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The benefits of taking a systems thinking view to behaviour and behaviour change interventions

  • Publish Date: Posted over 4 years ago

​Following a sustained period of improvement in accident statistics across the construction industry, there has been a levelling off with little change in accident frequency rates since around 2015, leading to many now questioning existing approaches to behavioural safety.

The two main approaches the behavioural safety utilised by the major U.K. construction companies to date can be categorised into behaviour-based safety approaches and culture change programmes. Behavioural based programmes use a “bottom-up” approach to influence employee behaviour through consequences, both positive and negative (Dejoy, 2005). Such approaches tend to focus on right or wrong behaviours and may lack the flexibility required in a constantly changing environment (Hollnagel, 2015).

A culture change programme is essentially a “top-down” approach seeking to influence behaviours through the development of positive values towards safety, which in turn influence the values and perceptions of employees within the organisation, leading to greater commitment to safe behaviours (Dejoy, 2005). Whilst this approach recognises the connection between the organisational environment and employees, it may not reflect the complexities of the multi-level influences and constantly changing environment present in a construction environment.

Recognise the multiple influences on behaviours.

Change is inevitable in a construction environment and trying to constrain change may limit the business’s ability to achieve the desired/optimal outcome. A system thinking approach seeks to understand the complex and dynamic nature influencing individual and group behaviours and helps to define a process where various elements related to the business come together to create properties that are different from those of the individual elements.

Figure 1: Systems model adapted from Moray, 2000 and World Health Organisation (WHO), 2009

Figure 1 illustrates a systems model recognising the multi-level influences on individual behaviour including external influences of social and industry norms as well as regulatory constraints and requirements. Each level could be considered as representing a system and therefore a system boundary. Setting a system boundary at an organisational level enables effective judgements to be made within the context of the business, represented by the red boundary and encompassing:

Organisational and management factors: influencing behaviour through safety culture, leadership behaviours and communications.

Team and teamwork: which are essential in a systems approach, utilising the expertise across various functions, departments, projects and trades.

Individuals: influenced by a number of psychological and physiological factors, including cognitive and social skills that influence behavioural intent (WHO, 2009).

The work environment: construction sites have numerous dynamic hazards, represented by often complex and dynamic interactions between the changing work environment and the individual.

With the multiple levels within the business identified (boundary of the system), the next stage is to consider how these levels interact to influence individual behaviour. By developing an understanding of the multilevel influences on behaviour within the business context in which the behaviour occurs, a meaningful model that represents the interactions that lead to individual behaviours can be developed.

Figure 2: Construction Industry complex systems model. Adapted from Kyriakidis et al., 2017

The systems model in figure 2 maps the macro and micro-level constraints and interactions identified in figure 1. Whilst understanding the influence of the external constraints, the focus for behaviour change should be from within the system, where the business has the greatest influence. This system model can then be used to establish an environment that facilitates behaviour change by placing a behaviour within the model and understanding the impacts and interactions of each element of the model related to that behaviour.

Understanding systems will help organisations achieve desired behaviour change.

Systems thinking allows not only the complex interactions within the system to be understood, but also to see the circular causal loops that generate and moderate certain behaviours. Causal loops within systems involve three processes, reinforcing feedback, balancing feedback and delays (Senge, 2006). An understanding of these mechanisms can both identify reinforcing influences on behaviours, and help design effective interventions. In complex systems, there are a number of reinforcing loops, providing feedback that increase the chances of a behaviour occurring again, acting as a continuous circle where the behaviours increase as they are further reinforced. One such example can be seen in a simple causal loop related to long hour’s working detailed in figure 4.

Figure 4: Example of reinforcing loop from the long hours system model

Balancing feedback (figure 5), acts to balance a behaviour around a prescribed parameter or limit. Where there is a gap between the behaviour and the target, increased effort is applied to reduce the gap. Therefore, in terms of long hours working, balancing feedback may include setting lower contract hours, or influence from management/supervision to promote shorter hours. These influences help to establish behaviours working to the newly established norm.

Figure 5: Balancing feedback example

Finally, a systems thinking approach identifies where delays may occur in the system. The importance of understanding delays is that efforts to improve safety performance may not be immediately evident. This can lead to management believing that the intervention has not been effective, such as no immediate reduction in accident rates.

Systems thinking supports a Just and Fair Culture

The traditional approach to understanding behaviour, and investigating accidents often follows a linear, cause and effect model, finding and fixing the problem or fixing the person. Behaviour when viewed as a linear relationship between cause and effect, can lead to the behaviour being seen as the root cause of incidents or accidents (Geller, 1997). Such an approach fails to understand the influences that lead to the emergent behaviour and is seated in a blame culture approach. The benefit of systems thinking is the ability to get a view of the “bigger picture”, and therefore understand how the parts interact and influence each other.

