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Creating a Culture of Consequences



According to OSHA, safety cultures consist of shared beliefs, practices, and attitudes that exist at an establishment. Culture is the atmosphere created by those beliefs, attitudes, etc., which shape our behavior. Examples how a strong safety culture benefits an organization:

  • Developing a strong safety culture has the single greatest impact on accident reduction of any process.
  • A company with a strong safety culture experiences few at-risk behaviors, low accident rates, low turnover, low absenteeism, and high productivity.

While creating a stronger safety culture improves safety, it also benefits productivity, staff retention, and the overall organizational culture. To ensure a successful world-class safety culture is, it must have effective consequences for behaviors and performance.


This module explains what effective consequences look like and how supervisors can use lead their employees from mere compliance to excellence in safety performance. All it takes is sound management (an organizational skill) and leadership (a relationship skill) applied daily. So, let's look at the various kinds of consequences supervisors can use to affect behaviors.

Consequence Categories

There are two basic types of consequences: reinforcers and punishers.

  • Reinforcers are consequences that increase the frequency of a behavior. When the supervisor gives an employee an "atta-boy," smile, or pat on the back, the response is a reinforcer because it increases the behavior that caused the response.
  • Punishers are consequences that decrease the frequency of a behavior. When the supervisor reprimands, demotes, or yells at the employee, the response is a punisher because it decreases the behavior that caused the response.

There are four basic categories of consequence strategies that motivate behaviors:

  • Positive reinforcement - The goal is to increase desired behaviors by adding something that is perceived as pleasant: usually recognition or reward.
  • Negative reinforcement - The goal is to increase desired behaviors by withholding something perceived as unpleasant: not being reprimanded.
  • Positive punishment - The goal is to decrease unwanted behaviors by adding something perceived as unpleasant: OSHA penalties.
  • Negative punishment - The goal is to decrease unwanted behaviors by removing perceived as pleasant: withholding a scheduled bonus.

Positive Reinforcement

This category basically means, "If we do something well, we get rewarded." To be defined as effective, the consequence must increase the frequency of the desired direction. Positive reinforcement can be very effective in increasing both required behaviors (complying and reporting) and voluntary behaviors (suggesting and involvement). Ultimately, positive reinforcement can be very effective in producing a world-class success-driven safety culture. Here's why:

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

Some examples of safety-related behaviors and the resulting positive recognition include:

  • reporting injuries to supervisors result in being thanked;
  • reporting serious hazards results in a monetary reward;
  • suggesting improvements results in a better performance review; and
  • active safety committee members receiving a monthly bonus.

Each example above represents an excellent opportunity for supervisors to demonstrate win-win management and leadership.

For more information on using positive reinforcement, we encourage you to read Aubrey Daniel's book, Performance Management: Improving Quality and Productivity Through Positive Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement

As with positive reinforcement, the purpose of negative reinforcement is to increase desired behaviors. However, the strategy is not to 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.

The best example of the use of negative reinforcement in the context of safety is the OSHA inspection process. OSHA is interested in compliance with rules. If, during an inspection, employers meet compliance standards, OSHA does not issue citations and possible penalties. Consequently, employers attempt to achieve compliance, but it's much harder to get them interested in safety excellence.

Some other examples of the ways we might employ negative reinforcement include:

  • Employees comply with safety rules to stop being yelled at.
  • Employees work faster so they won't have to work overtime.
  • Employees are allowed to skip training because they have a good safety record.


The purpose of this motivation strategy is to decrease undesired behaviors by administering negative consequences.

We need to be very careful in designing consequences. What we believe to be punishment may not be perceived as such by the receiver. On the other hand, what we believe to be a positive consequence may be considered punishment by the receiver.

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.

As Aubrey 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.


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.