Heart and minds – is that enough?

In the world of behavioural safety an awful lot of time, effort and money has been spent plucking people’s heartstrings and changing people’s minds. The rationale being that if people think about safety in the right way and feel it is the right thing to do, then effective safety behaviours will follow.

The tools and techniques used to secure hearts and minds are many-fold:

  • Living witnesses are used to tell people of their experiences of surviving an accident and the impact it has had on their lives
  • Mock courtroom scenes are used to educate (or frighten?) people into understanding their legal obligations, And
  • Immersive drama-based exercises are created so people can practise effective intervention training, whilst at the same time having an enjoyable and memorable experience.

All of these approaches have had varying degrees of success in shaping new and positive behaviours in the workplace.

But to just take a step back for a moment – when the solutions are expensive and time consuming shouldn’t we be asking whether ‘hearts and minds’ is the real issue?

How far will trying to change the way people think and feel actually get us on the road to shaping positive behaviour? How many ‘safety epiphanies’ have there actually been at a ‘hearts and minds’ event – ones that irrevocably changed someone’s behaviour?  Sure people are engaged and inspired – but how long has the inspiration lasted?  How often, and how quickly, do people slip back into old habits once the reality of the everyday work pressures kicks-in?

Also, saying “we need to change people’s hearts and minds” presupposes that there’s something wrong with them in the first place. However, in my experience, the reality is that most people want to be safe and they understand most of the risks they face.  Their hearts and minds are predisposed to be in the right place, so we are largely pushing against an open door.  Engaging hearts and minds will undoubtedly create some change, but how much and how long will it last?

So, I come back to my central question – should the ‘hearts and minds’ issue be the main focus of behavioural safety?

To help answer this there’s a little thought-experiment I like to use – think about your behaviour in various social situations:

  • How do you talk in a church, even when it’s empty?
  • How do you behave at a night out with the girls / boys?
  • How do you behave at an elderly relative’s birthday party?
  • How do you behave at a job interview?

Do you behave in vastly different ways? If so does that mean you are a different person in each situation?  Does it mean that you have had a conscious change of heart and mind as you move from environment to environment?  If you do behave differently, but you’re the same person and don’t have “road to Damascus” moments as you move from situation to situation, what’s going on?

In reality it’s natural to adapt our behaviour to the social and physical environment we find ourselves in. No-one tells us to do this, we recognise the social conventions that apply and adapt accordingly to conform.  But what has this got to do with behavioural safety?  Well for me it leads to a fundamental question:

Should we be ‘changing hearts and minds’ or should we be ‘changing the things that change hearts and minds’? These are two very distinct and different things.

There’s plenty of psychological research which suggests both situational and environmental factors profoundly affect people’s behaviour:

  • Darley and Batson’s famous seminary study of 1973 demonstrated that time pressure had a huge effect on people’s likelihood to help
  • Stanley Milgram’s infamous study of 1963 highlighted people’s conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience
  • The Asch conformity experiments or the Asch Paradigm of the 1950’s illustrated how individuals yield to group influences
  • Another infamous experiment by Zimbardo (1973) highlighted that even behaviour as extreme as brutality could be more situational i.e. a product of the environment, rather than dispositional or personality driven
  • The psychological phenomenon Janis described as Groupthink (1972), where rational thought and judgement become secondary to group cohesion, often with catastrophic consequences.

All of these studies conclude that the environment and the situation shape actions more than anything the individuals concerned thought or felt personally.

Now I’m not saying that hearts and minds don’t play a part in creating sustainable change – anyone who has successfully led a major change initiative will tell you that they do. However, my question is should organisations, with finite resources, spend the majority of their under-pressure behavioural safety training budget on yet another hearts and minds event? Will the intervention give you enough bang for your buck?

All too often what happens in practice, when we run these types of events, is we have those constructive conversations with people, we exact our Svengali-like influence on their minds, graphically explore risk and consequence, remind them of their family and how much their children will be affected if they are hurt and extract an agreement to work differently… but what happens next? No matter how affected, inspired and well-intentioned people are, they return to exactly the same environment that stimulated and sustained their behaviour in the first place.

For all those good intentions to be acted upon consistently and indefinitely people have to be working in a conducive environment. Sustainable behavioural change requires environmental stimulus and influence not just the heart and mind of the person you are talking to.

When we’re talking this principle through with clients the questions we typically ask include:

  • Will supervisors and managers lead and guide in a way that is congruent with the ‘big safety message’? Or is it a case of “fun’s over, you’re back in the real world now”.
  • Does bad behaviour inadvertently get rewarded – for example if a job comes in on-time, under budget and accident-free does it matter how close to the wind we’ve sailed or how many near misses we’ve had? Do we just applaud the team of go-getters for getting the job done?
  • Are there engineering changes we could make that would simply remove any opportunity for undesirable and/or unhelpful behaviour?
  • Do people find your systems and paperwork practical and easy to use, or do they find them overly complicated and disproportionate to the risk they face?

The purpose of this line of enquiry is to catalyse organisations into visibly and consciously changing the environment which ultimately drives the majority of their workforce’s behaviour. In practice this entails removing some opportunities for poor choices and unsafe behaviours whilst encouraging and embedding new effective habits.

Hearts and minds sessions engage, intrigue and inform – they help create the opportunity for change to happen. However, significant sustainable change needs people’s day-to-day working environment to be effectively aligned if new habits are to form and embed.

If that’s the ‘difference that makes the difference’ shouldn’t this be the principle focus of behavioural safety?