How to Be a Better Leader and Improve Workplace Safety Through Positive Behavior Reinforcement

two technicians applying positive behavior reinforcement during feedback

I’ve always tried to be the good leader that I visualized in my mind. I watched and learned from other leaders that I was exposed to early in my leadership career and learned from their successes and mistakes. Basically I’ve tried to treat people like I would want to be treated. I even filtered information from upper management and passed it on to my teams in a more personable fashion. If a team member had a performance issue, I stopped and asked myself where I have failed as a leader. These were the positive behavior reinforcement principles that made up my leadership style.

Shortly after starting my career, I applied and was accepted for a maintenance apprenticeship position. There I quickly learned about hazing. The more experienced team members taught me that there are left-handed hammers, and that there are no long weights inside of the tool crib, but there was a long wait on the outside. I learned that a hickey was actually a tool for bending conduit. If I touched another person’s toolbox, mine would be missing the next day. I thought that this was a rite of passage and a daily learning opportunity. 

What I really learned is that relationships are just as important as technical skills.

Toxic Leadership Styles

As I progressed in my career, I ran into some very poor leaders that I will never forget. One of the most memorable is one that often stated, “You don’t come to work to make friends!” I did not go to work to make enemies or have combative relationships with my coworkers. That is not teamwork, and that leader ultimately failed. That leadership style is toxic and detrimental to any organization. 

Another was a person that was very narcissistic and had a management style that I compare to a flounder, with eyes only looking up. You can learn from people with poor leadership styles. Make sure that you don’t learn how to lead like they did. If you’re working in that type of environment, look for a better place to work. Staying in that environment will also make you a poor leader. Once you have learned enough, move on.

How Generations Differ with Work Styles

When I was in college and a very young leader, I watched a training video titled You Are Where You Were When. It enlightened me about how the different things that each generation went through in life affected them in different ways. Knowing the difference in each generation, and why they were different, provided me with insight about how they thought about life, what they had experienced, and how to motivate them. The points that I learned were:

G.I. Generation, born 1900 to 1925: They lived through the Great Depression and always wanted to work overtime.

Traditionalists, born 1926 to 1945: They lived the life of post-war happiness. Traditionalists respected rules, got work done before fun, were loyal, and valued tradition.

Baby Boomers, born 1946 to 1964: They were born to be free and wild and live their lives with a purpose. Baby Boomers were also optimistic, very competitive, and valued strong personal networks. (I fit in here.)

Generation X, born 1964 to 1979: They are latchkey kids that are very individualistic.  Generation X desired flexibility, technology, and work-life balance.

The time period in which someone was born affects their beliefs, personality, and attitude toward work.

Millennials and Generation Z

This training worked well for me for most of my career until I began working with individuals that were born after 1979. I noticed some new apprentices were leaving our program for positions in other companies. So I talked with some of them, and determined that they were feeling as if they were being hazed and treated poorly. I studied these newer generations to learn how they think and what motivates them.

Millennials, born 1980 to the late 90s: They are echo boomers. Millennials tend to be smarter, much more digital, care less about personal relationships, less loyal, and more relaxed.  

Generation Z, born late 90s to 2010s: They are everything digital. Generation Z are kids that grew older at a younger age. They have a short attention span and can be disrespectful.

After learning about the two latest generations, I decided that some things were different from the time that I was an apprentice. I cared if the place that I worked was successful, and completing my training and additional education was important to me. I thought that the hazing that I endured was a way to learn about maintaining good relationships with my coworkers. After all, my safety was also in the hands of the people that I worked with. 

Attitudes had changed from my apprenticeship days. The two newest generations had values very different from mine. I determined that I needed to make some adjustments to my leadership style to successfully lead Millennials and Generation Z people.

Realizing the Need for Change

People and companies had changed; I needed to change also. Fear and intimidation was the leadership style at the location that I was working at. “You don’t come to work to make friends” was often barked out by the Plant Director. “Write them up” was also very popular. I always thought to myself that needing or having to write someone up was a leadership failure, unless it could be used as an opportunity to coach someone for success by clearly communicating the issue and making plans together for improvement. 

