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Creating a Culture of Consequences



Why do we behave the way we do in the workplace? Why do we do the things we do? According to Aubrey Daniels, in his book, Bringing Out the Best in People, "There are two ways to change behavior. Do something before the behavior occurs or do something after the behavior occurs. In the science of behavior analysis, the technical word for what comes before a behavior is antecedent. The word for what comes after a behavior is consequence."

Safety rules, regulations, policies, and training may tell us what to do and they may successfully cause us to behave appropriately, at least initially, but none of these antecedents will sustain safe behaviors in the workplace. Antecedents are effective only when paired with consequences.

Using Consequences

It's critical that the supervisor understands this simple but profound truth so he or she can successfully design and use consequences that effectively shape desired behaviors in their department.

This module explains what effective consequences look like and how supervisors can use them to not only achieve safety compliance, but excellence in safety. The great thing is that creating a culture of effective consequences does not have to be rocket science: just sound management and leadership applied daily. So, let's take a look at the various kinds of consequences available to supervisors.

Consequence Categories

There are four basic categories of consequences that motivate behaviors.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Attempts to increase desired behaviors.

Punishment: Used by the employer to decrease undesired behaviors.

Extinction: This category may actually cause the most damage to our corporate cultures today. According to Daniels, this strategy is the most common and quite effective in decreasing desired behaviors.

Let's examine each of these categories.

Positive Reinforcement

This category basically means, "If we do something well, we get rewarded." To be defined as effective, any consequence must actually change a behavior toward the desired direction. Positive reinforcement is designed to increase both required (complying and reporting) and encouraged (suggesting and involvement) behaviors in the workplace.

Positive reinforcement motivates the employee to perform to receive a positive consequence. If you are asking employees to comply, positive or negative reinforcement may work fine. But, if you are promoting achievement beyond compliance (a discretionary behavior), positive reinforcement is the only strategy that's going to work. Why does positive reinforcement work so well? Because the focus is on excellence. It's success based, not fear based.

Some examples of the ways we might employ positive recognition include:

  • Employees who work for a given period of time are recognized for their professional performance.
  • Employees who report injuries immediately to their supervisor are always thanked.
  • Employees who report hazards that result in preventing an injury or damage receive a monetary reward.
  • Employees who suggest improvements that prevent injuries, improve procedures, or save money receive a free dinner.

  • Employees who are actively involved in a safety committee receive monthly bonuses.

Each example above represents an excellent opportunity to demonstrate sound management and leadership. This is a win-win strategy for everyone in the company and results in a success-based culture.

Check out this short audio clip by Dan Clark of the Dan says safety recognition programs, implemented correctly, can be successful in reducing injuries and saving money. But, if executed poorly, they can do more harm than good.

Consequence Categories (Continued)

Negative Reinforcement

As with positive reinforcement, the purpose of negative reinforcement is to increase desired behaviors. When employees are motivated to perform primarily through negative consequences they will do what they need to do to avoid punishment -- not much more. Consequently, if the supervisor is attempting to increase compliance behaviors only, (those required by safety rules, etc.) negative reinforcement may work. However, if the supervisor would like to increase discretionary behaviors (making suggestions, involvement in safety), negative reinforcement is not the most effective strategy.

It's interesting to note that OSHA employs negative reinforcement as a consequence in its enforcement process. Has OSHA been given the responsibility to enforce real safety excellence? Of course not. They measure employer's behaviors for compliance only. If an employer measures up to standards, they don't get punished. Is there any wonder then why some employers rise only to the level of compliance, but not beyond? They do safety because they have to, not because they want to. Employers fulfill their legal obligations, but nothing more.

The Voluntary Protection Program is an attempt by OSHA to employ positive reinforcement as a strategy to motivate employers to get beyond compliance and design world-class safety cultures. If the employer perceives significant positive consequences from participation in this program, the organization will likely design a safety management system that produces safety excellence rather than compliance.

