In our business of incident investigation, we are very concerned about accountability, responsibility, a ‘just culture’, and the old chestnuts of ‘fault’ and ‘blame’. But, how often do we consider the opposite: ‘praise’? Not for getting something wrong, but for getting it right.
A fundamental problem in the workplace is ensuring the right behaviours are sustained and improved over time. Biologists and psychologists will tell you that behaviour can be honed and shaped using both punishment and rewards. Both can be very powerful in their effect, but praise is a positive behaviour, punishment is negative. We are not suggesting a punishment-free environment – it would be wonderful if that were possible, but it isn’t. It has been tried, but it invariably fails, because we humans are hard-wired to cut corners, and to cheat. Why? Because over many millions of years of evolution, taking short-cuts and cheating has proven to have survival value. That’s the fundamental reason for needing laws and a police force, sadly. Remove these, and chaos and anarchy quickly follow.
Training, processes and rules may help to promote the right working behaviour to some degree. However, there’s nothing to stop us rewarding good behaviour, and using positive reinforcement to encourage a healthy safety culture. That’s the statement of the obvious, and many will turn away from reading this short piece, and carry on with their daily activities without stopping to think, “Do I ever praise or thank colleagues and employees for their work efforts or safe practices? If so, how often do I do it?” These are fundamental questions we should all ask ourselves. A kind word in passing in the corridor, a text or a few words in an e-mail can make a huge positive difference to someone’s day. You know that yourself. You will remember those good leaders who genuinely cared about their employees and took the time to talk and praise them when appropriate.
A word of caution though: don’t overdo it. There is overwhelming evidence that constant praise starts to lose its impact. We are seeing this more and more on social media and television, where everyone is ‘wonderful’ and ‘fabulous’ and ‘brilliant’, and everything is ‘awesome’ and ‘fantastic’. But we know of course that it usually isn’t the case and is often just hot air. Eventually, this constant stream of praise becomes tiresome, worthless and importantly, ineffective.
Much work has been done on the behaviour of animals to demonstrate that infrequent rewards are much more powerful in shaping behaviour than constant rewards. Positive reinforcement should still be consistent, though, as its effects are short-lived. It is also only effective if it is timely, specific and based on genuine achievement or effort. Empty praise does nothing to drive internal human motivation to achieve or rise to a challenge, but recognition and encouragement can drive people to want to do the right thing themselves. It can then, in turn, improve employee safety culture as well as morale, and is a good way of keeping safety at the top of the agenda.
So, the key issue is getting the balance right between a constant stream of meaningless praise, and no praise at all. Get this balance right and you are more likely to have a happy, reliable, productive and safe-working workforce.
Think about it.