Using Behavioural Psychology to Understand Following (and Breaking) Rules

Safety rules are a fact of life in the workplace, and most people are familiar with requirements to wear PPE, follow safe systems of work and carry out risk assessments. Safety rules are a key part of managing safety, and they are closely linked to the role that behaviour is known to have played in accidents.

The Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in new health safeguarding rules for people at work and at home. Just as with safety rules, there is an expectation that people will comply to help ensure the health and safety of themselves and others. The majority of people will want to comply for the same reasons. However, compliance can sometimes introduce dilemmas and conflicts for the individual that make “doing the right thing” more complicated.

This is a challenge for managing workplace safety, and it can be more complicated and challenging when rules relating to Coronavirus might appear to be in conflict with normal safety rules at work.

Compliance-related conflicts and any resulting deliberate non-compliant behaviour can be analysed and understood using the Antecedents, Behaviour, Consequences (ABC) model. This model has been used for many years to understand and explain why people deliberately broke rules (sometimes with good intentions in mind) and it can also help to predict the behavioural outcome when conflicts arise.

Analysing behaviour using the ABC model

Behaviour related to safety, including rule breaking, is demonstrated intentionally or unintentionally. In other words, a person may deliberately choose not to comply, or may do so in error. Understanding this difference is important because it influences how the behaviour should be analysed and also guides the solutions required for achieving sustainable change.

This article focuses on deliberate behaviour, where rules that have been clearly established and communicated may be broken.

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 The three steps of the ABC analysis process involve:

  • Examining what triggered the behaviour in the first place. These factors are known as ‘Antecedents’. They occur prior to behaviour and set the scene for what happens next. A common example of an antecedent is a missing tool or piece of protective equipment, which sets the scene for ‘making do’ with what is

available or attempting an unsafe workaround. A powerful antecedent is the example set by other people, particularly when these people are more senior,

experienced or qualified. If they are observed breaking the rules, then the rules quickly lose their credibility.

  • Looking at the Behaviour itself. What did the person actually do, or what did they not do that they should have done?
  • Reviewing the Consequences of the behaviour, taken from the standpoint of the person involved. In other words, what did the person expect would happen as a result of the behaviour?

Antecedents are the ‘trigger’ for the behaviour, but the consequences are the ‘driving force’.Different combinations of consequences have different strengths and are remarkably powerful in shaping what people choose to do.

Understanding the power and balance of consequences

Whenever a person chooses how to behave, they weigh up the consequences of the various options. This can sometimes happen very quickly or may take more careful consideration. In either case, the most powerful behaviour drivers are when the anticipated consequences are perceived by the individual to be:

  • Positive – the person expects a desirable outcome for themselves, their team, their organisation or company
  • Immediate – the person anticipates the outcome to happen very quickly
  • Certain – in that person’s mind, the outcome is highly likely

Slightly less powerful is when the consequences are negative, immediate, and certain. Rewards are proven to be more powerful drivers than punishments, so a positive outcome from the viewpoint of the individual will tend to outweigh a negative one when the other factors are the same.

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 On the other end of the scale, when the individual perceives the consequences to be Negative, but sometime in the Future and Uncertain to happen, then their behaviour is unlikely to be influenced. The various other combinations of outcome, immediacy and certainty result in varying degrees of power to drive behaviour.

Putting behaviour into context

When the drivers for non-compliant behaviour are stronger than the drivers for the compliant behaviour, the balance of consequences will favour non-compliance and help to sustain it. This means it will be “worth it” for the individual to break the rules, from their standpoint. Each person has their own tipping point, and from a compliance perspective it is crucial to avoid reaching the point at which breaking rules becomes the more attractive option. At work, this could mean breaking distancing rules to get a job done more quickly, or conversely skipping pre-job checks that require personnel to be present together at the worksite.

This is where careful design and evaluation of the systems of work, including systems of work that have changed due to health guidelines, is required to identify and prevent conflicts and dilemmas that could result in non-compliance.

