Informa Markets

Author Bio ▼

Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
September 28, 2011

Get the SHP newsletter

Daily health and safety news, job alerts and resources

Influencing behaviour – Picture this

Marcin Nazaruk draws on recent research in neuropsychology to provide practical advice for safety and health practitioners on how to affect workers’ decision-making and behaviour.

Every safety practitioner who has tried applying the ABC model of behaviour change (i.e. the behaviour is a result of triggers/antecedents preceding the behaviour, plus the consequences that follow) would probably agree that, despite its usefulness, the model does not explain the full variety of employee behaviour. There are many elements that influence behaviour, including how people process information, interpret situations and create meaning about their environment, as well as social norms and pressures, and many others.

Emotions are also very strong drivers that unconsciously influence behavioural decision-making, and research1,2 has shown that the higher the level of uncertainty, the stronger the influence of emotions on a person’s decisions.

One interesting element that influences behaviour is the so-called ‘temporal perspective’. This basically states that people’s emotional reactions are stronger (most often at the unconscious level) in relation to events that are about to take place in the future than to events that have already happened in the past. Researchers3 argue that there are two reasons for this: firstly, the future appears to be more controllable than the past, and the sense of control arouses a strong emotional response, preparing people to control the events. Secondly, the future is perceived as more uncertain than the past.

This concept has great relevance to the field of health and safety in that imagining one’s potential involvement in an injury will elicit a stronger emotional reaction than thinking about past situations that could have resulted in an injury. A recent interesting experiment demonstrated this mental mechanism.4 Researchers in the US instructed their study participants to imagine they were judges in a civil trial awarding money to the victim of an accident. It turned out that the participants awarded more money to a person who was about to suffer for six months in the future than to a person who had already suffered for six months in the past. This suggests that the prospect of future harm elicits stronger emotions and has a stronger effect on decision-making and behaviour.

Of course, simply imagining, say, a serious car accident is unlikely to elicit as strong a response as actually experiencing the car accident, but picturing it vividly and discussing involvement in a car accident after a dangerous manoeuvre is more likely to elicit a stronger emotional response – and thus affect future decision-making – than thinking about a past dangerous situation that could have led to an accident.

Particular emotions, such as fear and anxiety, significantly affect decision-making and judgement, in that they give rise to cautious and risk-averse solutions and low-risk behaviour. For example, when people think about a scary/frightening situation, they physically experience the emotions caused by the mental image. In other words, thinking about such threatening situations activates the sympathetic nervous system, as in a real-life situation.5

To summarise:
1 Emotions strongly influence the decision-making process and behaviour;
2 Sense of control and uncertainty affect the strength of the emotional response;
3 Fear and anxiety lead to risk-averse actions; and
4 Picturing future events that could lead to an injury causes a stronger emotional reaction than thinking about past events that could have led to an injury.

Pure imagination

Putting this theory into practice requires finding ways of triggering imaginations and making people think about potential future consequences of safe/unsafe behaviours. This can be achieved with appropriate questioning techniques, i.e. asking the right questions to stimulate employees’ imagination and thinking, which, in turn, activates the brain areas responsible for emotional reaction to risk and thus affects their decision-making with regard to particular behaviours or actions.

For example, employees could be asked to imagine/describe:
1 What is the worst thing that could happen to you in that job?
2 What is the worst accident/injury you could have doing this job?
3 What may be the consequences of your work if something goes wrong?
4 What can go wrong in your job and what could happen to you as a result?
5 How would you feel emotionally if you were injured during this task?

The questions could be put to employees working safely – thus preventing future unsafe behaviour – and unsafely – reacting and helping them realise the potential consequences of their actions.

Of course, these questions cannot be just thrown at people to get a one-word response. It is about having a conversation and using a variety of questions to stimulate thinking about potential future events and their likely unpleasant consequences.

For example, part of such a conversation could go like this:

“I have been observing you for a few minutes and I noticed that you are using a wrong tool for this job. Could you tell me what potentially could go wrong in this job?”

“Yeaah, I guess I could damage the tool, or the pipe I am working on.”

“And can you tell me what would be the consequences of that?”

“Errr. . .”

“How could you get hurt?”

“Well, if I did X I could break my hand.”

“What would be the consequences for you of such an injury?”

“Ummm. . .”

“Can you imagine how would your family react? How would your free time be affected?”

How the questions are asked is equally important, as illustrated by this scenario: a manager approaches an employee to discuss his work. The manager doesn’t introduce himself and just launches straight into asking questions about safety. He doesn’t wait for the employee’s response, but basically answers his own questions. The employee just listens, no doubt concentrating on the abrupt approach and style of the manager, and on feelings of dislike towards him, rather than on what he is saying about safety.

