Help workers make the right choices even without rules

Date Posted: 07/06/2021

Safety FirstIndividuals choose to engage in certain behaviors based on internal and external constraints. Internal constraints are values that people apply to themselves. External constraints include rules and consequences that are intended to shape behaviors. While rules should help guide behaviors, some people ignore the rules. However, for those who voluntarily choose the right behaviors, the rules are merely guidelines.

Behaviors are shaped by both internal and external constraints. For example, a desire to prevent injury may cause you to wear a seatbelt and avoid using a cell phone while driving. Although external constraints (laws on these issues) may impact your choices, the desire to stay safe is an internal constraint or self-imposed behavior. You’d follow those behaviors even if there was no law on the issue.

Choosing to follow safety rules

External constraints may be necessary, but rules are effective only if people follow them, and some employees might grudgingly comply under an attitude of “we HAVE to do it this way.”

Internal constraints are more effective because employees choose to follow safety rules. Employees make these choices when they see the benefits to themselves, not simply to avoid adverse consequences.

In short, rules tell employees what choices to make, but internal constraints tell them why they should make those choices. When internal constraints drive behaviors, the rules are (in a sense) unnecessary because people would make the right choices anyway.

Valuing safety

When a company says that it values safety, the company strives to help everyone understand the value of safety. Employees should work safely because they recognize the benefits to the company as well as the benefits to themselves. The goal is to reach a point where rules serve as guidelines, and employees choose safe behaviors for the benefits, not to avoid consequences.

Helping employees develop internal constraints may require imposing consequences, but consequences can be negative (like discipline for making the wrong choice) or positive (like a bonus or recognition for doing the right thing). Even discipline can be delivered in a way that helps build internal constraints, such as issuing reminders along the lines of “because it keeps you from getting injured.”

Accidents may still happen, but could provide an opportunity to evaluate whether an employee made the wrong choice and whether a different behavior could have changed the outcome. Accidents may constitute failures, but failures are also learning opportunities that can help demonstrate the “why” of developing internal constraints.


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