Some examples of the ways we might employ negative recognition include:

  • Employees who comply with safety rules will not be punished.
  • Employees who report injuries are told to get back to work. Does the employer want injuries reported?
  • Employees who report hazards are considered trouble makers and transferred to the mid shift.
  • Employees who report hazards in a timely manner are not disciplined.
  • Employees who suggest improvements are ignored. What's the desired behavior here?

As you can see, each example above represents a missed opportunity to demonstrate sound management and tough-caring leadership. In some instances, the negative reinforcement is actually causing behaviors that decrease the company's ability to operate profitably. For instance, if the employee is "brow beat" for reporting an injury, the desired behavior actually being reinforced is withholding injury reports. Relying on negative reinforcement as the sole method strategy is a lose-lose strategy for everyone in the company. Negative reinforcement, when designed into the safety management system, will fit quite nicely in a fear-based corporate culture!

Consequence Categories (Continued)


The purpose of this motivation strategy is to decrease undesired behaviors by administering negative consequences. However, punishment is actually any consequence that decreases the frequency of any behavior!

The message here is that we need to be very careful in designing consequences. What we believe to be punishment may not be perceived as such by the receiver. What is designed to be a positive consequence may be considered punishment by the receiver. Punishment should be used sparingly because the replacement behavior cannot be predicted and it is difficult to use successfully. You may stop one undesired behavior only to have it replaced with another. The threat of punishment for undesired behaviors should always be accompanied by the promise of reward for desired behaviors.

If the punishment does not decrease the undesired behavior, is it really punishment? No, At least not to the employee receiving the punishment. While one employee might "repent" after a verbal warning, another may require suspension from work before he or she perceives the consequence as significant punishment and stops an undesired behavior.

If employees must be repeatedly reprimanded for performing unsafe behaviors, we may conclude that the consequences are not perceived by the employees as punishment. For instance, if analysis indicates that a progressive disciplinary process does not seem to be working to prevent undesired employee behaviors, what does that tell you about the effectiveness of the punishment strategies used in the process? It could be that the consequences are delayed or not perceived as significant.

As Aubry Daniels emphasizes, punishment only stops undesired behaviors: it does nothing to add real value to the business. Punishment does not help the employee clearly understand desired behaviors. Punishment is only reaction to undesired behaviors. To be effective, the supervisor should not punish unless he or she pinpoints and communicates the desired behavior to the employee and recognizes the employee as soon as that behavior is demonstrated.

Some examples of the ways we might employ punishment include:

  • Employee who creates a hazard receives a written reprimand.
  • Employee who works on a roof without proper fall protection is suspended.
  • Employee who communicates with OSHA is fired.
  • Employees who report hazards are yelled at. Again, what is the undesired behavior?
  • Employees who suggest improvements are ignored. What's the undesired behavior here?

Once again, each example above is a missed opportunity. In some examples, the punishment is decreasing behaviors that would be considered positive in a world-class safety culture. Punishment, as a consequence, can be useful when administered appropriately and effectively. If positive reinforcement is used effectively, you'll rarely, if ever, have to punish.

Consequence Categories (Continued)


When was the last time you were personally recognized by your supervisor? Do you feel fully appreciated at work? When did you last personally recognize one of your employees? Do you believe you are doing a good job recognizing your people?

According to Daniels, extinction, or the withholding of positive reinforcement, is the most common consequence in response to desired behaviors in the workplace. In fact, he states that extinction is epidemic! We're just too busy, busy, busy...right? Or are we working under the oppression of a fear-driven workplace culture that does not support positive reinforcement?

If people are not told they are appreciated, they will assume they are not.

Some examples of the ways extinction occurs include:

  • Employees comply with all safety rules, but there is no recognition!
  • Employees report injuries immediately, but there is no thanks!
  • Employees report workplace hazards, but there is no recognition or reward!
  • Employees join and are actively involved in the safety committee, but there is no recognition!
  • Employees make suggestions for improvement, but there is no recognition!

W. Edwards Deming, in his text, The New Economics, states that we must first remove fear in the workplace in our effort to transform corporate culture. Organizations will most likely fail in their attempt of employing total quality management strategies unless they first remove the fear-driven factors intentionally or unintentionally designed into the culture.