In many organisations, non-compliance may be associated with punishment in the form of warnings, dismissal or other sanctions. Organisations may respond to repeated non-compliance by increasing the severity of these negative outcomes in order to act as a deterrent. However, the ABC model predicts that for as long as the likelihood of detection and the certainty of the punishment remain low or uncertain in people’s minds, then a gap between expectations and actual compliance is likely. This has important implications on how implemented measures are intended to be followed up and enforced.

Designing for compliance

Designing a safe system of work and implementing safety rules needs to involve examining both the antecedents and the consequences (and their relative strength) from the perspective of the target population.

Ideally, the consequences for complying must align with the target population’s values. They also need to be communicated in a way that convinces the target population that compliance will be worthwhile for them. Positive consequences will be weakened by uncertainty and lack of immediacy.

Conversely, the consequences for non-compliance also need to be strong enough to be an effective deterrent. The threat of harsh punishment will not serve as a deterrent if it is not followed up consistently (i.e. improving its certainty) or if it is too far in the future.

Helping to achieve compliance in the workplace

A key challenge for businesses in critical sectors is how to ensure that their staff keep

working safely whilst following government guidance to reduce the spread of Coronavirus. The new rules may be at odds with safety rules and established safe working practices. For example:

  • Two-person manual handling is an established control measure for handling heavy loads, but it usually places people in close proximity and requires face-to-face communication to ensure a coordinated effort.
  • Verification of critical steps in a procedure may require more senior personnel or a supervisor to discuss and view the work with the operator(s) at the worksite.
  • Troubleshooting and problem-solving plant issues using a Distributed Control System (DCS) might require technicians to view a dedicated control screen together in the control room.

With these scenarios, it is possible to change the antecedents to make sure that safe behaviour and behaviour that safeguards health can occur at the same time. Aside from providing protective equipment, the required antecedents could involve introducing more lifting equipment to avoid the need for team handling, remotely viewing a task to verify critical steps and using mimic panels or engineer workstations away from the control room to maintain a safe distance.

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Leaders have a key role to play in setting the example for compliant behaviour.

Leaders must be willing to take required precautions seriously and implement control measures promptly. Once measures are in place, leaders and senior personnel must consistently demonstrate compliance for the antecedent to remain credible for others.

When it comes to consequences, it is critical to avoid inadvertently placing health compliance measures and safety measures at opposing ends of the balance so that people are forced to weigh up the consequences and choose one over the other.

The consequences for compliance with both safety and health measures need to be positive, immediate and certain as far as possible. Focus should also be placed on convincing people at work that the consequences of health compliance combined with safety rule compliance will have summative benefits for:

  • the individual (remain healthy, remain working, avoid accidents)
  • the organisation (maintain a healthy workforce, remain in operation, avoid accidents)
  • society as a whole (remain able to contribute to the economy and the national response effort, reduce the spread of Coronavirus)

This reinforces the message promoted by the Health and Safety Executive that “good health & safety is good business”, even in times of crisis. Providing timely feedback on health, safety and business performance during the crisis period helps to drive compliant behaviour, either as evidence to do more or as evidence that efforts are working.

A key pitfall to avoid is implementing a system of punishments without considering the choices people may have to weigh up. Such a system would involve shifting the organisation’s focus towards the resource-intensive process of policing their employees and administering punishments. Instead, efforts should be focused on driving compliant behaviour through more positive, sustainable consequences.Where punishments are used to influence behaviour, they need to be administered consistently to be an effective deterrent.


Antecedents, Behaviour and Consequence (ABC) analysis helps to explain and predict the intentional aspects of rule compliance from the perspective of the individual. The ABC model can guide leaders in formulating, communicating and implementing new policy, rules and behaviour guidance during the Coronavirus crisis and beyond.

Careful consideration of antecedents and consequences as part of ongoing response and business continuity efforts will help to ensure compliance with new health safeguarding requirements and existing safety requirements.

Contact the Keil Centre if you would like to learn more about behaviour analysis and how it applies to your organisation:


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