So, the style of approach can determine the impact of the conversation. In this case, the manager should have started by introducing himself and saying what he was doing. This would give the employee a feeling of security and control – he knows he is not going to be screamed at, or disciplined. Asking the employee at the beginning of the conversation to describe what he is doing may also help the employee understand the context of what the manager was about to do. 

Once this positive approach has created the right atmosphere for the conversation, you can start asking questions. Asking the right questions, at the right time, and in the right way is a skill in itself – one that can be learned and developed.

Forms of questioning that you could use during your conversation that would support the process of employees reflecting on their jobs and the consequences of working unsafely include:

“Tell me about. . .” 
“What happens when. . .”
“What I think I’m hearing is. . .”
“You said that. . .”
“You sound as if. . .”
“I get the feeling that. . .”
“How else could. . .?”
“Could you tell me more about. . .?”
“How would you feel if. . .?”
“You mentioned earlier that. . .how would you. . .?”

To elicit an emotional response in the brain you need to ask open rather than closed questions. In other words, don’t ask a question that can be answered with a short “yes” or “no” – instead, ask the person to describe what could happen, to get them talking. Once you have asked the question, stay quiet until you get a reply. Although this may feel uncomfortable, sometimes the other person needs the time to think about and construct their answer.

Be prepared also for that answer to be: “I don’t know”. In such situations, you can use so-called ‘leading questions’ to suggest what the employee should focus on. For example, if an employee is not wearing eye protection and can’t tell what the potential consequences of that might be, ask a few questions about the job itself, the tools, machinery and relevant hazards and then work your way back to the question about consequences.

However, you must resist the temptation to tell the respondent what the consequences are. It is not about what you think but what the employee imagines the consequences might be, relevant to their situation.

Asking questions about consequences of unsafe acts can sometimes unnerve people, and individuals deal differently with such difficulty. Some may try to change the conversation to a joke. Allow for that – it is a coping strategy and does not indicate a lack of respect. Apply your sense of humour to the chat and make it as natural as possible but without losing sight of your aim.

In general, people tend to react and respond more positively if they feel they are being understood. One technique you can use to enhance this is paraphrasing – repeating what your employee has just said, using slightly different words and expressions. For example, when your employee says they feel overloaded with the amount of work assigned to them by their manager, you respond: “I hear that your manager is giving you too much to do and this is creating frustration.”

It may sound daft to repeat it that way, but the conversation is not about logic but emotions. If you create feelings of being understood in your employees, they will be more likely to listen to what you say and follow your expectations. Other useful questions: “Are you saying that. . .?”; “Let me see if I understand the problem completely. . .”

Your body language, too, can have a profound impact on how you are being perceived. Standing too close, or too far away, pointing the finger, facial expressions suggesting anger, disappointment, or lack of interest – all of these will focus the attention of your employee on you rather than on what you are saying.

You should also be aware that you may get more than you bargained for, and be prepared for that. For example, a worker – responding to a question about future consequences – might tell you about a potential injury but could also highlight other issues, such as how doing work safely in this instance would take longer and the supervisor would be disappointed, or that they have asked for the appropriate gloves three times already but nothing has been done.
Don’t argue with these perceptions, whether they are true or not. If you think they are not valid, just intimate your understanding of the situation. Again, creating conflict between you and the workers will merely result in them focusing on you rather than on the safety issue(s).

Conversations and consequences

As already noted, myriad factors influence employees’ behaviour, and different factors have different strength. For example, if people are paid good money per job and the faster they work the more they earn, this may override any motivation to stop and have a conversation about the consequences of not working more slowly/carefully. In this case, however, you can have a chat about how a potential injury could affect their earnings.

Different people value different things. Some employees may value coming home safe because of their family and children, some will want to maintain a certain image within their peer group, and others will just want to be accepted by an authority figure, or not be seen as a troublemaker. So, it is important to speak to people about consequences in terms of what matters to them. With people you have worked with for a long time you will probably know what is important to them but with those you are speaking to for the first time, it is worth learning more about them beforehand so you can target your conversation accordingly.

In the work environment supervisors play a very important – if not the most important – role in driving behaviours, and you can use the principles of the conversation about future consequences with them and other functional employees, too. You could ask, for example: “What could be the worst consequence of letting people cut corners?” or, more generically: “What can happen if people are not supervised properly?”

These topics require a longer conversation than just one question and answer, but imagining consequences will activate emotional responses in the brain, thus increasing the impact of the conversation on future decisions and behaviour.

