Fire-Prevention in a Fireworks Factory

by Eric Samuels

Curious as to why things are so quiet in his 7-year old son’s bedroom, a father walks in to discover that the boy is lighting matches and attempting to ignite one of his toys. Imagine yourself in this man’s shoes. You may have experienced something similar in your life, perhaps even from the perspective of the boy.

How would the father typically react? Chances are, unable to control his fear and rage, he yells at the boy to immediately stop what he is doing, adding a few verbal expletives, perhaps physically restraining (or worse) the child in some capacity. This reaction, which can safely be described as a common response, will certainly end the immediate threat, but not likely prevent repetition of the event in the future, and will certainly do little to determine the root cause of the behaviour.

Fear and anger are powerful primordial emotions, which can easily dominate our behaviour. However, they generally trigger short-term solutions, providing, at best, an end to the threat and a venting of our stress. Consideration as to the cause of the threat is generally received on a delayed basis, if at all.

This presents a tremendous conflict for anyone in a position of supervision – whether a parent, manager, or group leader. Because our initial response to wrong behaviour is often that of the parent who has walked in on the child playing with matches. But to truly elevate the awareness and performance of those to whom we are responsible, we must first find a way to break and rewire our own internal default script. Not an easy task after a few thousand years of ingrained behaviour!

The first rule is to fight the urge to solve everything in one fell swoop. In other words, first deal with the immediate threat, then deal with the cause (at an appropriate time). Easy enough to say, but tougher to do in today’s increasingly hectic world. This also requires controlling our own initial emotional reaction, which in my case, was once “what the *^% were you thinking?” A response which does little but demean the person to whom it was directed.

Effective behavioural guidance (managing or modifying poor behaviour) requires dealing with the root cause of problem at a time when our response is not fuelled by emotions, but rather a calm environment in which to clearly manage the issue. This process must include a clear articulation of the problem; an effort to understand why it occurred; and a clear communication what is expected, including an explanation of the consequences of future repetition.

Now there is an argument that aversive conditioning* can be a quick and effective method of dealing with negative behaviour. True, if someone receives an electric shock every time they try to take a coin from a jar, they will stop trying. But it doesn’t deal with their desire for the coin, nor will it end their attempts to get one elsewhere. There is the old adage that even firemen spend the majority of their time preventing fires, so as to avoid their starting.

However, in times of uncertainty, such as we find ourselves in today, fear inevitably drives the bus and brings in its wake a culture of short-term thinking. But if you can break away from the pack mentality, this is a wonderful opportunity to be extraordinary by thinking longer term and caring enough about the people around you to make the extra effort.

Next time, catching people in the act of doing things right.

*behavior conditioning in which noxious stimuli are associated with undesirable or unwanted behaviour that is to be modified or abolished.

  • Follow me on Twitter
  • Email Me
  • Call Me
  • Check me out on Facebook