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The psychology behind process compliance

19 November 2021

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The psychology behind process compliance

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Procedures represent the best way to carry out activities and so in an ideal world they would be followed meticulously and process compliance would occur without fail. Business leaders spend a substantial amount of time perfecting procedures, researching best practice, and communicating the correct methods to staff – all in the name of quality. They spend time and money on obtaining certifications that demonstrate their commitment to quality, such as ISO 9000 and ISO 45000.

But in spite of all their efforts, if the procedures are disregarded and not followed effectively, this time and money is wasted. There are countless examples of employees violating regulations and acting in a non-compliant way, leading to damaged reputations, product recalls and significant fines, which are routinely in the hundreds of thousands of pounds.

These fines are not trivial: in 2020, the highest health and safety fine reached £1.3m after a construction company failed to carry out work at height in a safe manner. In 2019, the ten highest H&S fines all exceeded £1 million.

So, the financial impact on an organisation is clearly significant. But even aside from the cost, a health and safety breach can result in the full closure of premises, jail time to be served by the company owners, and even loss of life for the individual affected.

Understanding compliance to rules

Avoiding process compliance breaches relies on every employee thoroughly complying to the health and safety procedures in place. Compliance is crucial for businesses to ensure safety, integrity, and ethical behaviour at all levels of an organisation.

The challenges to compliance are all ultimately driven by human behaviour - it can be too easy for individuals to get caught in cycles of habitual and destructive behaviour.

Generally speaking, employees know how to follow procedures, such as the correct way to perform a safety behaviour. They’re just not doing it.

Decades of research into how people behave in the workplace has revealed useful insights into why people sometimes do not comply, despite knowing they are acting unethically. This research suggests that when people break rules, more often than not it is because there are internal incentives (generally unconscious ones) that are stronger than the external disincentive of a penalty.

For example, people are hard-wired to make their lives as simple as possible. As such, we prefer to take the path of least resistance, even if this means violating processes that are too complicated, despite knowing we are in the wrong.

So what does this mean in practice? Business leaders need to work to remove barriers that over-complicate procedures, and make quality processes as simple as possible from the outset.

What does psychology tell us about compliance?

Cognitive psychology gives insight into the factors determining our behaviour and suggests most behavioural influence occurs ‘below the surface’ in our mental processing. Feelings and emotions can be easily observed by outward behaviour, but under the surface there are a number of interacting factors that contribute to the development of these. Learning, thoughts and beliefs, and social influence (including culture, norms and the relative effect of leadership) are all contributing factors.

For example, based on the conditioning principles developed by psychologist B. F. Skinner, Behavioural Based Safety (BBS) works on the assumption that behaviours are encouraged through rewards and positive reinforcement, or dissuaded through punishment.

Applying these psychological learnings to behaviour in practice means leveraging a combination of methods that aim to influence behaviour by external and internal motivations; for example, encouraging employees to choose to be safe, to acknowledge their own safety (independence) and the safety of those around them (interdependence).

Taking a holistic approach to compliance

Avoiding acts of non-compliance requires fostering a culture of quality, which can only be achieved through changes in group behaviour. Research shows that individuals will willingly change behaviour and follow procedures if:

  1. They have the knowledge they need.

This comes from effective training in the required skills and theoretical knowledge.

  1. They have possession of the practical skills they need.

Following effective training, it is important to provide teams with a safe environment to practice the skills, giving coaching and feedback to aid skill development.

  1. It is personal and relevant in supporting them to be successful.

By making the outcome relevant to the individual’s goals or purpose, you will find people are more likely to willingly change their behaviour.

A commitment to quality is rendered redundant if it is not carried out by every employee at every level of the company.

Leveraging digital solutions helps empower employees to follow the rules through effective training, knowledge sharing and proper management of procedures and actions taken.

Create a thriving culture of quality

Find out more about how our quality management software can help your organisation embed process compliance through a comprehensive culture of quality.

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Ideagen's Sophie Willink
Written by

Sophie Willink

As Ideagen’s Content Marketing Executive, Sophie produces informative content to provide customers with digestible insights into the world of quality, audit, risk and compliance.

With a background in psychology, Sophie is passionate about understanding human behaviour and the role technology can play in measuring, reporting and improving behaviours to create higher quality business environments.

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