Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Tis the Season for Giving – The Pitfalls of Incentive Programs

It’s the holiday season in the United States, which is a time for giving gifts to others. Most of the time these gifts are for some sort of social or altruistic purpose, usually to friends and loved ones, but sometimes gifts are given to solve a problem. This happens a lot in organizations, where we call them “incentives”. We use them in an effort to alter the behavior of others. We entice someone to do something by giving them reason to expect some sort of reward for it. In the safety world, incentives are usually given to reward those behaviors that we identify as “safe”, such as wearing their personal protective equipment, reporting hazards or incidents, or, unfortunately, going a period of time without injuries.

The idea makes sense on its face, but incentive programs are often a lot more problematic than meets the eye. Based on our experience and understanding of the social science research, we have a few words of caution for any who are looking to implement such a program.

1. Trying to fix the wrong problem. As we said, often we add incentives to get employees to do the things we want them to do. This assumes that the problem is that the employee is not properly motivated to do what we want them to do, and if the problem is inside of the employee then the fix is to fix the employee by adding the incentive. Perhaps though the problem is that there are other contextual factors leading to the behavior, either in the physical environment, or in the organizational/cultural environment. Adding another incentive to counter other incentives may just be adding noise. Perhaps a better solution is to fix the context of the work. Or, perhaps the problem is with your understanding of how the work should be done, not with the employee.

2. Rewarding bad behavior. You always need to remember that incentives work at incentivizing people to get the incentive, whether or not they do what you want them to do is a separate question. The classic example is incentivizing injury reductions or lack of injuries. This works at lowering the numbers, but at least part of the reduction is because of hiding of injuries. So you want to avoid that. Carefully consider what you want to incentivize and think about all of the ways people can get the incentive. 

3. Incentives insensitive to context. Too many times incentives just fall into the Taylorism (LINK) trap of determining the one best method to do the job and assuming that this never changes. There are very few rules that apply in all cases. Get your employees involved in determining what you want to incentivize so that they can ensure that the thing you’re incentivizing is sensitive to the context they work in. We recommend you talk to your employees about the things you want to incentivize and ask them what their perspective is on why they aren’t doing what you expect of them. Make sure this is done in a “no fault” environment and is done in the spirit of learning, not teaching. You will then be in a better place to determine what the problems really are, which should then lead you to the solutions. 

4. Too much of an incentive. Social science research shows that if you are trying to alter behavior, sometimes a smaller incentive is better than a larger incentive. Sometimes intangibles are better than tangibles. Many people assume that you have to give them something of significant external value, when sometimes simple recognition by peers is enough. People are motivated by psychological needs, as well as external needs, and one of those needs is mastery. Another is relatedness. If you appeal to those needs you can sometimes get a more powerful response, while also appealing to people’s humanity. This builds trust and understanding more than external incentives tend to do.

5. Too much at once. If a program is trying to change too much at once it will be very hard to manage, meaning that there will be inconsistent application of the incentive, which will cause employees to lose trust in the program and become cynical. It needs to be consistently applied, so start small. If you start small that will also help you work out some of the bugs in the system early. 


We hope these at least give you food for thought with any incentive programs you have or are building. We also hope that you have a happy Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, Festivus, or holiday, and a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Just Culture Institute

We noticed a new website pop up recently that we thought was pretty interesting and worth talking about – the Just Culture Institute. First off, we want to say that although we know some of the people at the Just Culture Institute, we have no formal affiliation with the Institute in any way. That being said, we think that the site is worth looking at because it might spark a conversation in your organization that is worth having, namely – how do we react when something goes wrong?

The site presents two models of a “just culture” - the retributive just culture and the restorative just culture (see the figure below). In a retributive just culture, the focus is on finding who was at fault for an event and ensuring that they are punished. However, as the Institute notes, the results from this are not always what we’d like, in terms of reduced reporting, reduced learning from events, and a lack of trust in the organization.


By contrast, restorative just cultures seek to, as the name implies, restore. They are focused on finding and fixing, rather than finding and punishing. In this way the restorative just culture is more forward looking, focusing on what we will do differently, whereas the retributive just culture is more backwards looking, focusing on who did what when.

Now, many point out that accountability is important in organizations, and the Institute readily admits this. However, as the site points out, retributive just cultures and restorative just cultures have different views on accountability. Retributive just cultures see accountability like a monetary account – something that someone owes and must pay for. By contrast, restorative just cultures see accountability as the need to create an account of what happened, i.e. to tell a story with the purpose of making people whole and systems better. In this way all people are accountable to improvement, making restorative just cultures more forward thinking and retributive just cultures.

