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Unveiling Motivation: The Key to Changing Human Behavior

Updated: Dec 17, 2023


Renowned psychiatrist and psychologist Milton H. Erickson once stated, "The most important thing in changing human behavior is the person's motivation." This rings particularly true in the realm of safety. Organizations often find themselves puzzled when safety initiatives fail to produce the desired behavior change. In this article, we'll explore real-world examples and uncover the significance of motivation in shaping safe work behavior. By understanding the underlying motivations, organizations can effectively identify, address, and facilitate desired behavior in the workplace.


Uncovering Hidden Motivations

A manufacturing plant contacted me with concerns about their safety observation process. Despite meeting the required level of observation activity, there was no improvement in safety performance. Digging deeper, I discovered an unexpected motivation behind the employees' behavior. During conversations, it came to light that completed observation forms were being traded like baseball cards, with the observer's name left blank. Initially, the process had provided a sense of empowerment, but nothing was done with the collected information. The consultant had missed a crucial aspect of the process.


The Impact of Motivation on Behavior

As time passed, employees began questioning whether their observations were being reviewed. Some started using the names of Disney characters instead of their own on the forms, but no action was taken. Evidently, this was a safety black hole, leading to a decline in activity. Upon investigating, site leaders discovered the fake names and issued a proclamation: all employees must complete observations and submit them to their supervisors, with disciplinary action for any fictitious names. Unfortunately, this approach further reinforced a culture of fear and compliance, with the only focus on the number of completed observations. When motivation revolves around avoiding punishment, it creates a culture of "have to" rather than "want to," hindering excellence.


Influence and Motivation

Influence and motivation can also be observed in other industries. For example, a military unit used homemade tools on aircraft due to a shortage of available equipment. In a chemical plant, operators resorted to risky behaviors during lunchtime due to a lack of microwaves in the break area. Similarly, a construction department discovered that a work order system, initially implemented for better project management, had become obsolete. This system inadvertently encouraged risk-taking and disregarded safety precautions.


Facilitating Desired Behavior

The examples mentioned highlight the importance of understanding the influences and motivations behind behavior. To achieve the desired safe work behavior, organizations must facilitate an environment that identifies, comprehends, and addresses motivations that may deviate from the intended path. By fostering a culture that emphasizes the importance of safety and provides the necessary resources, organizations can motivate employees to choose safe behaviors willingly.


Shaping a Positive Safety Culture

Organizations must go beyond enforcement and punishment to create a culture where safety is embraced. They must focus on cultivating an atmosphere of empowerment, trust, and open communication. By involving employees in the decision-making process, recognizing their contributions, and addressing their concerns, organizations can tap into intrinsic motivation and foster a genuine desire to prioritize safety.


Motivation lies at the core of behavior change in safety. Understanding the underlying motivations behind employee actions is crucial for creating lasting and meaningful change. Organizations can shape a positive safety culture by facilitating desired behavior and addressing influences that promote risky actions. Let us shift our focus from compliance-driven measures to motivating employees through empowerment, recognition, and an unwavering commitment to safety.

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