October 18 2021
By: Shawn M. Galloway
In 2009 I moved the family from a house with carpeted stairs to a home with wooden stairs. One of my daughters had turned three. While there were baby gates at the top and bottom of all the staircases, I knew the homes she would visit would not all have such safety devices. I wanted her to learn how to navigate stairs safely. Safety nerd, I know. I taught her the importance of holding onto the handrails and taking each step, one at a time. When I saw her taking this precaution, I reinforced it. When she had forgotten to take this precaution, I provided a gentle reminder. Guess then what she started reminding me to do? As friends and family would stop by to see the new home, I had a three-year-old safety star reminding everyone to hold the handrails.
As her younger siblings came of age to navigate stairs on their own two feet, they had an older sister reminding and reinforcing. As I travel most weeks for consulting and speaking engagements, this is a powerful and comforting reinforcement system I had unintentionally created within my family.
Like what our kids do when parents aren't around, what employees do when bosses are absent is just as important as how people comport themselves when leaders are present. Correctly leveraged, culture is the most effective reinforcement mechanism an organization has. After onboarding, what does the rest of the workforce reinforce? During a leadership walk through the work area, do behaviors change? Do they change again when the leaders leave? What reinforcement systems do you have within your culture? Are the right things being reinforced? How do you know?
The family has grown, the house has changed, and occasionally people forget. Every once in a while, in this new home, I'll hear from one kid to another, "Handrails!"
"Properly used, positive reinforcement is extremely powerful." - B. F. Skinner
"If we are to preserve culture we must continue to create it." - Johan Huizinga
Shawn M. Galloway is CEO of the global consultancy ProAct Safety. He is a trusted advisor, professional keynote speaker and author of several bestselling books on safety strategy, culture, leadership and behavior-based safety. He is a monthly columnist for several magazines and one of the most prolific contributors in the industry, having also authored over 650 podcasts, 200 articles and 100 videos. Shawn has received awards and recognition for his significant contributions from the American Society of Safety Professionals, National Safety Council's Top 40 Rising Stars and Top Ten Speakers, EHS Today Magazine's 50 People Who Most Influenced EHS, ISHN Magazine's POWER 101 - Leaders of the EHS World and their newest list: 50 Leaders for Today and Tomorrow and Pro-Sapien's list of The Top 11 Health and Safety Influencers.