What is behaviour? How do we understand it, measure it and break it down? Behaviour is something we all experience every day and because of this, there can be a perception that we all understand it. To some extent this is true but in many ways, it is a great example where a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. It creates lay psychologists in all of us and absolute conclusions are soon the order of the day with phrases like ‘they always do that’ and ‘if/then’, i.e. ’if we do this then they are guaranteed to do that’
Psychological schools of thought are often considered to start with the work of Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig. Known as structuralism, he had trained observers describe their own experiences, a practice that was termed ‘introspection’. In psychology, schools of thought are fashionable for a time (zeitgeist) and then fall into disuse. Because structuralism was considered unobservable and therefore unverifiable it was considered by certain researchers to be something other than psychology. This group of people were the behaviourists. Among their ranks were Pavlov, Watson and Skinner and Thorndike.
Behaviourists considered that only directly observable behaviour was ‘true’ psychology. However, this in time was also challenged, and some text books would have us believe that the work of the behaviourists is now discounted. Nothing could be further from the truth!
This brings us back to the opening question… what is behaviour? Behaviour is defined by The Free dictionary.com as:
‘The aggregate of the responses or reactions or movements made by an organism in any situation’
These responses or reactions are kicked off in some way…or stimulated. Whether the stimuli are internal, external, actual, or perceived… the response is to act or behave in a certain way. Seeing stimuli as ‘the reason for behaving or acting in a certain way’ provides a good description of ‘motivation’.
Perhaps it could be more simply defined as something we ‘do’. And that this ‘doing’ is what other people see as our behaviour. Importantly therefore, behaviour is something that we can observe. If we cannot observe it, it is not a behaviour.
If behaviours are observable, then they can and will eventually form a pattern. The ability to identify these patterns is essential in developing behaviour interventions or programmes. The patterns are certain activities that have predictable influences in certain circumstances…they form one group of what are sometimes called performance influencing factors. Controlling or mitigating these factors takes us some way down the path of ‘managing behaviours’.
Studying the anatomy of accidents has led to the development of a model where the various elements which are required to come together at the same time in order for accidents to happen can be identified and effectively influenced. When this knowledge, and perhaps more importantly understanding, is brought into and embedded in an organisation then it can effectively influence the behaviours of its people.
If an organisation can be described as ‘a group of individuals working towards common goals and objectives’, then surely Organisational Behaviour can be described as the sum of the behaviours of the individuals who make up the organisation…or is there more to it than that?
If we must consider stimulation and motivation in understanding individual behaviour, then we should also take this into account in relation to organisations. The needs and aspirations of the organisation influence what is required of the individual members, either in relation to them as people or in relation to the requirements of their roles. This potential conflict can create a cognitive dissonance in some people where the performance of their organisational role or function requires behaviours that do not align well with them as individuals…a common example of this sort of occurrence is the requirement to initiate ‘difficult conversations’.
Organisational needs and objectives are often misinterpreted or misunderstood which creates an unhealthy environment of adverse, or counterproductive behaviours which over time normalise to ‘the way we do things around here’. This can be seen as a ‘perverse outcome’ where early best intentions go wrong in the end. Organisations which fail to address this problem often suffer from poor working relationships and haemorrhage good people.
There is a tendency these days for organisations to focus their attention on developing their ‘culture’ or ‘safety culture’. Although commendable it appears this is not supported by the data. In July 2016 a paper by Dr Dominic Cooper ‘Navigating the Safety Culture Construct’ looked at the literature surrounding safety culture published since 1986. The focus of the review was to ascertain the utility of the safety culture construct in preventing process safety incidents and serious injury fatalities (SIFs). Three influential models used in high hazard industries were examined. The executive summary concluded that:
…the sole use of psychological factors (e.g. attitudinal or safety climate surveys) as a proxy for safety culture is fatally flawed. The research evidence shows organisations should concentrate 80 percent or more of their safety culture improvement efforts on situational and behavioural factors to prevent process safety and SIFs.
In conclusion, “actual safety outcomes” (Dr Cooper’s term) are based on behaviours, i.e. that which is practised rather than intended.