Here's probably the most important idea in the entire module: if first-line supervisors and managers would just thank employees more often for doing a good job, the benefits could literally transform the workplace culture.

There Are Thanks.... And Then There Are Thanks

Designing strategies for using positive and negative reinforcement, and punishment, and reducing extinction in the workplace is a very important activity. Remember, every system is designed perfectly to produce what it produces. We want to design a system of effective consequences...consequences that change behaviors. We can recognize in a way that we consider appropriate and effective, yet wonder why the result is little or no change in behaviors. On the other hand, we can recognize in such a way that results in dramatic changes in behaviors. The secret is in the design and application of the consequences.

Effective recognition is more a factor of leadership than management.

Criteria for Effective Recognition

Soon: it's important that recognition occurs as soon as possible after the desired behavior. How do we make that happen? I believe supervisors are best positioned to do this. I don't believe the safety committee is. The supervisor is right there, and can recognize on the spot. When this occurs, the "act" of recognizing is perceived as leadership by the employee receiving the attention. If the safety committee is the primary group recognizing safety behaviors, an inherent delay is built (designed) into the recognition process, thereby decreasing the effectiveness of consequences.

Certain: the employee knows that they will be recognized. They are also able to tie the recognition to a specific behavior. The sooner the employee is recognized after the behavior, the stronger the link between the behavior and the consequence. Safety, because we're talking about life and limb, is too important to play games with. Don't design recognition systems that award consequences based on chance, or luck. Be careful not to make tangible rewards so certain that they are perceived as "entitlements" as they may lose their value as rewards.

Significant: positive recognition is perceived as more than an entitlement. It is perceived as having substantial benefit. Both the nature (positive/negative) and the significance of a recognition or tangible reward are defined by the receiver, not the person giving the recognition. Recognition and rewards are a benefit the employee receives over and above any form contractual agreement such as wages or salary. Effective recognition is more than wages. You may have heard from someone say, "We don't have to recognize the... that's what they get paid to do!" Do you believe that attitude will result in increased desired behaviors? Perceived significance is not necessarily dependent on the size or amount of the recognition.

Sincere: recognition expresses genuine appreciation. The more sincere the recognition, the more significant it will appear. Whether you are recognizing or reprimanding, your motivation is driven by a sincere desire to help the employee be safe or improve in some way. Your motives are perceived as pure by the employee. You are probably familiar with the principle that recognition should be given in public and reprimand in private. Actually, research indicates that both recognition and reprimand in private is more effective. Motives may come under question when recognition is awarded in a formal public manner. It may be perceived that managers are patting themselves on the back, or that politics had something to do with the recognition when presented in public. For example, have you ever experienced an "employee of the quarter" program that was met with less than enthusiasm by employees? Sincere appreciation, expressed in private seems to be a more effective strategy. For an expanded list of criteria read Steve Geigle's Rules for Radical Recognition.

In conclusion, here is an excerpt from a popular book on safety:

"The role of leaders in every organization is not to find fault or place blame, but to analyze why people are behaving as they are, and modify the consequences to promote the behavior they need."

Source: Daniels, E. James & Daniels, C. Aubrey. (2004) Changing Behavior that Drives Organizational Effectiveness. Pennsylvania University: Performance Management.

Performance Management: Improving Quality and Productivity Through Positive Reinforcement

Due Diligence


Before beginning this quiz, we highly recommend you review the module material. This quiz is designed to allow you to self-check your comprehension of the module content, but only focuses on key concepts and ideas.

Read each question carefully. Select the best answer, even if more than one answer seems possible. When done, click on the "Get Quiz Answers" button. If you do not answer all the questions, you will receive an error message.

Good luck!

1. Which of the following is not a characteristic of positive reinforcement?

2. Negative reinforcement may be usually quite effective in _____ _____ behaviors.

3. One person's _____ may be another person's _____.

4. Which of the following is epidemic in both public and private sectors today?

5. Which of the following criteria for effective consequences is least likely to be met in an "Employee of the Quarter" recognition program?

Have a great day!

Important! You will receive an "error" message unless all questions are answered.