Understanding Influences on Behavior
Updated: Jul 19
When it comes to changing behavior, do you focus solely on the behavior itself or consider the influences that shape it? Identifying and addressing the influences behind risky behavior is crucial for achieving long-term behavior change. There are four primary influences to consider: perceptions, habits, obstacles, and barriers. How effective are you at recognizing and responding to these influences within your organization?
People have reasons for their actions, and if we fail to identify and address those reasons, behavior change is unlikely to be sustained. Some individuals consciously choose to take risks because they don't accurately perceive or calculate the level of danger involved.
When expressing concern to these individuals, their response may be, "What's wrong with it?" or "I've always done it this way, and I've never been hurt. I don't think it's a big deal." It becomes clear that they are making a deliberate decision. This belief often stems from how organizations incorrectly measure safety excellence and the resulting beliefs that emerge.
When safety excellence is defined solely as zero injuries, it sends a message that safety means avoiding harm. Consequently, individuals may develop the perception that anything that doesn't result in an injury must be safe. Consider what messages or definitions within your organization contribute to these incorrect perceptions.
Organizations employ adults, which means they hire individuals with pre-existing habits. During onboarding, organizations provide information to try and develop new habits among employees. Habits are behavioral routines that mostly occur unconsciously or involuntarily. This is evident when someone responds to a concern with, "I don't know. That's the way I've always done it" or "I never thought about it."
To change perceptions, there must be a shift in information or experiences. Epiphanies cannot be forced. Similarly, changing existing habits or forming new ones requires a change in prompts and/or consequences (positive or negative, timely and probable).
Reflect on what needs to change within your organization. Should perceptions regarding risks or worker habits be altered? Are there other influences at play?
Even in the best-performing organizations, there are occasional obstacles and barriers that can make a job difficult or impossible to perform in a risk-free manner. An essential behavior for preventing incidents is always selecting and using the proper tool or personal protective equipment (PPE) for the task. However, what if the tool is inconveniently located, locked up, broken, or simply unavailable?
By focusing safety improvement efforts on understanding the influences on behavior rather than attempting to change behavior through discipline or direct confrontation, organizations often discover that they have procedures, policies, or organizational systems that create confusion or prompt incorrect behaviors.
For example, one client identified that proper glove usage was the key to preventing 30 percent of employee injuries. Upon investigation, they found several issues. Employees were issued a limited number of gloves and had to justify to their supervisor if they needed more. This process was uncomfortable for them. Additionally, procurement issues led to periods where gloves were simply unavailable. Within this single company, multiple influences affected one specific behavior, and each required a different solution. Allowing these experiences to persist created undesirable perceptions and habits.
Perceptions and habits are unlikely to change easily when obstacles and barriers remain in place and strongly influence behavior. By understanding what influences behavior, we can address those influences and drive the desired behavior change. Ignoring influences and solely focusing on individual behavior may result in behavior change, but it may not lead to the behaviors we truly want to see.