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Understanding Human Motivation from a Cultural Perspective

Drive - The Surprising Truth About What Motivates UsIn my previous blog entry, titled Understanding and Using Human Motivation to Increase Safety Performance, I discussed human motivation from an incident analysis perspective. I would now like to take a look at human motivation from a different angle – from a cultural standpoint.

Let’s start with the assumption that people are internally motivated to behave in the safest manner possible. Humans have an innate drive for self-preservation. This can be observed very early in infants, and any parent who has taken a toddler to get vaccinated understands how strongly humans try to avoid pain and suffering.

We know that most injuries can be traced back to human error. The essential question becomes: How do we reduce (and ultimately eliminate) human error?

All people operate on a balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Each behavior typically falls into one bucket or the other, and our life ends up being a blend of both. In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink labels these as Type I (intrinsic) and Type X (extrinsic). People who are primarily motivated by Type I behavior thrive on self-determination, and would prefer to choose their own path and goals. Type X behavior is motivated with traditional “carrot and stick” methods connecting positive and negative reinforcement. Working safely is a perfect example of Type I behavior. It really doesn’t matter what an employer’s rules are (or OSHA’s for that matter) because those with that behavior have an inherent desire to go home at the end of the day with all their fingers intact.

Painting all injuries and near-misses with the broad brush of stupidity (a.k.a. shortcuts or lack of common sense) does a great disservice to the culture of an organization. It assumes that the risk-taking behavior didn’t make sense. This flawed assumption will cause us to miss important learning tools. Instead we need to dive into the frame of mind that led to the injury and determine what external motivators were strong enough to override the human instinct for self-protection.

If we believe that people are internally motivated to behave in the safest manner possible, then the most effective safety management strategy is to remove barriers to success. We should develop a culture that encourages creative solutions to problems and does not stifle self-motivating, productive, and safe actions.

People are complex; a combination of experience, learning, values, and motivation. An organization is comprised of diverse individuals who don’t all hold common thinking and values. Rules drafted by the chain of command to remove all decision making (in order to create uniformity through compliance) can never address all risks.

This then raises the question: Do we spend more time designing accountability systems for the few bad actors that knowingly break the rules, or creating opportunities for our high-performers to excel?