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How to Reward Staff for Better Safety Performance

describe the imageMany safety professionals believe they need to reward staff to get them to behave safely.

But we all know, that rewarding staff doesn't always work.  You often get great safety performance when rewards are on offer, but once the rewards stop, the safety behaviour drops back down to the previous level (or lower).

The Downsides with Rewards

In the book, Drive, by Daniel Pink he goes through a lot of research studies to discover when it's best to reward staff.

Most business managers know that goals are an important business tool as they focus the mind on undertaking a particular objective.  They help get things done.  But care needs to be taken with what you get people to focus on.

When offered a reward on completion of a task, staff tend to focus on the reward, resulting in poor performance when undertaking the task.  Offering a reward for performance encourages short-term thinking, cheating and unethical behaviour.  I'm sure many of you have experienced working for a company offering a financial or a gift card reward for safety which resulted in incidents being omitted from the monthly statistics.

Other examples include Enron who set such lofty revenue goals that staff undertook risky, unethical sales behaviour that led to the company's demise.  While Ford released the Ford Pinto with a focus on producing a car on a certain date with a certain weight and price that it omitted important safety checks and unleashed an incredibly dangerous car (self-exploding vehicle, anyone?).

Pay me

If you pay people to lose weight, work harder or stop smoking, people will start doing the new behaviour that is required.  But once they get their reward, they don't continue.  Money in itself isn't a big motivator for improving performance or stopping an unhealthy habit.

However, it's different for left-brain routine tasks, that do not require creative thinking.  Research has found that rewards can actually boost productivity without harmful side effects provided that the work is monotonous.  Examples include production line work (or putting letters into an envelope).

But for creative tasks, rewards actually decrease performance.

Pink says that if you do want to reward a design team for doing a good job, you must give them a reward after the task is done and it should be unexpected.

This is to ensure that staff focus on solving the problem, rather than the reward.

What's a good reward?

When it comes to enhancing performance and motivating staff - the best reward is positive feedback.  It might seem a bit "twee", but we all like to hear we are doing a good job.  And we're not likely to cheat or exhibit unethical behaviour, just to hear our boss give us a good rap.

So long as the feedback provides useful information.  Rather than saying "Wow. You designed a great safety poster".  Instead, give meaningful and specific information about how the poster met the objectives such as " Wow.  That poster you designed really hits the mark.  It clearly communicates how to walk down stairs correctly".

Four Tips to Communicate and Reward Safety Behaviours

If you have a new safety initiative that you need to communicate to staff and you know that there will be some resistance, use the following four steps to communicate and reward:

  1. Explain why the task is important - You can make mundane tasks more meaningful by explaining why the task is so important and how it relates to a larger purpose.  For example: "When delivering mail, it's important to drive safely on your motorbike so that you customers get their mail on time and you return home in a healthy condition.  After all, there are people depending on the postal service to get their paycheque and birthday present from Grandma.  You don't want little Billy missing out on his new Lego set".
  2. Acknowledge that the task is boring - Be empathetic that being safe might be boring and that they've heard the same things over again, but let staff know that it is important.
  3. Allow people to complete the task in their own way - Give people autonomy.  State the outcome you need, but where possible, let people do it in their own way.  Give people freedom over how to do their own job.  If necessary, give them the guidelines on what safety rules they need to apply, but let them figure out how to make this work.  Once they have worked it out (and it's working), create a document on what you want people to do (see "How finding company bright spots bring business success" for more information).
  4. Give positive feedback - After staff have undertaken a procedure safely in the right manner, let them know the reasons why they did it so well.  Make sure you give positive feedback one on one to all of your staff members.  This can also be done publicly in meetings or through the company newsletter.