Fear: The Ultimate Motivator?

Andrew Sharman and Darren Sutton explore the paradox of shocking people into action, and what one needs to understand in order to create sustainable excellence in safety performance.

Niccolo Machiavelli was a philosopher of the Renaissance period and many consider him to be the father of political science even to this day. His maxim “it is better to be feared than to be loved” continues to be repeated at business schools around the world. But is fear the ultimate motivator, or is leadership in the 21st century a different story?

Thankfully, there have been other philosophers who have encouraged people to think differently, but we do need to get under the hood of what Machiavelli meant if we are to properly understand how people behave today.

In the late 1970s and early ‘80s (yes, the 20th century), teenage violent crime in the United States of America (USA) was a real concern. The reality is that little has changed today. In fact, evidence suggests that teenage violent crime has grown and spread to many other areas of the world where it has almost become the norm in large urban areas.

Newsfeeds in the United Kingdom, Europe and across Africa are filled with tragic bulletins of fatalities and life-changing injuries sustained through knife crime, shootings and even acid attacks in broad daylight – and in very public places.

All this occurs despite the fact that we now have much better surveillance and facial-recognition systems in place to monitor and check people’s behaviour. One might think that these factors would deter people from behaving this way.

What can we learn from these failed interventions to prevent crime that will assist us to improve workplace safety?

Let us first examine a famous (or perhaps now rather infamous) campaign that was used as an intervention back in the 1970s in the USA to deter teenagers from choosing violent crime as a lifestyle choice.

A nationwide campaign was initiated to attempt to “Scare Straight” the teenagers who were considered the most likely to follow a life of crime. It was thought that the best way to persuade these youngsters to stay away from crime was to, quite literally, scare them into action by showing them the fearful consequences of being sent to prison for their future actions.

The campaign was called the “Scared Straight Programme” and teenagers (who were not yet criminals) from areas where violent crime was high, were taken in small groups to the most notorious of prisons (Rahway) and penitentiaries throughout New York and New Jersey.

They were exposed to all the trauma and discomfort of life in jail and told powerful stories from hardened criminals about precisely how bad things would be if they didn’t change their behaviour and found themselves behind bars.

Notice here that the teenagers weren’t taken to see the victims of violent crime; they were taken to see the characters that were the perpetrators of violent crime. There is a key difference here that we will explore later in this article.

The Scared Straight results

The campaign was initially declared a great success and was celebrated widely without properly gathering rigorous empirical evidence to support such claims. As such, the initiative attracted huge funding and was replicated throughout America and in Europe as it was felt to be the obvious thing to do.

There was a whole TV series based on the programme, and the public were in general agreement that fear as a motivator works very well indeed and should have been used several years earlier.

However, this is only the start of the story. As Mathew Syed (a well-respected British journalist and author) describes in much more graphic detail in his best-selling book Black Box Thinking (a cracking read for any safety professional), there were many flaws and confounding factors throughout this research.

Syed discovered that a much more rigorous longitudinal study, conducted by a significantly more credible research fellow of criminal justice (professor James Finckenauer), suggested that the programme actually encouraged some of the teenagers to continue their criminal behaviour, and many went on to serve lengthy custodial sentences for particularly violent and sex-related crimes.

The Scared Straight Programme had played a part in creating some of the most infamous violent criminals of recent times and had only a limited effect on reducing low-level crime.

Generating the reverse effect

There are several reasons suggested as to why this programme failed so badly and had the opposite effect on the behaviour of the people it targeted. Among these reasons are that the visit to the jails had a desensitising effect on the teenagers. The more they were exposed to the awful conditions in the jail, the more that it became “their norm” and, in some cases, the conditions didn’t seem so scary at all.

There’s also a widely held belief that the shock tactics encouraged the teenagers to convince themselves and their peers (sub-consciously at least) that they were tough enough to tolerate such conditions.

Some of them saw it as a challenge and they needed to prove that they weren’t really that scared of what they’d seen, and some time in jail with these characters could be an opportunity for them to learn from the people that they most admired!

What can we learn from this for safety performance?

Organisations that we work with, especially those in high-risk environments, ask us if it’s possible to psychologically profile their workforce to ascertain their likelihood to take risks in safety.

The truth is that it can be done. However, the data gathered from such an exercise would tell employers very little about people’s actual personality or character, and it couldn’t possibly predict with any surety how people might behave when under pressure and in hazardous conditions.