Once the conversation has been had, it is time to agree on corrective actions. If possible, you should avoid telling the employee what they should do and, instead, give them a choice for their behaviour. For example, you could ask: “What would you like to do now, knowing the potential consequences/rules/limitations?” This will give them a feeling of ownership and thus increase the motivation to act in a certain way. If you are happy with the response, just give the person a ‘well done’ later to reinforce the positive behaviour.


There are various ways to implement the above in your workplace but the most important thing is to have conversations about potential consequences with those people exposed to hazards. With regard to the managers in your company, if they conduct regular ‘walk and talk’ sessions with employees, you can train them on the theory and develop their questioning skills. Similarly, if you have a group of safety people visiting work areas on a regular basis, you can train them.

Alternatively, you can identify a group of employees who have good people skills, train them, and arrange regular walkabouts to enable them to interact with other employees. Finally, you can train all employees and encourage them to interact with each other. Every approach has pros and cons – the context of your company will determine which approach is most useful for you.

If you do decide to go full scale and train the majority of people it is worth investing some effort in developing bespoke communication materials/platforms and branding the programme to familiarise employees with it and increase the chance of success.

It is important to emphasise that this approach to behavioural change is not a magic bullet that will solve all problems but it is one more useful tool in the safety practitioner’s kit. 

1 Slovic, P, Peters, E, Finucane, ML and MacGregor, DG (2005): ‘Affect, risk, and decision-making’, in Health Psychology, 24 (4 Supplement), 35-40
2 Loewenstein, GF, Weber, EU, Hsee, CK and Welch, N (2001): ‘Risk as feelings’, in Psychological Bulletin, 127 (2), 267-286
3 Caruso, EM (2010): ‘When the future feels worse than the past: A temporal inconsistency in moral judgement’, in Journal of experimental psychology, 139 (4), 610-624
4 Caruso, EM, Gilbert, DT and Wilson, TD (2008): ‘A wrinkle in time: asymmetric valuation of past and future events’, in Psychological Science, 19(8), 796-801
5 Bechara, A and Damasio, H (2000): ‘Emotion, decision-making and the orbitofrontal cortex’, in Cerebral cortex, 10(3), 295-307


One day

When Jason Anker was 24 years old he was like any other young man – he played football, went to the pub, spent time with his young family. But then he fell just 10 feet from a ladder and sustained a massive spinal injury that changed his life forever.

Jason now travels the country giving safety talks and using his experience to warn others of the devastating consequences of not speaking out when you know something to be unsafe.

And he doesn’t pull any punches. Sitting in front of his audience in his wheelchair, Jason talks candidly about what he went through – both in the immediate aftermath of the accident but also what daily life has been like since it occurred, 18 years ago. He describes the difficulty and indignity of going to the toilet – and how his colostomy bag is now an important part of his kit. He explains how most places he wants or needs to go to simply aren’t geared up for him and his wheelchair, and he usually has to go round the back, or through the fire exit, or be physically carried by other people to get there.

Most poignantly, he laments the fact that it was his dad who had to teach Jason’s daughter to ride a bike, and who first kicked a football around with his son in the back garden. And that it will probably be his dad also who walks his daughter down the aisle when she gets married – because he can’t. He talks about the time his son, when he was 11, asked why Jason was in a chair. He would have loved to have been able to say it was because he’d been in a car accident, it wasn’t his fault, but he couldn’t. He had to say it was because he did something at work that he shouldn’t have done.

Because he went up a ladder that wasn’t tied. He knew it wasn’t tied and he had the opportunity to tell the lads he was working with that it wasn’t tied. But he didn’t – because a voice in his head said it wouldn’t happen to him. But it did – and it has completely altered Jason’s life, and the lives of those around him.

Jason’s story is extremely powerful and he uses many of the same techniques described in this article – asking people ‘what if?’ and, by pointing out the consequences of unsafe behaviour, making them think twice about acting in the same way he did. In short, his story is about the potentially devastating consequences of developing bad habits, breaking rules and doing things wrong.

To find out more about Jason Anker, visit his website at His story is available on DVD from Outtakes Communications – visit

Marcin Nazaruk is culture change manager at Fiddler’s Ferry power station.

The Safety Conversation Podcast: Listen now!

The Safety Conversation with SHP (previously the Safety and Health Podcast) aims to bring you the latest news, insights and legislation updates in the form of interviews, discussions and panel debates from leading figures within the profession.

Find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts, subscribe and join the conversation today!

Related Topics

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments