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Improving Safety Behavior: The Power of Commitment & Consistency

June 21, 2017

safety-commitment-1.jpgIf I could brainwash employees into acting safer, how would I do it? Documented brainwashing techniques include isolating persons, repetitive messaging under stress, controlling information from outside sources, and creating doubts in their beliefs. That’s what cults do. It doesn’t sound pleasant or practical. There is probably a company rule against this sort of stuff. HR won’t like the mess. So, what can we do to improve our employees' commitment to safer behavior that doesn’t involve psychological torture?

One of the most successful brainwashing operations in history happened during the Korean War. The operation was first documented for the public by esteemed MIT Organizational Psychologist Dr. Edgar Schein. He interviewed many returning American POWs. Schein pieced together the Chinese techniques. They were very subtle, but devastatingly effective in converting the beliefs and actions of POWs. Social Psychologist Robert Cialdini provides a great summary of Schein’s findings in his book Influence. From Cialdini’s summary:

Our best evidence of what people truly feel and believe comes less from their words than from their deeds. Observers trying to decide what a man is like look closely at his actions. What the Chinese have discovered is that the man himself uses this same evidence to decide what he is like. His behavior tells him about himself; it is a primary source of information about his beliefs and values and attitudes. Understanding fully this important principle of self-perception, the Chinese set about arranging the prison-camp experience so that their captives would consistently act in desired ways. Before long-the Chinese knew, these actions would begin to take their toll, causing the men to change their views of themselves to align what they had done.

The Chinese methods were simple. They urged their prisoners to write pro-communist statements. Merely listening to pro-communist statements or verbally saying them was not enough. The prisoners wrote statements and signed them. The Chinese understood that a hand-written note was,  psychologically, a very powerful method to get prisoner commitment. Furthermore, the Chinese did not use coercion. They used very subtle and ingenious ways to gain these written statements (read Influence to learn more about this – fascinating stuff).

His behavior tells him about himself; it is a primary source of information about his beliefs and values and attitudes. We humans have a very powerful drive to view ourselves as consistent. Society can’t function when members act inconsistently. Unpredictable behavior causes confusion and lack of trust. We are hardwired to value consistency in others and ourselves. Few understand this. The Chinese understood and used it to their advantage.

Prisoners’ signed, hand-written statements were posted in public places. Every day they would see what they had written. This created an internal conflict or mental inconsistency (psychologists call this cognitive dissonance). Cognitive dissonance is painful for our brains and exerts tremendous internal pressure to resolve it. The prisoners reduced the dissonance by modifying their behaviors and beliefs to align with their publicly posted statements. The other POWs saw these statements, which added a layer of social pressure. This created even more psychological pressure on individuals to remain consistent with their signed statements.

What does this have to do with personal safety commitment? Consider employee safety slogan contests. Some companies will solicit safety slogans from employees. The safety committee chooses the winning slogan for that month and the employee gets a small reward. The slogan will typically be posted on a marquee at the jobsite entrance. Let’s assume employee Joe Smith wins this month’s contest with the phrase “Don’t be a clown, slow down”. Joe’s slogan is posted publicly with his name under it. Do you think Joe Smith will be seen driving fast through the parking lot while his phrase is posted publicly for all his coworkers to see? No way. In fact, Joe will also slow down when he is off company property. He unconsciously will be motivated to keep his behaviors consistent with his public statement. His slogan tells him about himself; it is a primary source of information about his beliefs and values and attitudes. Such is the power of commitment and consistency on a person’s safety behavior. Now imagine that every worker on your jobsite has their own personal safety statement written on their hard hat or above their locker. Can you begin to see the transformation possible in your workforce’s commitment to their personal safety and safety of their coworkers? 

For those of you that have a teenage daughter, I have an experiment for you. If you are skeptical about the content of this blog, I want you to try this. It will probably embarrass your daughter, but don’t worry. Your mere existence already embarrasses your teenage daughter. Anyways, when your daughter’s boyfriend comes to pick her up for a date ask him to sit down with you for a few minutes in private. Put him at ease with some lemonade and small talk. Once he is comfortable tell him this:

You seem like a very good guy and I can see you have my daughter’s best interest at heart. I care for her very much and it would make me feel secure if you personally commit to my daughter’s safety. I want you to show me your commitment by writing the following:

I, boyfriend’s name, will treat daughter’s name, with highest respect and keep her safe. I will be a complete gentleman. I will protect her from drugs, alcohol, and other dangerous activities.

I have these two pieces of paper. Write it on both and sign them. I will put one copy on my refrigerator. It might seem silly to you, but it will make me feel better each time I see it knowing my daughter is safe with you. I want you to take the other copy and keep it in your wallet. Every time you come to pick my daughter up I want you to have that with you to remind you of your commitment.

If you conduct this experiment, please let me know how it turns out. Your perspective on human behavior may change forever. I would love to hear your story. You can message me via my LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/briandishman/.

Understanding SAFE Behaviors

Brian Dishman Brian Dishman is a Senior Consultant at PSI. He educates safety leaders on the internal factors that impact employee safety. Brian focuses on safety leadership, safety culture development, and the psychology of safety.