The site also includes tips for implementing restorative just cultures. One of key recommendations is the identification of the victims in an incident. The site identifies first victims as those who suffer the consequences of the incident. Second victims, key figures in a restorative just culture, are those practitioners who feel personally responsible for the incident and may suffer as a result. For example, in an incident where an employee is seriously injured in a forklift accident where one of the causes was “human error” on the part of another employee, the injured employee and their family is the first victim, whereas the employee who made the mistake would be a second victim. Restorative cultures do not neglect either and the Institute provides recommendations and links to resources for helping deal with all the victims in an incident.


Obviously, these ideas are a bit controversial, as many believe that punishment is a vital part of a safety program. You need the carrot AND the stick, they say. However, these ideas are often based on false assumptions about human performance and counterfactual thinking brought about by hindsight bias. And, at the end of the day, we’ve been working on the assumption that retributive justice is the right system for a long time, yet it doesn’t seem to be working as well as we’d like it to in the safety profession, because people are still being killed in accidents. So perhaps it’s time to at least consider a new approach. The Just Culture Institute is a needed step toward consideration of a new approach.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Making Safety a Habit

Recently at a client’s site one of our consultants was driving through the plant, reached their destination, and got out of the vehicle. Just then, an employee of the client drove up next to them and asked if our employee was wearing their seatbelt. The client’s employee saw our employee driving around without a seatbelt, or at least that’s how it looked, and drove out of his way to talk to our employee. What a good demonstration of caring about safety – to drive out of your way to remind someone to wear their safety equipment (in this case a seatbelt)! However, it turns out that our employee was wearing his seatbelt. How did they know? Because putting on a seatbelt was such a habit that to not put it on would have felt uncomfortable. He simply puts on his seatbelt without thinking when he enters the vehicle.

The idea that we can take safety and make it into a habit more broadly than in just the example above has a lot of intuitive appeal. After all, making something a habit makes it easier to do the thing we’re trying to do. In the case above, making putting on the seatbelt a habit makes putting on a seatbelt relatively easy. The employee doesn’t have to expend much cognitive resources in order to put on the seatbelt. In a manner of speaking, you could say that habits change reality. Normally we think that with the choice of doing something or not doing something, not doing something is the easier of the two options. Habits can change that by making not doing the act more difficult. Putting on a seatbelt is a largely passive process (it almost just happens), whereas not putting on a seatbelt is active (it requires thought and effort).

This is why many in the safety world have recommended working to build safety habits in your organization. Imagine now in your organization if safety were a habit. Everyone wears their PPE. Everyone follows the procedures. Sounds great, right?

Actually…not so much.

This idea that safety can be reduced to merely being a habit is an example of a number of big problems in the safety profession. First, the belief that turning safety into a habit will give significantly benefit safety performance provides a clue of where the person who has that belief thinks the main problem in safety is – our employees’ brains. After all, what is a habit but a way to do something without thinking? So, for turning safety into a habit to be the solution, that means that problem is that our employees are thinking for themselves. We need to squash out that thinking with conformity-building habits.

This idea stems from a concept of management that is over 100 years olds called Taylorism. The idea is that workers cannot be trusted to figure out the work for themselves, so managers must define the one best way to do the job, train employees on that one best method, and the hold them accountable to it. Essentially - managers are smart and workers are dumb. In the present case, we define what habits we want the employees to have (the “one best method”) and we lobotomize our employees by turning the method into a habit.

On it’s face the idea is pretty dehumanizing, and therefore demotivating. However, the added downside is that by deemphasizing our employees’ ability to think we are taking away one of the most valuable aspects of our employees – their minds. After all, without a mind, what good is a human? We can find stronger, faster, and more precise animals in the world. But the one thing that separates us is our creativity, our innovation, our ability to adapt to such a wide range of circumstances. This feature of humanity is responsible for all of our achievements. Why would we be so quick to squash it at our first opportunity?

The second problem with the safety profession that the movement to turn safety into a habit demonstrates is our desire to oversimplify our world. Turning safety into a habit makes for a great sound bite, but even if it were possible and ethically desirable, from a safety perspective, it’s a really bad idea. One can think of plenty of examples where habits are causal factors in accidents. Think about it – doing something habitually is doing something without thinking. Can you think of an accident where an operator acting without thinking was one of the causal factors? That was an accident where habits were part of the cause!