I decided that I was going to change the way that I interacted with the people on my team regardless of what the Plant Director thought about it. So I thought about my experiences throughout my career, and about the things that had always worked to make me successful as a leader. Positive behavior reinforcement had always worked for any generation, so I decided to make positive behavior reinforcement a priority in my daily routine.  

The Benefits of Positive Behavior Reinforcement 

I finally left that toxic culture and moved on to an employer that valued a culture of positivity in the workplace. One of the first things that I noticed was that the workforce was highly engaged. Everyone knew how their daily contribution at work connected to the customer. I also noticed a real desire for a safe workplace. The method used to maintain and improve safety in the workplace was through the use of positive feedback. The data that tracked their reduction of accidents once they implemented positive behavior feedback as part of their safety environment showed tremendous improvement. The results of positive feedback and a positive culture were valued and visible.

We should look for ways to strengthen good behaviors, not the bad ones. Consequences follow behavior, or behaviors have either good or bad consequences. Use positive feedback to strengthen good behaviors and promote improvement.

Negative feedback does not drive improvement. That kind of feedback is almost always one-way communication, so it’s impossible for both parties to understand the true issue. Negative feedback will only have a short-term effect and will not drive sustained improvement in the future. When a leader that only uses negative feedback starts to see that it’s not working, they become more intense by stating the problem over and over, more loudly, longer, and becoming contemptuous to their subordinate. After making the person feel humiliated, they still have no understanding of what good behavior actually looks like. Leaders that use negative feedback will fail.

A leader that uses positive feedback makes people feel as if they want to contribute and participate rather than have to contribute. People not receiving positive feedback when those around them are will feel left out, out of place, or as an outsider. This is also a key point of team building. The people that feel left out will work to become accepted by the rest of the group, although it takes time. The other members of your team will become sub-leaders, driving change in your team without your direct input. Keeping focused on the end result that you want while staying positive and respecting people will finally help you achieve the goals that you’re trying to reach.

Improving Safety in Your Organization Through Positive Behavior Reinforcement

Positive behavior reinforcement can also drive improvement in the safety of your organization. One of my employers achieved a 97% reduction of OSHA recordable accidents over a twenty-year period. They moved from the worst site for safety to the best in the organization by implementing a system for positive reinforcement.

Feedback changes behaviors. Safety improvement initiatives are most often behavior-based. Making people feel that they want to follow procedures correctly instead of having to follow procedures will reduce people taking risks in their work. Positive behavior reinforcement guides people to work correctly rather than take shortcuts and chances in their routines.  


Positive feedback doesn’t always have to be verbal. It could simply be a gesture like a thumbs up. Feedback can also come from your KPI information board. People want to know how they’re doing in their work. They want to have a feeling of success at work. There are many ways to give them positive feedback. Use all of them! 

Changing behaviors and maintaining those changes is never-ending. You don’t do it for a while and forget about it. It can’t be the program of the week or month. You do it each day, all day long. You must live it. It’s an investment in your people and your team. It must be your culture. It should be your style.

Scott Buker headshot

Scott Buker
Scott Buker has over forty years of maintenance and reliability experience. He began his maintenance career as an apprentice at Rostone, a molded plastics company and division of Allen Bradley, in 1977. In the eighties, he held the positions of Production and Maintenance Supervisor at RCA, in the largest television manufacturing facility in the world. In 1990, he moved to Tennessee and became the Maintenance Manager at DENSO Manufacturing. He was also the Maintenance Manager at a division of Magna International. Scott has also held Engineering Manager and Maintenance Manager positions at Gestamp Chattanooga, one of the largest automotive stamping companies in the world.

He has a degree in electronics and is a Certified Reliability Leader. Scott has experience in TPM, RCM, CBM, statistical analysis, and kaizen. Scott's favorite project was the development and implementation of a wireless condition monitoring system. 

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