More of the carrot...less of the stick!

The Problem of Changing Behaviours

Safety issues in large organisations can often feel insurmountable to the individual, whether the front-line worker, the supervisor, or the middle-ranking safety manager. However, as with most safety issues, they can only be overcome through collective action. So how do we make people adopt behavioural changes without any perceived direct personal benefits? Often changes in safety behaviour occur at perceived personal cost (longer work time, more burdensome work time, etc.).

Tapping into Human Emotional Needs

Researchers have known for some time that feelings or emotions motivate us to pursue our goals, to seek positive reinforcement, and to avoid punishment. But what is the best emotional route – to make people feel bad about safety deficiencies or to encourage a positive self-image because they have done the right thing?

Although guilt may be a powerful motivator for action, it is important to differentiate between guilt that occurs internally and guilt that is externally caused by the feeling of having to “make up” for failures. If we fail to go to the gym three times a week, we may be motivated to change our behaviour or work-life patterns to remedy the situation. But if someone tells us that we’re not holding our end to the bargain, and that we’re making bad lifestyle choices by avoiding the gym, the response is quite different. We become defensive and try to justify our actions, which drive us further away from changing the way we behave.

Creating a Positive Self-Image

A positive self-image of who we are and what we do is a fundamental human need. When we have a good relationship with ourselves and our actions, we are more likely to behave in a collective way that does not give us immediate benefits. On the other hand, when we are made to feel bad about our actions , especially when they are in contravention of the “greater good,” we are less likely to experience sustainable behavioural change.

Reaping the Rewards

An experiment was conducted in which a group of participants engaged in self-assertion exercises, reflecting on the values and behaviours that were important to them and that they appreciated in the group. Another group carried out an unrelated exercise describing the layout of the shopping centre they visited on a regular basis. Both groups were raffled to win a bonus and were given the option of either keeping the money for themselves or donating all or a portion to selected charities. The group that conducted the self-confirmation session reported feeling more positive about themselves and more at peace with themselves – which resulted in increased levels of charitable giving compared to those who participated in the unrelated exercise.

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Further studies around the world have found that self-asserted participants have shown more altruistic intentions and reduced discriminatory tendencies compared to control group participants. The self-asserted group also demonstrated a greater willingness to invest personal time in providing social or mentoring support to fellow workers.

Benefits to the Organisation

The fact that a positive self-image can give rise to more altruistic behaviour has been found to be an inherent part of human behaviour and is not confined to a cultural group. Feeling good about ourselves does not only enhance individual well-being and fulfilment, but also translates into altruistic behaviour towards others, for the benefit of organisations as a whole.

A positive self-image creates a ripple effect across organisations in which the resulting behaviour sends a positive social signal to others. If others discriminate less, we are less likely to do so, if working groups behave in a safe manner and stress the importance of safety in their daily work, we are more likely to do so. Getting critical mass to join and recognise problems can, over time, help to shift norms that are driving, not just human behaviour inhibitors.


In large part, the potential for positive self-directed safety behaviour has not been embraced by business. Instead of focusing on the ‘doom and gloom’ safety message that highlights people ‘s weaknesses and risks alienating them, managers and supervisors might find that positive messaging, talking to people about a positive sense of self, could be a more powerful level of behavioural change.

If you are struggling to get traction on safety with your workforce give us a call on 1300 990 336 or email us at info@intrinsicsafety.com.au to start the conversation on how to get the best out of your workforce.

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