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Not Everyone Wants a Belt Buckle

Trinkets won't deliver consistent safety results

Years ago, when working for an industrial services company, I was awarded a large brass belt buckle proclaiming:

1,000,000 Safe Man Hours

It went straight into the trash.

We make decisions based on two things: the information we have and the culture in which we exist. In the work environment, these elements are controlled by the leadership team. As I discussed in my recent article on expectations (Danger: Expectations), it is the immediate leader that controls that information and creates that culture through their ability to provide collaborative, constructive, and consistent expectations. 

Many front-line leaders take the position that safety expectations are established during the initial and annual safety training provided by the organization and then further supported with a safety incentive program.

So, can safety incentive programs provide the feedback necessary to support the expectations?

There are five elements that determine the impact of feedback and its likelihood to influence behaviors: based on observation, useful, timely, abundant and specific. Let’s look at each of the five elements:

Based On Observation

Feedback based on observable behavior is very powerful since it is directly linked to reality. People show us what they think is important by what they do, not what they say. If we provide feedback based on those behaviors, we can get to the heart of what they believe. High impact feedback cannot be based on speculation, rumor or innuendo.

Perceived By The Recipient As Useful 

Depending on the situation, the recipient may or may not have the option to choose to make a change. Perception of usefulness means that the recipient recognizes a need for change and believes they can accomplish the change. Under these conditions, the person will likely choose to do things differently.


When it comes to feedback, the sooner it is provided, the more effective it is. By providing immediate positive feedback, we increase the probability of the behavior being repeated. Immediate negative feedback also increases the probability of the behavior not being repeated or getting worse. The details of the behavior and the impact of the behavior – good or bad – are fresh and vivid.


Research and real-world experience suggest at least a ratio of 4 pieces of positive feedback for every 1 piece of negative feedback if you want optimal performance. This suggests that a feedback rich environment is required for a culture of success. Unfortunately, most employees state that they receive a ratio of 4 to 1, but only the other way around. I often hear: “You are much more likely to hear about what you did wrong than to hear about what you did right.” 


We often ask leaders if they have given positive feedback to their employees in the last seven days. Of course, most say, “Yes.” Then we ask their employees if they have received positive feedback from the leader in the last seven days. Most say, “No.” This disconnect between the leader and the employees often comes from the generic nature of the feedback. “Good job” or “Keep up the good work” is not specific enough to even register with the recipient. When we are specific about the behavior and specific about the impact of the behavior, people know what success looks like and why it is important.

So back to safety incentive programs.  These programs, like the belt buckle, miss on at least three if not all five of these elements. Those results can’t be purchased, they can only be created through consistent, effective feedback that meets all the required elements. Leadership matters. 

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