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NEBOSH & Assessments

NEBOSH Health & Safety Leadership Excellence – What Drives People?

I found myself in front of a group of senior execs a few weeks ago talking about the influence that they have on the safety culture of their organisations, and consequently the safety-related behaviours of their workers.

The course was the new NEBOSH / HSE Health and Safety Leadership Excellence course. This is an ideas-rich one day introduction to the principles of health and safety leadership. It has a heavy emphasis on human factors and is more concerned with leadership styles and the psychology of decision-making than it is with the nuts and bolts of safety management. I blogged about certain aspects of the course a few months ago (see Hey – let’s be careful out there!).

One of the topics touched on in the course is motivation. Trying to answer the age-old question: What drives people to do what they do?

There are lots of different theories and models that have been proposed over time to address this question. For example, you might have come across the ideas of Abraham Maslow (‘hierarchy of needs’) and Frederick Herzberg (‘two factors’). If you are a NEBOSH Diploma student these names might resonate.  Many of these theories are often concerned with strategic or higher-level motivation.

NEBOSH Health & Safety Leadership Excellence text book
NEBOSH (& HSE) Health and Safety Leadership Excellence Textbook

Vroom Vroom

The HSL course uses Victor Vroom’s ‘Expectancy Theory’. Here the focus is much more on the tactical decision-making that drives engagement in one particular type of behaviour over another. In the context of safety-related behaviour this goes to the heart of the matter. Why does a worker knowingly do the job the wrong way rather than the right way?

Unfortunately Vroom cloaks his ideas in jargon that makes a first glance at his theory very unappealing: expectancy, instrumentality and valence. To quote his Wikipedia page: “a monotonically increasing function of the algebraic sum of the products of the valences of all other outcomes and his conceptions of its instrumentality for the attainment of these other outcomes.” 


However a second glance reveals some intriguing ideas.

Break It Down

Vroom’s idea is that people make rational decisions about whether or not to engage in certain activities. He was concerned with conscious decision making rather than the subconscious. Various choices lay before an individual. Why would they consciously choose one course of action over another?

Three factors can be examined:

The first is the person’s belief that they can engage in the task and, through their efforts, achieve the performance standard required.

Effort -> Performance

He labelled this expectancy

The second is that performing to the required standard will lead to an outcome.

Performance -> Outcome

He called this instrumentality

The third is the value of the outcome to the individual

Outcome = Reward

He labelled this the valence

To Give a Simple Example:

I have written about my teenage daughter and her recalcitrance at revising for exams in previous blogs (see Just read the instructions). She is a typical 16 year-old (i.e. going on 28 and thinks that school is a hell-hole specifically designed for her torment).

When she is making a decision about whether to revise for an exam Vroom proposes that the above factors are determining her level of motivation. In effect she is asking herself the following questions

  • If I put the effort in can I achieve the performance standard required (i.e. perform ‘well’ in the exam)?
  • If I perform ‘well’ in the exam will that be reflected in a good grade?
  • What ‘value’ do I associate with a good grade?

By assigning a +ve or –ve value to each of these factors Vroom proposed that a motivational force might be determine.

So if the answers to the questions are:

  • Yes – if I put the effort in I can do well
  • Yes – when I do well I will get awarded a grade 9; and
  • Grade 9 means the world to me because it shows I’m really clever

Then +1 x +1 x +1 = Motivated

Alternatively if either or all of the answers are:

  • No – if I put a load of effort in I still won’t do well
  • No – the marking is flawed so even when I get stuff right it’s still marked as wrong
  • I couldn’t care less about grades – that’s for approval monkeys – not me

Then one or several –ves will appear and there is no motivational force.

Expectancy theory shown in a diagram, as explored in the NEBOSH Health & Safety Leadership Excellence course
Expectancy Theory Diagram


Now in the above example the second factor (fair marking) should not really be an issue in my daughter’s mind at all. But if we transfer the same ideas over into a work-related situation all three factors might be very relevant:

  • If I put the effort in can I achieve the sales target?
  • If a hit that sales target will my boss give me that bonus she promised?
  • Do I value that bonus?

If you know that the sales target is unrealistically hard and cannot be hit – no motivation

If you don’t trust your boss and you know that even when you hit that target they will withhold the bonus on some spurious unrelated matter – no motivation

If the bonus money is a trivial amount to you; it’s no reward at all – no motivation

It’s Personal

In the example just given I used a monetary bonus as an example of a reward. In this context the value of the outcome or reward will be very personal to the individual. An outcome that has value for me may have no value for another person. And in this context when I say value I don’t mean £ cash value. I mean value or worth in much broader terms.

Some people might value a ‘thank you’ from their line manager highly. Whilst to others it would be meaningless because they do not value their manager’s opinions. Others will value the enhanced social status that they receive from their peer group. Others will value their own internal sense of self-worth and external praise or recognition has little meaning.

Why does a worker persist in their unsafe behaviour? Because it wins them enhanced kudos in the eyes of their peer group. That is their reward. Following the safe system of work wins them disapproval and demotion in the eyes of their peer group. That is no reward at all.

And finally Ronnie…

…and finally Ronnie I will leave you with one of the key messages from the HSL course. A person’s behaviour is driven by their own personal assessment of the effort required to achieve a performance standard, their belief that hitting that performance standard will lead to an outcome and the value that they associate with that outcome. If the reward seems worth the effort, then bingo!

All of this is personal to the individual. The only way to discover what their assessment of effort is, or what value they associate with an outcome, is to talk to them. Any opportunity to have a conversation is an opportunity to discover driving forces.

Link to a ‘Prezi’ presentation on Vroom’s theory: https://prezi.com/fqc9wpsotdtu/vrooms-expectancy-theory/

Dr Jim Phelpstead BSc, PhD, CMIOSH

RRC Consultant Tutor