Brain Based Safety

Can safe behavior be bought?

In the desire to promote safe behavior, no means are spared. Companies that use bonuses often base a portion of the bonus on the number of incidents. The aim is to motivate employees to engage in safe behavior. The question is whether buying motivation works and what the side effects of this policy are?

The measured effectiveness of bonuses

Unfortunately, there is no research available that has demonstrated that organizations perform better when implementing a bonus system. The most obvious advantages are a focus on the formulated goals and a final sprint when a goal is just about to be achieved or missed. The downside lies in inadequate control. Poorly formulated goals can disrupt the organization. In 2008, bank employees were massively rewarded for closing mortgages, while the risks of those contracts were not included in the measurement. Extra rewards, therefore, have pros and cons that can cancel each other out. The question is whether directing safe behavior through a bonus is effective.

The theory behind bonuses

The practice of steering through bonuses comes from Anglo-Saxon thinking. Here, reward and punishment are used as core principles for shaping behavior. The theoretical basis was laid by Skinner and is called Behaviorism. The assertion is that behavior is reinforced when the sum of the consequences is positive and weakened when that sum is negative. The Behavior Based Safety movement is based on this. Behaviorism is well-founded. The strength of the reward increases when:

  • the employee experiences a connection between behavior and reward – knowing what is rewarded and what is not,
  • there is a temporal connection – the faster the reward follows the behavior, the greater the effect,
  • with goals, the employee feels that they have influence on their achievement.

These three themes are further elaborated here.

Direct connection between behavior and consequence

The objective that can be achieved with a bonus is usually formulated in terms of the number of incidents per period. So, no specific behavior is rewarded, but the absence of an incident. For the employee, there is no relationship between that incident and their own behavior. The bonus, therefore, rewards something undefinable, and especially not specific behaviors.

Temporal connection

The same can be said for the temporal connection. The behavior occurs daily, the reward once a year. There is too much time in between, so behavior and reward are not linked. The bonus, therefore, does not reinforce a particular behavior.

The employee has influence on achieving the goal

For a reward to work, the employee must at least have the idea that they have influence over that goal. In practice, employees get frustrated when an incident occurs somewhere in the organization. The loss of the bonus places safety in a bad light.

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