Beyond carrots and sticks
by Marcus Beard, Immanuel Kemp
October 2017
Unlocking safety gains through understanding irrational behavior

Many organizations that have undertaken safety improvement initiatives have found that while easy wins are typically accomplished early on, further progress often becomes increasingly difficult. Safety improvement typically depends on changing human behavior, which is driven by underlying emotion, habit and instinct, and not wholly rational or predictable. “Carrots and sticks” and other traditional methods therefore have limited impact on influencing behavior, and fail to truly engage employees and managers. Leading corporations and government policy-makers are demonstrating considerable success with alternative approaches, which overcome these barriers and achieve more significant and longer-term gains. Such approaches offer reinforcement to established levers for safety improvement.

The safety performance plateau

A common challenge facing organizations across many sectors is to sustain continued safety improvement in line with the expectations of regulators, business partners and shareholders. Executive-led initiatives can yield initial improvements before reaching a performance plateau, which can be hard to escape. 

Diminishing improvements can trigger loss of motivation and failure to engage middle management, which are critical to long-term success. More fundamentally, behavioral change required for improvement is notoriously difficult, and cited as the most common obstacle to progress. Human behavior tends to be driven by a combination of rational thought and emotion, habit or instinct, resulting in potentially irrational actions that are contrary to good safety practice. Therefore, traditional methods, such as those focusing on “carrots and sticks” frequently fail. This is, because they do not connect with people at these fundamental levels, which means true engagement will be limited.