new behavior a performance improvement initiative requires. Positive feedback and recognition are essential elements of a Behavior Based Safety initiative. When these outcomes are provided for safe behavior, the safety culture is strengthened and injury rates decrease rapidly. However, in some organizations we find that the Behavior Based Safety initiative is not working as it should.

Leadership ultimately determines whether an initiative is successful and integrated into the organization as part of “the system.” Unfortunately senior leadership has experienced years of paying for initiatives that produce no lasting change. They are seldom held accountable or even told that they have to be visible supporters of the new system. Most often, no one helps them determine what they need to do and say to demonstrate support to all managers and employees. When senior leader do not impose accountability throughout the management team, initiatives also lose support and participation because frontline supervision does not play their role effectively.

You might say, “We understand the need for positive reinforcement, so we complimented people frequently and thanked them for good work.” Exactly; you delivered a scripted, positive comment on a schedule. You were told to make a positive comment when you saw a positive behavior or a positive result. Unfortunately, this approach ignores 50 years of attempts to teach managers and supervisors interpersonal skills to compensate for the fact that most managers and supervisors do not have good interactive skills and cannot deliver a positive comment in a convincing manner. They come across as insincere and scripted – which is perceived by employees to be an agenda to manipulate them rather than a real effort to acknowledge their contribution. So the most important factor in creating and sustaining organizational change is not being performed effectively.

The result of all this interpersonal chaos is that employees distance themselves from the organizational change objectives and continue to behave in ways that are comfortable for them. Result: Zero net change in the culture. Safety, quality, productivity, service – do not reflect behavioral efficiencies incorporated in the initiatives that were designed for that purpose.

What managers and supervisors need and do not have is a clear understanding of the verbal and non-verbal responses  that strengthen their likability and subsequently their relationship with employees. Their credibility is strengthened as well when they make a positive comment about the employee’s job behavior.  The answerable question is, “what do and I need to say – and how do I say it – in a way that strengthens my likability and ability to deliver a positive comment about their work that they perceive as sincere and honest.”

I have compiled a list of things supervisors and managers can say and do that will both build strong, positive relationships with their reports and reinforce specific performance behaviors and results. Similarly, I have made a list of the behaviors that turn employees off and make the supervisor aversive. Items on this list create avoidance behavior on the part of employees.

Behaviors That Build Relationships and Reinforce the Behavior of Others

  1. Ask an employee for their views or to share information
  2. Listen without interrupting
  3. Smile
  4. Present your suggestions constructively
  5. Talk positively about others
  6. Accept the feelings of others
  7. Talk with others as equals
  8. Share information and opinions openly and honestly
  9. Comfort others constructively on difficult or sensitive issues
  10. Encourage the ideas of opinions of others
  11. Emphasize solutions when problems are discussed
  12. Stay on the conversational topic until others have been heard
  13. State your agreement with others when possible
  14. Look for positive in situations
  15. Mention even the smallest improvement
  16. Take time out of a busy schedule to talk with others
  17. Offer to help others
  18. Ask others about family and interests
  19. Encourage others when things are not going well
  20. Spend time in the work area
  21. Ask questions for learning or recognizing accomplishment
  22. Keep confidential information confidential
  23. Earn the trust of others by being trustworthy 
  24. Express interest in others
  25. Include yourself as a team member, not the boss
  26. Use “we” instead of “I”

Behaviors That Punish Others and Weaken Relationships

  1. Exhibit distracting mannerisms
  2. Show disinterest during conversations by sighing, rolling eyes, or drumming fingers
  3. Monopolize conversations
  4. Interrupts others
  5. Maintains a sour facial expression
  6. Insult or verbally abuses others
  7. Disregard others opinions
  8. Complain or whine
  9. Criticizes and find fault
  10. Refuse to negotiate or compromise
  11. Ridicules others
  12. Patronize or talk down to others
  13. Make others feel guilty
  14. Become emotional
  15. Play games with people and manipulate
  16. Belittle others
  17. Get angry when you don’t get your way
  18. Make snide remarks
  19. Say one thing about someone in public and another in private
  20. Get angry with others when they disagree
  21. Look away when talking to someone
  22. Intimidate others
  23. Be constantly pessimistic
  24. Talk only about problems not about what is going right
  25. Evade honest questions
  26. Punish others with words – “you should, you better”
  27. Display frustration with others
  28. Exhibits pushy behavior
  29. Divert conversation by changing subject
  30. Ask loaded or accusing questions
  31. Usually disagree
  32. Overuse “why” questions
  33. Breaks confidence and doesn’t keep promises
  34. Flatter others insincerely
  35. Joke at inappropriate times
  36. Brag, show-off, just talk about yourself
  37. Talk about others behind their back
  38. Take credit for accomplishment of others
  39. Use “I” too much
  40. Constantly sarcastic
  41. Find something wrong with everything
  42. Always change something or point out how it could have been better
  43. Make others feel stupid or unprepared
  44. Overuse negative feedback
  45. Act preoccupied when listening to someone
  46. Belittles the accomplishments of others
  47. Criticizes the ideas and opinions of others
  48. Ask questions for the purpose of fixing blame or criticizing

All of these relationship building behaviors and relationship destroying behavior came out of a survey I did many years ago. I worked with a company that characterized their main problem as employee job satisfaction. The symptom was a high rate of turnover. The frontline employees were asked to come up with a list of things their supervisor did that they didn’t like and things they did that they liked. The above lists include most of what they came up with.

Unfortunately, most of the supervisors were guilty of the punishing behaviors; very few were described as exhibiting the positive behaviors. Organizations whose supervisors are punishing in their interactions with employees create an environment where change is almost impossible to achieve. Change is driven by new job behavior. New behavior has to be recognized and reinforced to be strengthened and to become new job habits. Most organizations do not have the know-how to deal with this issue because they don’t have the knowledge to diagnose the problem correctly.

Encouraging employees to behave more safely on the job, means reinforcing and recognizing safe job behaviors. Positive feedback does not work if it is mired in the context of poor supervisor-employee relationships. Coworkers are often guilty of the same negative, relationship destroying behaviors as their supervisors. Subsequently, team work is difficult to create.

Organizational performance will always be sub-optimal as long as the interactional skills of managers and supervisors are counterproductive. Addressing and correcting this problem will improve organizational performance by upwards of 30%. Accurate diagnosis is a simple as asking employees what behaviors do they find punishing and what behaviors do they find rewarding – then, share these anonymous findings with the supervisors and perform intermittent progress surveys. This alone with demonstrate immediate improvement.