Better Behavioural Safety?

How can we influence behaviour at work to maximise safety performance? Professor Andrew Sharman reveals that the answer lies in taking a broader view, listening to great leaders such as Nelson Mandela (Madiba), and learning from sporting greats like Andreas Iniesta, Steph Curry and Jonny Wilkinson.

Behavioural Safety is a critical component of success for many thriving companies across a diverse array of sectors. Despite this, many organizations and safety professionals are still unsure exactly what Behavioural Safety really is. There is evidence of confusion regarding the terminology used in the fields of behavioural science, human factors and ergonomics both anecdotally and in the scientific literature.

I’m concerned that this confusion inadvertently causes missed opportunities for tangible and sustainable improvement in safety performance around the world.

The White House released a report in 2016 on the current state of AI and its potential to help address major challenges society faces. For example, the report mentions how the Department of Veterans Affairs is using artificial intelligence software at Walter Reed Medical Center to make more accurate predictions of medical complications and improve the way combat wounds are treated, improving patient outcomes. Other applications noted by the White House report include the use of AI to improve urban traffic management, tracking of animal migration, and reduce the number of school dropouts. There is virtually no aspect of society that isn’t being influenced by AI. The way we live, connect and search on a daily basis is completely transforming- and it’s just the beginning.


Have you ever wondered why people behave unsafely whilst at work? 

Are you bewildered as to why people take such unnecessary risks at work when surely they know the awful consequences of their actions? There’s legislation in place to force people to comply with regulations and company procedures, workers often receive mandatory training and supervision, and there is likely signage placed in strategic locations to warn of dangers or remind people how to lift things properly or work at height safely.


Performance – the product of failure or success?

Failure (or ‘human error’) in the workplace, and the occasional catastrophic events that will inevitably follow is well documented. However, the term ‘Human Error’ is in itself often misleading. Most would agree that human behaviour plays a major part in workplace accidents and injuries but closer scrutiny may reveal that many of these behaviours were not actually ‘errors’ at all but deliberate actions towards a specific performance outcome.


Understanding behaviour

To ensure a behavioural safety program has the full effect we need to take a broader view of the factors that drive human performance. This includes knowledge of three very different (and sometimes conflicting) areas of science including behavioural, organizational and performance psychology. It also requires consideration of the environmental, technological and ergonomic factors that influence human performance.

To understand behaviour, look at the circumstances around the behaviour.

To fully understand any human behaviour, we must ascertain all the factors and circumstances surrounding the behaviour – rather than just looking at the behaviour itself. All humans are different, so it’s pointless to just look at the behaviour of a specific individual in isolation.

Nelson Mandela understood this perfectly. To change the world and make it a better place he could not do it one person at a time. The great Madiba understood that people are different and he would have a greater impact if he could influence the circumstances and the environments surrounding the behaviours that he sought to change.


People are different

In our consulting experience – over twenty-plus years working in more than 120 countries – when it comes to compliance in safety, people tend to fit one of three categories.

HSE Article

As easy as A-B-C

When analysing behaviour, the surrounding circumstances or factors are referred to as Antecedents (commonly called ‘Activators’) and Consequences. The Activators are all those things that are in place to encourage people to do things safely before they actually commit to a Behaviour – such as training, information films, signs, rules, company policies and procedures and even the law itself. Even though we might have all these Activators to drive performance in safety, the truth is that these things alone are just not very effective at actually influencing people’s Behaviour.

But research suggests that Activators are only about 20% effective in influencing people’s behaviour! Just think how things work in everyday life: How many people do you see driving unsafely (speeding, using mobile phones, and hogging the overtaking lane) despite all the legislation, signage and safety films that our governments may have put in place? Similar behaviours can be observed within the workplace, too.


Give them a nudge

When it comes to workplace safety, most organizations are quite good at ensuring their Activators are in place. They invest the majority of their time, money and resources towards these things without realising that Activators alone are pretty useless at driving behaviour and performance – unless we create innovative Activators that really grab the attention of workers. Improved communication and coaching skills, as well as an understanding of Nudge Theory (see my previous articles in SHEQ Management magazine) can be much more effective at predetermining a behaviour.

Here’s a simple example. Next time you give a presentation, instead of asking “Are there any Questions?” try asking “So what questions do you have?” as you look directly at the attendees. The reaction you’ll get is likely to be very different. As most of the audience will start to formulate some sort of question in their head – which is in itself a pre-cursor to encouraging them to start to think differently and adapt their Behaviour. That’s because you’ve created an effective Activator and nudged a specific Behaviour.


What’s the consequence?

So, is it all about the Consequences then? Well yes, but we need to understand that there are four different types of consequences to our actions and only one of the Consequences are actually only potentially bad for the individual carrying out the behaviour. The other three Consequences that are much more likely to happen are usually good news for the individual carrying out the Behaviour – and their organization too.

So let’s think about these four consequences for a moment. They are:

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Making decisions like Iniesta

The good news is that there are better ways of driving sustainable high performance. A good Behavioural Safety Leadership program will help your leaders and managers properly understand human Behaviour, be encouraged to create much more innovative Activators, and become better at reinforcing the Consequences appropriately.

They’ll also be encouraged to think much more like great leaders in other performance domains. An interesting aspect of elite performance that successful leaders in the areas of sport, politics and the arts have wrestled with recently is the area of professional judgement and decision making (PJDM). If only they could trust their people to make better decisions and judgements, especially in important or critical moments. Most leaders that we speak to in the organizations that we work with would yearn for the same in the workplace and especially in safety. Imagine if we could just retrain the ‘Rebels’ to think like the ‘Compliers’?

The truth is – as the sporting world has started to realize – PJDM is a very complex area of performance. Teaching others to think like Iniesta, Curry or Wilkinson isn’t so easy, and the really tough bit is extracting the cognition and meta-cognition process of these great individuals in the first instance. So, in sport, they’ve moved to a new area that’s easier to implement and much more effective.


Sharing mindsets

It’s known as developing a Shared Mental Model (SMM) in the team or organization and it’s a key factor in generating sustainable elite performance in sport, the military and in many areas of business too. If everyone properly understood what the leader’s intent is in any given situation then it becomes much easier for any individual to make a similar judgment or decision when placed in a similar situation.

This Shared Mental Model for performance is our Holy Grail in safety and is the ultimate outcome for any effective behavioural safety leadership programme.  With the right leadership in place and a better understanding of the psychology of performance, organizations are much better positioned to reduce accidents and enjoy sustainable success in safety.


So, in conclusion, what is behavioural safety?

Well, it’s much more than compliance and safety signs, rules and procedures, It’s all about creating a culture of care rather than compliance and a WANT to mindset rather than HAVE to.

If you’re serious about achieving safety excellence, your organization can’t get there unless there is a shared understanding in the middle and upper tiers of leadership of the core aspects of human performance and psychology as outlined in this article.

Behavioural safety is – in a nutshell – about understanding what drives your most important assets and how to take better care of them for superior performance outcomes.  If that’s something that you aspire to, then a Behavioural Safety Leadership program is right for you.


  • Prof. Andrew Sharman
  • CEO, President
  • RMS, IOSH, Switzerland
  • Darren Sutton MSc
  • Senior Partner
  • RMS, Switzerland