Autonomy improves flexibility

By taking a systems view, a business can start to understand and manage the variability in construction activities rather than trying to restrain it. People are often described as interacting with systems, but systems thinking is about the person being an integral and adaptive part of the system. Human interaction is not seen as a weakness, but as the critical element in dealing with the high level of variability in the construction environment. It recognises the necessity of giving a level of autonomy to those carrying out the work to adapt to change. This can create a culture where accountability is given to those carrying out the work, rather than bringing the works to a halt each time there is an unexpected change. This in turn would lead to fewer delays and a more productive and profitable business.

Breaking down hierarchical structures to create cross team integration

Teams are at their most effective when allowed to operate dynamically across functions working towards a common goal (WHO, 2009). In determining the system, we also need to determine the purpose/goal of the system. In terms of behaviour change, this may be specific to a particular behaviour or provide a supportive environment to enable effective behaviour change. A system can be defined by its purpose or desired outcome. Therefore, by recognising that all parts of a system need to operate together to create the desired outcome, systems thinking directs operations towards a multi-functional team, working to achieve a common goal. However, many business structures are organised in a pyramid hierarchy, which does not recognise the complex interactions required in order for a system to work effectively (O'Connor & McDermott, 1997). There are significant interdependencies between functions and departments in most businesses, yet business goals are often not aligned across these functions. Applying a common goal across teams and facilitating more cross functional communication and collaboration is more effective than focusing on behaviour change of the individual at the sharp end.

Develop policies and procedures that enable change rather than restrain it

Behaviour change that does not incorporate changes to policy and procedure will not be sustainable (Dejoy, 2005). There is a constantly changing environment on construction sites but often our processes and procedures adopt a rigid approach that fails to understand the multiple influences that lead to emergent behaviours. Procedures that see “work as planned” (Hollnagel, 2015) need to be adapted to allow for the flexibility required in order for the individuals to embrace change to achieve a positive outcome. Systems that assume that behaviours operate in isolation fail to take advantage of the human ability to cope with change. Procedures that bring a halt to work when there is change, reduce accountability and adversely affect production.

Demonstrate organisational commitment

An individual’s intent to perform a particular behaviour is influenced by their perception of the organisation’s priorities (Kyriakidis, Kant, Amir, & Dang, 2017). Therefore, policies need to align to, and demonstrate the organisational commitment to, the desired behaviour change. This perception is reinforced if individuals are rewarded or recognised for particular behaviours. As such the management system and policies represent important operational priorities for the organisation and therefore should define how management is expected to behave in terms of managing the business and the employees of the business (Dejoy, 2005).

Example: Organisational policy influencing individual behaviour

Senior managers being incentivised to achieve outputs at any cost, will drive a perception that output is prioritised over safe behaviours. Aligning human resource polices to recruit, promote and reward for achieving safe and profitable outcomes would improve individual’s perception of organisational priorities and influence their behaviours.

Embrace flexibility

Method statements and risk assessments are written for almost every element of work on site. They give a set of instructions for how work tasks should be carried out and are dictated by process and procedure, following a linear step by step sequence. This approach does not reflect work as done in a constantly changing environment (Hollnagel, 2015). Taking a systems approach allows better understanding of work as done, as opposed to work as planned. Understanding that work does not go precisely as planned and building in ways of embracing the flexibility will allow the system as a whole to work reliably, utilising people who are by their nature, flexible and adaptive.

See the bigger picture

The benefit of a systems approach is the ability to get a view of the “bigger picture”, and therefore understand how the parts interact and influence each other. this requires:

  • Policy aligned with desired behaviours

  • Functions working across department/team boundaries aligned to common goals

  • Management and supervision displaying behaviours that promote desired behaviours

  • Procedures that permit changed to be managed by those carrying out the work

  • Seeing the individual as a solution to dealing with complex and dynamic environments.

By embracing behavioural variability in a systems approach rather than constrained, as it is in a traditional approach (Dejoy, 2005) we can create an innovative, team environment where the desired behaviours are continually reinforced, accidents are reduced, and the business becomes more profitable.


Dejoy, M.D. (2005). Behavior change versus culture change: Divergent approaches to managing workplace safety. Safety Science, 45, 105-129.

Geller, E.S. (1997). Systems Thinking for Safety. 5

Hollnagel, E. (2015). From Safety-I to Safety-II: A White Paper.

Kyriakidis, M., Kant, V., Amir, S., & Dang, V.N. (2017). Understanding Human Performance in Sociotechnical Systems - Steps Towards a Generic Framework. Safety Science,

Moray, N.(2000). Culture, Politics and Ergonomics. Ergonomics, 43, 868-868.

O'Connor, J., & McDermott, I. (1997). The Art of System Thinking. London: Harper Collins.

Senge, P. (2006). The Fifth Discipline: The Art of the Practicing and Learning Organisation. London: Random House Business 2006.

World Health Organisation. (2009). Human Factor in Patient Safety: A Review of Topics and Tools.

About the Author

Duncan Aspin is the Head of HSEQS at VolketStevin. You can find him on LinkedIn here.

Shirley Parsons

Shirley Parsons are global leaders in HSEQ Recruitment, search and staffing services. We are an ever-growing global HSEQ talent network built on long-term relationships, industry knowledge, and geographic expansion.

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