Safety Third: Personalized Safety and Intrinsic Motivation

By Aaron Kilback

Almost every company website visited states that safety is first, paramount and foremost. There are entire industries and government organizations around safety training, monitoring, and management. They create the policies, forms, posters, stickers, and guidelines to make sure that no one gets hurt. There are also a multitude of devices that you can strap to your staff to make sure they are productive and safe. The result of overloading “things” on to employees is safety dementia!

Ask yourself what would happen if none of this was in existence? Is it possible that people would come to work and make the decision about what was safe and what isn’t? Can they be trusted to make good decisions? In a popular Youtube video, Mike Rowe, host of TV series Dirty Jobs, makes the point that there is so much emphasis placed on safety that employees start to get complacent and believe that someone else is responsible for managing their safety. The tools and policies provided as a means of keeping employees safe just end up being viewed as intrusive, complex and time-consuming.

For thousands of years, humans have evolved to avoid injury and watch over those in their tribe. Only in recent history have we said people can no longer be trusted, and so we try to engineer our way to zero accidents. It’s safe to argue that people are smarter than we give them credit for. With the right motivation, people will take responsibility for their own safety decisions.

Secrets of Safety

In the 1960’s. University of Toronto Psychologist, Gary Latham, and University of Maryland Psychologist, Edwin Locke, discovered that for massive improvements in productivity and motivation, big goals increased performance by 11–25%. Moreover, if the goal was aligned with the person’s individual values and the desired outcome of the goal, they paid more attention, were more resilient, and ultimately were more productive. The problem is if you look at how people are motivated and how safety is traditionally administered, they are at odds.

Attitude Upgrade 2.0

For the last century, safety has focused on extrinsic rewards and external motivators. This is done by rewarding behavior we like (bonuses, promotion, awards) and punishing behavior we don’t like. Unfortunately, research shows that extrinsic rewards like money don’t work like they are should. Offering money and recognition only work if the task is simple and doesn’t require a lot of thought. Once there is a requirement for conceptualization and variabilities exist such as hazard analyses, it has the exact opposite effect. When this system fails, intrinsic motivation becomes increasingly essential.

The 3 musketeers of Intrinsic Motivation

There are three critical internal motivators, you can harness to improve safety compliance. In his book, Driven, author Daniel Pink describes three internal emotional needs that drive all of us.

1. Autonomy — the ability to direct our own lives.

2. Mastery — the desire to expand our current capabilities.

3. Purpose — the existence of meaning in our lives.

Application of these forces

1. Allow stakeholders to make decisions as an individual or group and strip away the complexity.

2. Create a development path and tool set aligned with the individual employee’s personal safety goals.

3. Demonstrate how making good choices it the moment contribute to a large, bold and audacious vision. Use evidence to show a specific and desired outcome should they succeed.

Focus on autonomy, mastery, and purpose rather than marketing and extrinsic reward, and people will make better decisions when there is no one there telling them what to do or how to think. This is true personalized safety that is effective and functional.