Coaching Your Way to Safe Habits

Guest post by Ken Wagner, Ph.D.

Much of ADI’s consulting work focuses on designing strategies to accelerate and sustain good practice throughout the workplace. We strive to help people develop true fluency—the ability to do the right thing in the right way in varied situations.  While this is valuable in all types of performance, it is critical to safe practices. Consistency of safe behaviors is the best way to ensure people do all they can do to reduce preventable risk.  We refer to this consistency as habit strength. Behaviors at habit strength occur in a variety of situations without hesitation or much pre-thought.

Given the number and variety of things most people must attend to at work, it is essential that the most critical behaviors reach habit strength.  At this level of fluency, these behaviors appear as “second-nature,” requiring little deliberate attention.  This fluency is developed through experience.  In other words, correct practice – engaging in behaviors that help you be successful – are strengthened through the positive reinforcement associated with each success.

One of the most important roles of any manager is to help people develop the habits that will lead to their success.  Consequently, it is partly the job of the manager to create opportunities for people to practice the critical behaviors correctly, receive feedback, and experience positive reinforcement.   However, it’s important to point out that you don’t need all behaviors to be at habit strength, you only need the critical few behaviors that are most closely linked to business results.  To this end, the more specific and relevant your pinpoints are and the more targeted your follow up is, the more help you will be to the people you are supporting – your direct reports.

Below are a few suggestions for how to add the most value when helping others develop effective habits.

  1. Identify a KPI or key metric and a few behaviors for each individual that manages others.  These pinpoints should reflect “support behaviors” or, said differently, those actions that will help others be successful.
  2. Focus your effort on shaping 1-2 good habits.   Ask, “What is the smallest change they can make that will have the biggest impact?” 
  3. Move away from attempting to “provide more reinforcement in general” or “be more positive” and focus on strengthening those 1-2 critical behaviors.  Habits are built one step at a time—but they build quickly if certain conditions exist. 
  4. Build in some brief but dedicated time to look for, observe, model, and ask about the 1-2 behaviors that you are trying to affect.
  5. Help people see and discuss the impact they are having. Ask questions about what they did and how it worked.
  6. Make suggestions with phrases such as “try this…… and let me know how it goes.”
  7. Behavior tends to drift (toward other reinforcers) so it is important to revisit behavioral consistency overtime.

For more on this topic, read Vigilance: Behaving Safely during Routine, Novel, and Rare Events | PM eZine or refer to these safety resources and videos.

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  3. Coaching ROI: Approach is Everything Coaching, like leadership, is one of the most highly ‘Googled’...

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