The risks of noxious gases are apparent in many industry sectors. There’s national legislation and company procedures that must be complied with. Workers often receive training and supervision and there are often sophisticated gas detection systems in place, too. We understand enough about human behaviour, however, to know that it’s not enough to hope for compliance and we can do much more to create an environment that will really encourage people to work safely.

Human behaviour plays a major part in workplace accidents, incidents and injuries and such behaviour is often described as failures or mistakes. Actually, closer scrutiny may reveal that many of these behaviours are not actually ‘errors’ at all, but deliberate actions towards a specific performance outcome. In safety we call these deliberate actions that lead to such incidents ‘violations’.

In a previous article for HSI I introduced you to Jack. He brews beer and he does it very well indeed. He has many fantastic traits, but has developed a few habits over the years that are worth exploring.

Jack doesn’t like to carry his personal gas meter. “Never needed one,” he says, along with “our detection system is so state of the art it’ll let me know if I need to exit.” Not convinced, I’ve dug a little deeper to look at the psychology behind Jack’s decision-making and how his habits can help identify how we might influence his behaviour.

“human behaviour plays a major part in workplace accidents, incidents and injuries and such behaviour is often described as failures or mistakes”

Planning to fail?

Jack knows what he should do – so it’s not a mistake. Equally, he’s not forgetting to use his equipment so it’s not a slip or lapse in concentration. This is most definitely a violation, he’s just deliberately not using his personal gas detection system.

But try to convince Jack that he is failing and you’re likely to be met with a confused look. He doesn’t consider his actions erroneous at all, he intended to do it this way and that’s how he’s done it for years – so in Jack’s eyes, he’s certainly not ‘failing’!

People are different

When it comes to compliance, in our consulting experience – over 20-plus years working in more than 120 countries – people tend to fit one of three categories. See table, above.

Now, Jack is clearly in the “Rebel” category when it comes to using personal gas detection systems. He may well be an “In-Betweener” for other aspects of his behaviour, but his decision-making for gas detection has been formed over many years and it’s going to take effort to shift his mindset in order to change his habits.

How do we make decisions?

Think of leaders you have observed who seem to always be a step ahead of everyone else and make the right decision at exactly the right time. How do they do that?

Professional Judgement and Decision Making (or ‘PJDM’ as it is known in sport or performance psychology) is a fascinating topic and helps us understand why people do what they do. Extensive research seeks to ascertain just why some people make much better decisions than others.

Why do successful performers – such as Iniesta and Bergkamp (football), Curry (Basketball) and Wilkinson (Rugby) – or great business leaders and military special forces operatives make better decisions than anyone else? Is it that they are instinctively more aware of their surroundings and thus better at making decisions in key moments?

Well it’s not just by accident (no pun intended): there are several theories and models that help us understand and improve our decision-making. First, we need to understand how our mind and memory works. The main purpose of memory is to help guide our decisions in life. After all, every single memory we have serves to help us make decisions.


At the beach, if we hear someone yell “Shark!” we instinctively decide to get out of the water very quickly. Why? Because most people have a limited memory of information about sharks from the films they may have seen or from anecdotal evidence that they might have heard about. Very few have actually studied sharks extensively or even swam with them freely.

Likewise, if we walk into a bar and see a bunch of people in biker jackets and covered in tattoos and scars etc we might feel uncomfortable and decide to make a sharp exit. Again, our judgement is based on our database of information that we have collected over many years and our memories guide our decision-making.

From pitch to process

Research on decision-making has highlighted that good decisionmakers in sport gather much more information than everyone else. They do this by constantly looking around and creating memories – even when they’re not involved in play or on the ball.

Top players like Bergkamp and Iniesta look around – just quick glances – up to 10 times more than other footballers. Their minds constantly pick up new information (memories): “Where are my team mates?”, “Where is the opposition?”, “How far is the keeper off his line?” and “How high is the defensive line?”

Interestingly, they don’t actually consciously look for these things. Because they make hundreds of quick glances their minds store lots more memories, which translates to much better decision-making ‘in the moment’ and naturally better performance. So, it’s not just a natural gift that these players have. There is direct and strong correlation between the number of quick glances players make and better decisions.

Exactly the same process applies in other areas of elite performance. Research has found that the very best fighter pilots, paramedics, special forces soldiers and successful city traders who need to make critical decisions quickly are also very good at constantly glancing around them to see what is going on much more effectively than their peers.

Back to Jack

Well, Jack is indeed an elite performer – in his field of brewing. He’s collected tens of thousands of memories from when he has checked the beer and he has never yet been poisoned by any gases: he trusts his judgement that all will be ok because that’s been his experience over the years of working in this environment.

Of course, there are few people that are still around to tell the tale of what happens when we inhale things like carbon monoxide or ammonia, and Hollywood and Netflix don’t tend to make many blockbusters about that stuff. So we – and Jack – have a potential problem here with human behaviour and the use of personal gas detection systems.

