From the Proceedings of the 9th AARBA International Conference, Verona, Italy 9th - 10th May 2013
by Grainne Matthews, Ph.D.
Behavioral safety is a proven technology based on the established science of behavior. When implemented with fidelity, it can dramatically improve safety performance, i.e., the rate of occupational illnesses and injuries among employees. Unfortunately, many organizations underestimate the complexity of the technology and fail to devote the level of leadership support that they would to any other major system change in their organization. Three major categories of leadership behavior are essential if a behavioral safety process is to be sustained and to accomplish its objectives. The behaviors derive from the work of Judi Komaki as reported in her text, Leadership from an Operant Perspective (1998). They form the basis for the development of checklists to measure the performance of each level of leadership.
Komaki (1998) introduced a model for effective leadership based on the three-term contingency model of Antecedents-Behaviors-Consequences. Her model, Antecedents-Monitoring-Consequences, highlights the importance for leaders of paying attention to the performance of their subordinates. Her research indicated that the most successful leaders were those who could best modulate the consequences they delivered. The more precisely they matched their feedback to the level of performance, the more effective they were in improving that performance.
Behavioral safety is a process of improving the systems within an organization that prevent incidents that could lead to employee injuries. The process has two major components that lead to improvements in safety performance: feedback on behavior and changing the contingencies that control behavior.
Most companies that implement behavioral safety are not only interested in reducing the number of incidents—the result—but also in a process that differs from most traditional safety improvement efforts. They are interested in promoting a more collaborative relationship between employees, management, and the Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) staff. They seek to proactively address factors in the organization that increase the risk of an incident. This contrasts with a more reactive approach where safety professionals interpret regulatory authority rules to management, management promulgates policies and procedures to meet these regulatory requirements, and both EHS professionals and management assume the role of auditor or police officer in seeking out and punishing failure to comply. As a result, communication between employees and management and between management and EHS professionals becomes adversarial and information that could prevent incidents is not communicated to those who might take action.
To achieve a more collaborative approach, organizations seek to involve both employees and management in jointly designing, rolling out, and maintaining a behavioral safety process as well as in analyzing the observation data to identify contingencies that can be improved.
Such a situation—where the nature of the process is as important as the results achieved—calls for a qualitatively different kind of leadership than that on which many in managerial positions have relied in the past. Therefore, part of any rollout of behavioral safety must change the behavior of leaders. The same tactics that are used to change the safety behavior of employees are applied to change the leadership behavior of managers: feedback and changing organizational contingencies.
Successful leaders provide effective antecedents for desired employee behavior. Leaders in organizations with successful behavioral safety processes provide antecedents that increase the probability that their direct reports and the steering committee will fulfill their role in the behavioral safety process. These antecedents fall into several categories:
- Participate in training
- Publicize the role of leaders in supporting the process
- Model participation in observation and feedback
- Be active on the steering committee managing the process
- Remove barriers to the work of the steering committee
- State your support for observation and feedback
- Champion and defend the process
- Respond in a timely way to recommendations based on observation data
- Provide resources for the steering committee to manage the process
Leaders in organizations that sustain a behavioral safety process that reduces the risk of injuries also monitor the performance of all involved in the process. These monitoring behavior categories include:
- Ask specific process-related questions of your colleagues, your direct reports, and the steering committee
- Attend steering committee meetings, presentations, and activities
- Review and respond to behavioral safety process data regularly
Successful behavioral safety leaders deliver effective consequences that shape the behavior they discover when they monitor. Some of the shaping consequences include the following:
- Provide immediate verbal feedback acknowledging desired behavior or results
- Continually ask problem-solving questions when desired behavior is not evident
- Reward, recognize, and celebrate the steering committee for their contributions
- Ensure that leaders who support and participate in behavioral safety are rewarded and do not reward those who do not participate
As a result of pinpointing the behaviors of leaders for each category, it is possible to create a simple checklist that allows each level of management to hold their staff accountable for specific performance that will ensure safety improvements.
Komaki, J. L. Leadership from an operant perspective, New York: Routledge, 199