A safety management system, however well conceived, can only get only you so far. We find out how behavioural science can provide the nudges needed to help transform safety culture.
Behavioural science techniques are being used more and more often in our everyday lives, from persuading us to follow Covid lockdown rules to nudging us to pay our taxes on time (it turns out that telling people how many taxpayers in their area do pay promptly is an extremely effective way of ‘nudging’ others to do the same). The use of these techniques in the management of occupational health and safety, in securing worker engagement and encouraging positive behaviours, can produce significant cultural change.
Jules Reed, head of behavioural science at award-winning tech start-up Tended, defines behavioural science as the study of human nature applied through specific lenses. In OSH, she argues, there has been a lot of focus on safety management systems (SMS) while safety cultures have been left to their own devices. But an SMS is only as good as the people engaging in it. Without workforce engagement, the SMS is limited. That’s where behavioural science can bridge the gap.
‘Traditionally in health and safety we’ve concentrated on what’s easy to adjust,’ she explains. ‘We have a safety management system, we have it audited, we review it – so the paperwork is robust. But what’s difficult is getting people to adhere to that SMS. Whilst most managers have an understanding of the SMS, they struggle to understand safety leadership. And if you can’t visualise it, you can’t change it.’
Behavioural safety, which gained popularity more than 20 years ago, aimed to address the ‘people’ side of safety, says Reed, but it ‘didn’t hit the mark’ because it focused mainly on the workforce and was still transactional.
‘There remains a notion that leaders get it all right and workers get it wrong; the difference between intention and impact. What we need is to change the collective beliefs based on shared experiences, which is transformation.’
While expertise in behavioural science is not in most OSH managers’ toolkits, Reed believes there are some important concepts and ideas that can at least offer food for thought – and challenge some assumptions about how to achieve cultural change. Here she offers some tips for getting started.
1. Create a vision
‘You need a vision of what a good safety culture looks like in your company. Start with the end in mind. Leaders need to be able to describe the vision in a story that helps everyone to visualise the future goal: this is important.
‘Many leaders say simply that they want safety improvements or better statistics. This isn’t a vision. A vision must be specific about what people will think, feel and do differently, and clear about the purpose and benefits that change will bring. The “why” is as important as the “what”. Once the vision is clear, all operational managers need to be aligned with it and provide congruent messaging: this needs to be a golden thread that weaves into everything that managers say and do.’
2. Understand where you came from
“See the process as a journey, which has a beginning, middle and end.
‘When looking at culture change, people often start by asking, “Where are we now?” But you need to go much further back. Cultures are ingrained over decades. They’re often based on norms that no longer make sense. So look into your history. What created the culture you have inherited?
‘Something from the past has put your culture on this path and that needs to be addressed, otherwise it acts as an anchor and your culture can’t move forward.’
3. Understand how people behave now
‘Typically, companies will do a climate survey to understand current safety attitudes and behaviours, then a gap analysis, then they’ll organise training to fill the gap – tick!
‘Blanket training courses are labour intensive, and not relevant to all participants. Blanket training only yields an average of a 20% return, which diminishes over time, and it is rarely monitored for impact, never mind how it brings your company closer to your vision.
‘What you need is “experiential nudges”. At Tended, we provide microlearning sessions that are targeted to individual leaders. Each leader works on their own “gap”. They’re encouraged to try things with their teams, and if they don’t work, we try something different. In this way, they get a solution to the particular problem, their knowledge is expanded, and they gain experience in observing people and how they interact – all valuable leadership skills.
‘Managers tend to be transactional, so we show them how to identify if a problem is situational, behavioural or psychological. We then give them the appropriate nudges to change their team experiences, which will ultimately change their behaviours.
‘Training isn’t always the answer. Get creative: try something different, observe it, and reflect on it. This helps build emotional intelligence, which is another valuable leadership trait.’
4. Create a story with milestones
‘Changing culture involves your past, your present, your journey and your future. If you can create a story and everyone is aligned to it, change will happen. It is vital that every new experience and learning is taking your company towards your vision.
‘So a CEO might say, “Our vision is that everyone takes care of each other, just as you would your family. When people look out for each other’s safety, it’s easier to correct mistakes before they happen. We value people and there will be no judgement; just an acceptance that it’s the right thing to do. We will enable this by starting to change experiences as we navigate the plot of the story: the milestones.”
‘Getting leadership buy-in will enable the culture to thrive. Consistency is key. Culture is based on shared experience which creates a collective belief. The truth is that inconsistency kills culture. You need consistency and persistence – even if things go wrong.
‘We are a social species and that makes us socially adept. In other words, we fit into our environment and fit in with the people in it. If you think about someone shouting profanities on the terrace at a football match on Saturday: that same person may go to church on Sunday and be reverent. We adapt to what is socially acceptable on a subconscious level. Therefore, if there’s only one standard, that’s what people will conform to. And when there is a strong cultural norm, people will want to protect that norm, which further strengthens it.
‘But it only takes one or two leaders not to be aligned to the vision for it to be sabotaged. This is the hard bit! You have to make sure every leader – and I mean from the CEO down to frontline managers – is willing to buy into the vision. They need to learn and change.’