Habits work in situations where nothing significant changes. That’s why we don’t have to think, only act. But our world, our organization, our work environment is constantly changing, sometimes slowly, sometimes drastically. Habits not only won’t work in such situations, in such situations habits can be deadly.


Now, don’t get us wrong – there are situations where habits are good. There are a small subset of behaviors that are so basic, and so rote that there will never need to be a meaningful deviation. For example, one would be very hard pressed to come up with a circumstance where putting on a seatbelt when one is provided is a bad idea. But the idea that safety is just about making habits is dangerous, just like any other idea that presupposes that any human action or inaction is always good or bad without due consideration of context. The safety profession is notorious for oversimplifying human behavior and it has to stop if we’re going to make any real progress.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Who is going to fill the gap?

While completing employee interviews during a safety assessment at one of our client’s sites we noticed a common theme kept coming up – a recent change in policy has made the process of securing subject matter experts to provide necessary safety training a bureaucratic nightmare. The reason for the change is a bit unclear (we haven’t been able to talk to the people responsible for the change) but likely has to do with transparency and fairness in the procurement process (the client works for a city government), so it was made with the best of intentions.

However, the change, according to the employees we’ve talked to, has made getting employees trained appropriately extraordinarily difficult. As a result, many employees report not having all the required safety training that they need to do their jobs.

Now, the above story is not a new one. In fact, most who are reading this have either been in organizations with similar problems or know of other organizations like that. Having an organization with less than ideal circumstances should not be surprising to anyone. That’s normal.

Unfortunately though, there’s something else that’s normal about this story. The inability to get the training from outside vendors has created a gap in the organization. Employees need to do jobs that require training that they have not received. And guess who has to bridge that gap? Primarily, the employees do.

It’s so common that it’s sad – our employees are often left to bridge the gaps left in our management systems. We see the signs of this in our accident investigation reports. Think of how many investigations cite the following factors as contributing to an accident:
  • Design flaws
  • Faulty tools or equipment
  • Poorly-written procedures
  • Inadequate training
These issues are common in organizations, yet our management systems are not designed to help employees deal with these gaps. We spend very little time helping employees deal with the imperfect circumstances. But ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. Someone has to bridge the gap to make sure the work gets done, right? If we don’t do, or if management in the organization doesn’t do it, then the employees, in a perverse game of musical chairs, are the only ones left standing when the music stops. They have no choice to find a way to work around the imperfect circumstances to find a way to achieve success.

And you know what’s crazy? Our employees are so good at this that we don’t even realize that they are doing it. They achieve success, day-in and day-out, without much support. That is, they do until there’s an accident (and then we blame them for violating our procedures).

Now, an obvious response is to point the finger at management, as they are the ones responsible for creating an effective management system. This may be justified, but we have to admit that this will only take us so far. We can do everything we can to make our designs better, get the best equipment available, write the most concise and accurate procedures, and provide compelling and realistic training. But in a dynamic, complex world there will always be gaps because designs, equipment, procedures, and training are static. Very quickly after we implement our new, amazing policy that everyone has buy-in on, things change and gaps start to show as our system changes due to changing technology, demographics, and/or economic conditions.

So, if our response to this merely to enhance our controls and shore up our management system, this will not fix all of the problems (although it may help some).  A better response is to increase the resilience of your organization by building in the capacity to adapt to circumstances as they change. This will require a bit of a new way of thinking and acting, but it’s the only way we can help carry the burden that our employees are currently carrying on their own. Here’re some tips to help you get started:
  • Get out from behind your desk and start learning about thereality that your employees are facing. There is always a difference between how we imagine work is happening and how it’s actually happening. Talk to your employees about problems they are facing. Learning about the things that are making work difficult for them. You might not agree with their perspectives and you may not be able to solve all of the problems. But the first step in any problem solving method is to identify the problem.
  • Consider doing success investigations. It will give you a better idea of what’s actually making your organization successful than only looking at failure (accidents).
  • For rules and procedures, have a process to ensure that they are continually updated and are consistent with reality.
  • When implementing a new design, equipment, policy, procedure, or training, consider doing a micro-experiment, where you test it out on a small scale before rolling it out completely. Making small changes will be a lot easier than making large changes later.
  • For those issues that you just can’t fix in the short term (like the procurement bureaucracy discussed above) work with your employees and management to identify alternate solutions that allow workers to get the job done safely. Make sure you involve the workers in this process, otherwise it is doomed to fail.
  • Make sure your top management (and you) are doing everything you can do to share the burden with the employees. What can you do to make it easier for them, even if it makes it a bit more inconvenient for you?