Managers: get them while they’re motivated

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Employers need make it as easy as possible for managers to conduct safety-related tasks by piggybacking on their periods of high motivation.

There is a lot being written at the moment about how to develop ‘good’ habits, or desired behaviours. This is usually applied to personal lifestyle choices such as getting fitter, losing weight, working harder.

A nice example of this is the work of BJ Fogg, director at the Stanford University Persuasion Unit. The unit is focused on developing understanding of the most effective ways to influence behaviours, either by increasing desired behaviour or decreasing undesired ones.

His research, and that of others, starting with Kurt Lewin in the 1930s, supports the well-established approach of making the behaviours you want someone to do as easy as possible for them, focusing efforts on changing their environment rather than the person, as our environment strongly influences our behaviours.

In addition to this, Fogg considers how to achieve habitual behaviours over time by working with the fluctuating motivation levels of the person you are dealing with for doing the task.

He argues that our motivation level for a given task or goal fluctuates over time. There will always be peaks and troughs – times when we are highly motivated in achieving the task or goal, others when it does not seem that much of a priority. When motivation is high, people are prepared to put significant time and effort into carrying out a behaviour that will support achieving that task. When motivation is low, only low effort/short duration behaviours will be carried out.

His approach is to use times of high motivation (when people are willing to do more difficult or demanding behaviours), to set-up, make easier or develop skills and resources to make the behaviours that are required to be performed repeatedly over time as easy and effortless to perform as possible.

How to use this approach to get desired behaviours
It is important that managers in an organisation are seen to be actively involved in improving health and safety. This has been repeatedly identified as a key driver for maintaining and improving safety behaviours.

A common problem is how to get senior managers to do workplace safety visits. Managers’ reasons for not doing them involve issues such as: ‘They are too time consuming; I can’t fit them in around my other commitments; I don’t know enough about health and safety to ask the right questions; and I can’t see how they add any value’.

A way to approach this, using Fogg’s logic of ‘get them while they are motivated’, is to think of times managers are likely to be highly motivated, and at that point give them tasks that will make it easier to carry out workplace visits; or give them other visible leadership activities that it is important they start to do over time. The aim is to make the visits as easy and as ‘painless’ as possible, so that they will still be done when the person’s motivation is low.

When are managers motivated?
Managers tend to be highly motivated around health and safety when:

  • There has been a recent health and safety incident in the organisation, particularly if it occurred ‘on their watch’
  • Approaching performance appraisal, particularly if there are health and safety KPIs in their assessment; during this period they will be looking to demonstrate visible leadership and can show what they are doing in that area
  • Meetings with their senior managers where they expect to be asked about how they are managing health and safety
  • Following any health and safety training which can bring a personal impact on health and safety performance in an organisation.

How to maximise the time of high motivation to lever more long lasting safety leadership
The aim is to think about ways to make the tasks and behaviours you want managers to do over time as straightforward, quick and painless as possible, therefore reducing the barriers to performing the desired behaviours.

For example, to arrange workplace safety visits:

  • Get managers to schedule workplace safety visits (or agree to having them booked for them), in the calendar for the next 12 months. It will seem more difficult to fit in the calendar when their motivation is lower, and if it is booked, it becomes harder not to do it
  • If possible, link the safety visits to other regular times when managers would be doing an activity at the location. This minimises the barrier in terms of the travel inconvenience. Then the two sets of behaviours become habitual as two tasks that are always done together, both for the manager and the team at the site that is being visited. One option would be to use monthly operations meetings at a site to book a safety visit for the same day.

Painless workplace visits
Where managers are worried about either not knowing enough, or how they can usefully do something to give the visit greater impact, look for ways to give them processes they can follow or skills to fall back on to make the visits as useful as possible. For example:

  • Give coaching/training/skills practice on questions to ask during the site visits; this increases managers’ comfort with the task
  • Reframe managers’ perceptions of needing to be ‘experts’ in health and safety to being someone who understands the risks and if they are being managed effectively; this increases their comfort through reducing the threat to their self-image
  • Create a process where the manager feeds back their perceptions to site staff, and make it a formal reporting system, if appropriate. This is straightforward to do if the visit is linked to an operational meeting, as it can assist the manager to ask questions around risk management in relation to the operations that are being discussed.

The nub of this theory is that our levels of motivation, and therefore the amount of effort we are prepared to expend at a point in time to achieve a particular goal vary over time. Therefore it is best to use periods of high motivation, when we are prepared to commit significant effort to achieving a goal, and making the required future behaviours as easy and simple as possible. This increases the chance that they will be done consistently over time in the future, even when motivation is less high.

Sarah Cudmore, Cudmore Consulting



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