Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Real-life ABA: Because sticking to the family business is well Reinforced

As with so many (hopefully) soon-to-be-graduate’s, I have virtually no idea where I would like to start upon the elusive Career Path.  So being a good daughter of a hardy northern family of steel, I bent to the trend with this assignment and conducted the briefest of brief case studies on an eminent train wheelset manufacturing company based in Manchester.  It may not sound like the most glamorous of industries, but this company is currently undergoing a major Health & Safety culture change, and has already implemented a number of techniques related to Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). 

Producing wheelsets is a dangerous job.  Accidents are often prevented but unfortunately do sometimes occur.  Part of this problem is factors beyond control, such as the available equipment and necessary manufacturing procedures.  The other part, however, relates to employees’ behaviour, and so forms the centre of culture change.  The first step in ABA is to identify specific target behaviours required to increase or decrease in frequency.  For this company, the aim is to increase teamwork and safety-promoting behaviours (e.g. performing all minor steps on machinery procedures) and decrease negligent/risky behaviours.  Part of this process is to pinpoint antecedents to these target behaviours.  It is important to the company that this is done in a positive way: rather than asking why did you do that (error focus) when an accident occurs, the search instead is for what went right until that point and what can be done to get back to that state (solution focus).  This innovative approach arguably serves as negative reinforcement of honesty and accountability, as the society norm is the former, which only promotes defensiveness and distrust.

It is difficult to attribute a singular ‘functional relation’ between the target behaviour and its antecedents/consequences, although a primary issue indicated by the company is ‘growth negligence’, or the absence of learning from one’s mistakes.  To this end, a series of interventions that centre on education, reinforcement and interaction with management has been trialled.  Due to the dangerous nature of this industry, ABA must be implemented in a single case experimental design that does not alternate baseline and intervention periods.

Recently, the company conducted an intriguing exercise.  All ~180 employees, in groups of 30, rated the business on its current safety status on a 1-10 point scale by standing on numbered pieces of card on the floor. They then, in smaller groups, brainstormed immediate ways to improve this.  Similar items were grouped and those that were most common were the first to be acted upon by the company.  The outcome of this was twofold: a) it distinguished immediate from long-term issues, allowing some quick fixes now; b) it was a natural reinforcer, in that by working together co-operatively, employees saw that they had the power to evoke beneficial change to the way in which they work.

Other examples of reinforcement-based interventions utilise both transformational and transactional leadership styles (Bass, 1985; see also Clarke, 2013).  For instance, those who demonstrate enthusiasm and initiative are offered training courses.  This encourages personal and professional development (transformational), thus in itself provides reinforcement of these behaviours.  Appealing to pride and peer approval, certificates are awarded to those who abstain from taking sick days; this clear contingent reward is indeed well sought-after (transactional).  Punishment also forms part of these interventions, as the company acknowledges that to make mistakes is simply human, but one who does not learn from his/her mistakes is reprimanded appropriately.  Zohar (2002) found that both leadership styles (particularly contingent rewards) lead to fewer injuries in the workplace.  It is vital when using ABA that reinforcement and punishment are given consistently and without delay so that the conditions are clear and the likelihood of a particular consequence of behaviour is predictable.

As for monitoring the outcomes of these numerous mini-interventions, the overall results are still being assessed.  Improvements have been seen so far, however, in attendance rates and on certain safety measures.   ABA has played a fundamental role in effecting these changes, and the ways in which it has been implemented have only received positive reviews from all the employees I have spoken to.  It is important to note that as ABA purports not to deal primarily in the underlying causes of behaviour but merely its frequency, ABA is perhaps best used in conjunction with other approaches in occupational psychology as part of an holistic effort to evoke culture change in a business. 


Bass, B. M. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations.  New York: Free Press.

Clarke, S. (2013). Safety leadership: A meta-analytic review of transformational and transactional leadership styles as antecedents of safety behaviours. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 86, 22-49.

Zohar, D. (2002). The effects of leadership dimensions, safety climate, and assigned priorities on minor injuries in work groups. Journal of Organisational Behaviour, 23, 75-92.  

- Izzy Fawdry, Blog #4

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