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Behavior-Based Safety Measurement

As Behavior-Based Safety processes begin to demonstrate disinterest from both management and frontline employees, the individuals assigned to reenergize the organization’s behavior-based safety process search for causes to direct them toward solutions. Behavior based safety conferences are heavily populated with behavior based safety administrators asking other participants questions like “how do we reenergize our process?”

A common belief is that the cause is employee motivation has waned. The common solution is to “do something to motivate” employees and reactivate their enthusiasm for behavior-based safety observations and activities. Old school motivational strategies still exist in many organizations. Subsequently, the solution would be “we need to exhort everyone with words that motivate renewed employee energy - somehow.”

Millions of employees have listened to dramatic motivational speeches encouraging them to increase productivity, quality, safety, and customer service. Many of these speeches are entertaining and momentarily emotionalize the employees creating renewed inspirational feelings. Then employees return to work, and their momentary inspiration is lost amidst their work tasks. All the drama and rhetoric of the motivational speech is forgotten; it is work as usual.

Historically, the foundation of employee motivation has rested on performance measurement that established hard-data accountability. The hard data also provided management with a tool that could be used to encourage employee performance; in order to avoid negative consequences from management for sub-standard performance employees had to reach their performance numbers – the performance standard set for them. This approach to motivation encouraged compliance performance. Do your job and stay out of trouble. The same thing happens when behavior-based safety data is not used in a similar fashion.

Behavioral Psychologists introduced research data that substantiated a new perspective; employees would exceed compliance measures if positive attention and recognition accompanied small levels of improvement.  When supervisors observed an employee doing something that contributed to performance improvement, the supervisor acknowledged the behavior immediately. Not plaques, awards, bonuses – but management attention to positive performance behavior and small increases in performance numbers, extra effort, improvement ideas, problem prevention – small things that had previously been described as “doing their job.”

Management’s job changed from expecting compliance and noticing mistakes, to recognizing employee improvement and commenting on extra effort; noticing small improvements. This small change in emphasis has led to organizational strategies such as Employee Engagement and Total Rewards cultures. Positive Reinforcement is now a mindset that knowledgeable organizations attempt to instill into all levels of management.  It is a necessary skill set needed to build a “high-performing organization.” The ideal supervisor is now someone who can talk to employees about performance and intersperse those conversations with improvement suggestions and improvement recognition.

The foundation of behavior-based safety is positive feedback. The feedback is based on observations conducted, observation data, and improved levels of safe behavior. Measurement in behavior-based safety is used only as a tool for positive purposes. Prior to behavior-based safety, management used safety measurement for accountability. Anyone who has been working in safety for 20+ years remembers a time when recordable injuries seldom decreased; the data just vacillated for unknown reasons – for which the safety director was held accountable. Data was not used as a preventive tool; it was usually reacted to after the fact. 

Organizations that have not based their behavior-based safety processes on a foundation of positive feedback and recognition are on a slow journey toward failure. The absence of positive employee recognition inevitably leads to employee disinterest. Employee disinterest and dis-engagement is reflected in the behavior-based safety data. When this occurs, behavior-based safety measures are reviewed by all levels of management with befuddlement. The data is flat or worsening; we are not improving. Why?

The culprit is based on the age-old expression that “what gets measured, gets done,” an expression that encourages the expectation, the belief that having performance measurement is a panacea that leads to good performance. In actuality, measurement leads to average performance – a level of performance just good enough to discourage negative management attention. Without positive reinforcement – attention, recognition, and positive feedback – there is no discretionary effort; no employee engagement that creates ever increasing levels of performance.

The next time you hear someone say, “our behavior-based safety system needs a shot in the arm,” ask them questions about two things: 1) Are your leaders participating actively in your behavior-based safety process (read my previous blog for hints about how this is done)?; 2) Are your employees getting positive recognition and positive feedback for their involvement in your behavior-based safety process?

When you get the answer to these 2 questions, you will know why their behavior-based safety process needs a shot in the arm and you will know how to advise them.