Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Attitudes, Behavior, and The Problem With “Hearts and Minds” Strategies

On its face, it makes intuitive sense – change people’s attitudes and you can change their behavior. This is the theoretical underpinning of those “hearts and minds” strategies that we hear about a lot. The idea is that we can get reach the hearts and minds of our workers then they will act safely and everything will be great. People will care about one another, they will follow the procedures, and safety will have been achieved.

There’s just one problem – humans are not that simple. Social psychological research suggests attitudes (which are often rooted in their beliefs) are only very weakly associated with their behaviors (Myers, 2010). This is particularly true for safety and health behaviors. You do not have to look far to get evidence to suggest that attitudes and behaviors are often contradictory. Ask anyone who smokes cigarettes how much they value their life and you’ll get a similar answer as if you asked someone who doesn’t smoke. Their attitudes about their health are roughly the same, but the behaviors differ greatly.

Or even look at yourself – chances are if you’re reading this you’re someone who cares about safety and health. Within the last few months have you done anything that if you had seen someone else doing it you would have said it was unsafe? Chances are the answer is yes.

And this is why “hearts and minds” strategies on their own are often going to be unsuccessful. The implication in these strategies is that if we could only get our workers to care more about safety then they would be safe. The problem is that your workers already do care about safety. They are not uncaring idiots. The problem is that they aren’t connecting those attitudes to the behaviors that you want to see.

So why is it that people are connecting their attitudes of wanting to be safe and healthy? Well, to give you some ideas, here’s some cases where research suggests that attitudes DO affect behavior:
  • When social influences are minimized;
  • When other influences on behavior are minimized; or,
  • When attitudes are potent (usually as a result of the attitude being brought to mind) (Myers, 2010).

Do you see the pattern? The environment/context the person is in is a large effect on their behavior. It’s only when those environmental influencers are minimized or that the environment brings to mind the attitude and makes it more potent than other influencers that the attitude is strong enough to influence behavior. The implication here is that if we want to really change people’s behavior, we need to change the environment they are operating in – the complex interactions of abstract goals, social features, equipment, and technology. Make risks more obvious, give them a clearer mental model of their environment so they can better adapt, and give them coping skills needed to balance competing goals (e.g. the old production versus safety balancing act)

This leads to one other consideration – one potential reason that your employees aren’t connecting their attitudes about safety and health to the behaviors you want to see is that the behaviors you want to see aren’t realistic. The problem isn’t that we don’t know safety and health, it’s that we don’t know the jobs our workers are doing. So we make a recommendation from a place of ignorance and are surprised when it gets ignored.


So if you’re having problems with what seems like the “hearts and minds” of your employees, you may be wise to implement a “hearts and minds” strategy of your own – get out there where the workers are turning the wrenches and get a clearer picture of the job they are doing and the environment they are in. The great thing about this is that when workers start to see you doing this you change their hearts and minds…about you. You build trust, which is one of the most valuable resources in creating safety in your organization.

Reference: Myers, D. (2010). Social Psychology (10th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

1 comment:

  1. I've said for many years that one of the reasons for my success as a Safety Professional if the fact that I started out as a field service worker performing the maintenance and operations similar to those of the workers it is now my job to keep safe. It is so much better to be able to work with the staff to find the best and safest way to perform a task then to simply spout off safety regulations. If you are a safety professional without that base of experience, do as Ron suggests and go walk in their shoes for a bit. Get you mind and heart away from your desk and on the job.

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