If an employer would like to be able to “profile” people according to their risk or rule-breaking propensity when it comes to compliance in safety, in our experience people tend to fit one of three categories (see table).

How would these categories of people react to the Scared Straight Programme and what can we learn for at-risk behaviours in safety? Well, many of us will have seen and heard of similar situations in safety. We wonder why people take unnecessary risks, despite seeing all the films of what can happen to them. The same people have attended lectures and seminars and even heard first-hand evidence from survivors of such tragic accidents.

The “Compliers”

Thankfully, the compliers wouldn’t have even been enrolled in the Scared Straight Programme. There was no need for them to be, as they were the “good kids”. In safety, we almost don’t need to be too concerned with these people, either. We just need to make sure that they are properly trained, made aware of all the rules and procedures and they’ll do their very best to comply.

Occasionally, we might need to stick a few signs up in key places to remind them of what they should do. If these people “fail” in safety, it’s most likely to be either a knowledge-based mistake or a slip or lapse in concentration. As safety professionals we can work with that.

The “Rebels”

Now, here’s the important bit. The Scared Straight Programme was aimed very strategically at these rebels and, typically, these are precisely the people that we most want to change. However, we need to be very careful in how we try to change their behaviours. Just as in the Scared Straight Programme, there is a risk that by trying to “shock” them into changing, we might create exactly the same kind of reverse effect that was observed in the teenagers.

These rebels aren’t shocked too easily, and they can quickly become desensitised to the shocking films and even real-life stories that they see and hear. They will find ways of convincing themselves that these things “won’t happen to them”, or that, even if they do, they will find ways of coping or finding new positives from any potential bad consequences.

We can all probably recall how these rebels react and behave when they are threatened with punishment for their actions. Even back from our schooldays when the head teacher warned the children NOT to fight or else they would be given detention, banned from school completely, or even threatened with the cane!

None of these things are really seen to be as that bad for the rebels. They will see these threats as challenges that they can overcome, or as opportunities to explore. Of course, it becomes a similar scenario when they get access to the workplace and we try to influence their behaviour through fear, which is definitely NOT the right thing to do for these people.

The “It Depends”

Now these people are overwhelmingly in the majority. There aren’t too many real rebels out there, nor are there too many habitual compliers.

These people are perhaps the most interesting to study and to work with in terms of creating behavioural change. They can be much more easily persuaded to do something according to their situation or their environment and even the people that are around them.

This is why we all get so focused on creating the right kind of culture and leadership within our organisations, as it’s these factors that will determine what the “It Depends” group will do today. Nudge theory and some of the principles of behavioural science will also impact effectively on the behaviours of this group of people.

What can we learn for safety?

Exactly the same principles apply here. The effect on behaviour following such experiences, whether it be in the training room or conference hall, is often short term at best, and we run exactly the same risk of desensitising and encouraging the very people that we are trying to influence most to continue to undertake unsafe behaviours.

There are much more effective ways of influencing behaviour and driving performance these days, which are more reliable and sustainable, than trying to shock people into action.

As safety professionals, we need to understand the things that can really start to motivate people in order to intrinsically shift their safety mindset from “have to”, to “want to” and then “we’re proud to”. A real shift from compliance to care for ourselves and others.

So, what about our esteemed and learned friend Machiavelli? Well he had a point, didn’t he? To some – often those that we most want or need to influence – fear itself can be like a drug and actually have a reverse effect on their performance or outcomes. It can encourage people to do more of the things that we are trying to shock them into stopping!

For these people, we need a much more innovative and holistic approach if we are to persuade them to join us in our quest for safety excellence.

The Compliers

It Depends

The Rebels

We’ve all met these people.

They just don’t break any rules. They wouldn’t dream of breaking the speed limit while driving.

They wouldn’t even steal a croissant in a hotel if they were a bit late for breakfast in the morning.

Their values and belief systems are set up for them to obey the law and any rules or procedures.

In reality, most people sit right here.

When it comes to compliance and safety, sometimes they will comply and sometimes they won’t.

They “swing both ways” and it’s interesting to ascertain the many factors that determine which way they will swing in any given situation.

We know these people, too!

They almost purposely break the rules and procedures just to see what will happen!

They do this to see if anyone has the moral courage to challenge them and possibly even to experience the consequences of their actions.

Published by

Andrew Sharman

Professor Dr Andrew Sharman is managing partner of RMS – consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. He’s a chartered member of Saiosh; immediate past president of the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health; and chairman of the board of the Institute of Leadership & Management.
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