As easy as A-B-C

When analysing behaviour, the surrounding circumstances or factors are referred to as Antecedents (commonly called ‘Activators’) and Consequences. The Activators are all those things that are in place to encourage people to do things safely before they actually commit to a behaviour – such as training, information films, signs, rules, company policies and procedures – and even the law itself.

Even though we might have all these Activators to drive performance in safety, the truth is that these things alone are just not very effective at actually influencing people’s behaviour, unless we become more innovative and start to think a bit differently about how people can be persuaded.

What’s the consequence?

So, is it all about the consequences then? Well yes; however, we need to understand that there are four different types of consequences to our actions and only one of the consequences is actually only even potentially bad for the individual carrying out the behaviour. The other three consequences that are much more likely to happen are often good news for the individual carrying out the behaviour – and for their organisation, too.

So, let’s think about these four consequences for a moment.

Punishment (or the threat of punishment)

We might get hurt or killed, or disciplined or prosecuted, or fired. These are bad things for sure, but they only might happen to the individual carrying out the behaviour. But Jack hasn’t had any bad experiences yet whilst he’s not used his detection equipment.

“a good leader will find people’s why – even if it’s their dog, a love of a hobby, their games’ console or film collection”

Praise (or something good happening)

It might sound bizarre, but people might well be praised or encouraged by their line manager or supervisor for conducting unsafe behaviours, even if it’s unintended. “Thank you so much for getting things done quickly this week” – without realising the safety short-cuts that might have been taken. Positive reinforcement like this makes repeating the behaviour much more likely.


If people are set targets or deadlines and incentivised to achieve them, they’ll probably do anything they can to ensure that they hit that target, but not necessarily very safely!

Incentive schemes in any aspect of performance are extrinsic motivators and a lazy way of trying to inspire people. They also very often lead to all kinds of unwanted outcomes and play havoc with our decision making.

Turning a ‘blind eye’

People think this is not actually a Consequence at all but it’s actually a very strong reinforcer of the Behaviour that’s observed. Just imagine if someone you admire was with you when you might be doing something wrong. If they just ignore your actions and say nothing, or just walk on by, what does that feel like to you? What will you be encouraged to do next time?

So, of all these consequences – either perceived or actual – will have played a part in Jack, and others’ decision making and in creating his unsafe habit of not using his gas detection device.

Giving Jack a nudge

To change Jack’s habit we’ll need to use all our principles of behavioural science. One way is to attempt to change his attitude pretty quickly and sharply to impact on his values and belief systems. This will involve some close supervision for a period of time and a robust approach to the consequences aspect of his behaviour.

A way of approaching this problem is to get much more innovative in our approach to the antecedents or activators for Jack. Those things that we can put in place to influence his behaviour before he even goes into the Brew House.

We can learn much here from how supermarkets and global corporations persuade us to buy their products. They’re absolute masters at applying the principles of behavioural science, so let’s take a quick look at just three ways of how they do this and see if we can apply some of these principles with Jack.

But why?

Great retailers know the importance of creating a compelling reason for us to buy. They don’t just tell us what we should do, they give us a powerful reason why we should buy their product.

A recent TV advertisement from a major brand suggests that if parents buy their sugary breakfast cereal then their children will become not only more popular at school, but also great at sport and create fabulous life-long relationships. It’s a silly advert but it plants a seed in some parents’ minds and gives them a powerful enough ‘why’ to go ahead and buy.

There are many successful car and clothing manufacturers who apply exactly the same principles that stick in our heads and encourage loyalty to their brand to buy from them over and over again.

So let’s try to avoid telling Jack what to do as that’s obviously not worked over the years and let’s instead help him find his why for using his personal gas detector. Does Jack have children or grandchildren? What kind of example is he setting for them? What would they want him to do? A good leader will find people’s why – even if it’s their dog, a love of a hobby, their games’ console or film collection.

Make it easy

It’s no secret: successful retailers make it as easy as possible for us to buy from them and even try to make it very difficult for us to stop buying from them. They’ll put the stuff they really want us to buy in our eyeline or at the checkout where we’ll notice it more. They also create zingy little phrases, colourful signs or songs for us to remember.

So, let’s create similar circumstances for Jack. Make PPE easy for him to use, easy and comfortable for him to carry or clip on and easy for him to remember it, too. Where does he store his detection system? How can we create a trigger to remind him to use it?

Choice or autonomy?

We like to be given a choice in our decisions, and to believe that we are in control of what we buy. This is another effective technique that’s used extensively in sales. Next time you look at a wine list in a restaurant be aware of how your decision making could be manipulated.

The wine with the most profit margin is most likely to be the middle range priced wines. The top priced will be pretty a healthy margin, too, but will be out of reach for most people unless it’s a special occasion. Few of us want to risk looking cheap in buying the lowest-priced wine, so most will choose a mid-priced wine and low and behold, that’s where the biggest profit margin will be. It’s very similar story with other products.

So, can we give Jack a choice and some autonomy in which type or model of detection system he can use? If he’s involved in the decisionmaking process of selection of product then he’s far more likely to actually want to use it. Once he’s used the system a few times a new habit will be created and it will feel odd for him not to have and use his new equipment.