Special Topics in Safety Management

Safety Motivation: Carrot? Stick? Neither?

Today we look at the relative merits of rewards and punishments as motivators of safe workplace behavior, and at a third alternative that may trump both.

We often hear about the significance of motivation in athletic endeavors, or weight loss, or even acting. But just what does that mean? Motivation is what induces a person to act—or to refrain from action.

An article on our sister website, Safety.BLR.com, says that motivators can be inanimate, such as a sunny morning that draws you outdoors, or the fragrance that draws you into the coffee or chocolate shop. But, as applied to the workplace, motivation generally means whatever tools can be used to induce employees to perform in ways that advance the employer’s goals.


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Overall, these tools fall into the categories of rewards or punishment: Follow the company rules and receive a bonus, flout them and receive disciplinary action. Just a bit more subtle are those known as “carrots” and “sticks,” which suggest the potential rewards and punishments that could result from particular behaviors. The carrots promise good things; the sticks threaten undesirable ones.

Most managers tend to favor the use of rewards, with punishment as a last resort. In the case of the carrots, they tend to be particularly effective when they lead to behaviors that are pleasing to both the worker and the employer.

Understanding the Rules

Workers are unlikely to perform in the way management wants if they are unclear about the do’s and don’ts. Rules can be communicated in a number of ways, from new-hire orientation to handbooks to training sessions on particular operations. The best trainers explain the reasons behind the rules (just as a mother instructs her child not to run with a lollipop in his mouth not “because I told you so” but “because it could hurt you if you fall”). This provides both carrot and stick at once: Failure to observe the rules puts you in danger; compliance will keep you safe and healthy.

Because unsafe behavior and failure to observe the rules can cause harm to more than the individual—to co-workers, to property, and to the company—it is also important to let employees know the why, when, and what of disciplinary action. It is essential that these be made clear and that they are applied consistently.

Speaking at a BLR audio conference, safety experts Chip Darius and Robert Baldwin said that both the carrot approach and the stick approach have their shortcomings. For example:

The Stick—Forcing your employees to follow the rules by chasing them around with a stick may work for a while, but it is not the best management style. According to Darius and Baldwin, it only works when the enforcer is around. Fear of getting caught tells the workers that they have to comply with the rules only when someone is watching over them.

The Carrot—Dangling a carrot in front of your workers to get them to comply is another popular management style that will work—but only some of the time. The safety experts said that as soon as the employees are consistently getting what is offered, they either don’t want it anymore or want something different.


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Be a Leader, Not a Manager

Think of yourself as a coach of a team, not the boss of a department. Darius and Baldwin said that motivation through leadership is the key to success. One way to do this is to lead by example. If you make safety important to you—the team leader—they will make safety important to them.

Still, no matter how good a leader you are, no matter what carrots you dangle or sticks you wield, you inevitably will come across employees who require discipline. Tomorrow we’ll look at legal considerations and points to cover in your company’s disciplinary procedures policy.

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