The ABCs of Behavior-Based Learning

by ckilbourne

The ABC model is a way to evaluate behaviors in order to determine why employees choose to act or behave in a certain way. The model looks at Antecedents, Behaviors, and Consequences. To conduct an ABC analysis, you, as supervisor, need to:

  • Describe the observed problem behavior (i.e., not wearing required personal protective equipment (PPE)) as well as what the employee should be doing (i.e., wearing PPE).
  • List all possible antecedents (anything that prompts a person to act in a given manner) and consequences that are relevant to the employee.
  • Indicate whether each consequence is positive or negative, immediate or future, certain or uncertain.
  • Determine which consequences are motivating the employee’s behavior. (These will be the stronger consequences that are both immediate and certain.)

Once the analysis is completed, you are in a position to solve the problem behavior by changing weak consequences that would motivate the employee to perform the desired behavior into stronger consequences.

Antecedents are things that prompt people to act in a given manner.

  • An antecedent precedes the behavior. It can be a person, place, thing, or event that gets the behavior started.
  • An antecedent communicates information.
  • Previous consequences can become antecedents for future behavior. For example, the employee remembers that the last time he didn’t lock out the equipment, he was injured.
  • Antecedents will last for only a short time if the employee does not experience consequences. For example, employees are told to pick up slip-and-trip hazards right away. If no one notices whether they are following their instructions, the employees will stop picking up the hazards because their failure to do so is not reinforced with a consequence.

In promoting safety, we attempt to use many antecedents to influence the desired behavior, such as signs, training, rules, and meetings.

Behavior is visible action. It does not include things you cannot see such as someone’s attitude or thoughts. Safety results from a series of safe behaviors.

Consequences are what happens after the behavior—reward or punishment. Past consequences become antecedents for future behavior. Most people do not want to suffer the “consequences” of their behavior. However, consequences can also be positive and positive consequences are highly effective in producing the desired behavior.

To use the ABC method effectively, you must choose when to use antecedents and when to use consequences. Antecedents work best when employees:

  • Don’t know what to do
  • Don’t know how to do it
  • Have obstacles in their way

Consequences work best when employees:

  • Already know what to do
  • Choose not to perform the desired behavior
  • Need an incentive to perform the desired behavior

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When we don’t get the desired behavior, we usually attempt to get it by increasing the strength of the antecedent or by adding antecedents. Training is a typical example. If there is an accident or near miss, we may think it was caused by a lack of training, so we do more training. This “remedy” is usually the wrong approach because the problem may be more of a motivational issue. Training at this point may become a punishment for the employees.

This tip is a brief overview of the ABC method for behavior-based learning. There is a meeting-length discussion of this method available for® subscribers.

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Why It Matters

  • At-risk behaviors cause more accidents than unsafe conditions. A person may repeat an at-risk or unsafe behavior 1,000 times and not be hurt, but eventually an injury will occur as a result of the unsafe behavior.
  • People engage in at-risk behaviors for a few reasons, including:
  • It enables them to get their job done.
  • Their perception of the risk is low.
  • At-risk behavior is reinforced.
  • They are not conscious of the at-risk behavior.

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