What makes us follow the rules?

12th May 2016

I recently delivered a Leading for Health & Safety workshop and was asked the question: “Why do people behave in a certain way in one environment – e.g. driving on the public highway – and then totally differently in another environment, like driving within the confines of a factory?”

The group was concerned that the culture of society may prevent the desired positive behaviours ever being achieved at work. They believed the current performance was just what happened and that it would probably never change. This was part of a discussion on improving performance through their leadership behaviours and their need was to feel that, individually, they could have a big impact.

Within these initial exchanges though, the group started to identify many of the key issues themselves. Firstly by raising the question as they did, they obviously understood that people can, and do, change their behaviour. Behaviour on the public highway in this case, is often characterised by speed, multiple lane changes and needing to get ahead. Behaviour when driving within the factory is not perfect but nowhere near the same as outside the gates. So what influences that change?

When asked the question “Do you modify your driving behaviour if you have a child or an older relative with you?”, the answer was a categoric yes. Suddenly the impossible was possible and driving behaviour already much improved!

I put the following to the team “What happens when they cross the threshold of the site boundary? Does the ‘company microchip’ activate and only allow behaviours viewed as safe by the company?” Most agreed this was not the case, but that there were a number of factors starting to direct what is acceptable and what is not.

As the group further explored this idea, they raised another example. In some countries, the immigration & passport control line at the airport is orderly, quiet and broadly complies with the rules and in others, it is a lot more hectic! The point being, put the same group of individuals in each line, and they may behave totally differently.

The ideas started to flow as to why behaviours might be different. In the airport example, the idea of rules and enforcement started to surface. “You’ll get into trouble if you don’t comply with the rules” or “you don’t want to upset those people”. The conversation continued and it started to become evident that something far more subtle than just signs, rules and tough-looking security officers were the driving force.

Also within the training room the same principle started to surface. When training resources were provided, e.g. a flip chart and pens, at the beginning of the session, they were not used if not directly requested. At some point though, someone thought that using the flip chart would be a smart idea. Over the next group of exercises flip chart usage grew, to the extent that they were being used, even when not specifically requested or required!

The power of an inclusive group to set and steer what was acceptable was overwhelmingly strong. The group concluded that if their behaviours, and the deployment of risk controls were consistent, positive change really was possible. We had started with talking about the contribution of the individual and concluded with the need for concerted action by all.

There was also healthy debate about the ability of one organisation to influence what goes on outside of the workplace. Clearly a big challenge, but participants felt empowered to make commitments at the end of the training to take the higher levels of risk control focus outside of the factory and onto the highway and to home. Within their own ‘groups’ (eg. families, friends, community) they could attempt to recreate the positive conformity experienced at work.

The dynamics of group and individual behaviour are fascinating and important in our understanding of how to achieve every increasing levels of safe and healthy behaviour.

As is often the case, the answers were definitely in the room! If you would like to discuss this topic further, or leading for Health & Safety more generally please get in touch.

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