Are you priming your employees to be safe or to take risks?

Priming with wordsImagine you are part of a team that has been assigned a particularly difficult maintenance job.  It will take three craftsmen at least eight hours to complete this task.  Your supervisor (Jeff) is coordinating a long list of planned jobs as part of a large shutdown.  Before you go to the work site, Jeff provides a pre-job brief:

“OK, guys – listen up.  We have to replace the large pump in the northwest corner of the basement.  As you know, it’s in a very tight space with no head room and there isn’t much ventilation or lighting down there – so make sure you hook up a fan and some temporary lighting.  This is a critical path job, so I need you guys to get started on it ASAP.  The guys on the production line will be waiting on this job before they can start back up.  We’re behind on shipping customer orders, so there’s some heat from upper management to get in, get out, and get running. Don’t take any more time than is necessary to get the pump changed out.  Keep any breaks to a minimum.  I know you guys always work at a good pace.  That’s why I teamed you up on this job – to get it done quickly.  I’ll be checking on the job every hour to see if we are on schedule.  If you need anything, get me on the radio and I will rush whatever you need to the work site.  If you run into any problems and aren’t sure what to do – use your judgment and do whatever takes the least amount of time.  I know I can count on you guys to get this job done right and on time. I gotta go … but don’t hesitate to yell if you need anything! 

Oh…. and be safe.”

With this conversation, Jeff significantly increased the likelihood that someone on this crew will incur an injury.  Why?  Let’s look at the pattern of words or phrases that he used:


critical path, asap, waiting, behind, get running, time, minimum breaks, pace, quickly, schedule, rush, least, on time, don’t hesitate


Do you see the pattern?  What message is Jeff sending?  What is the priority?  What is the tone?  He planted numerous seeds for the team to work quickly.  In so doing, he introduced a factor which is proven to increase risk – rushing or hurrying.  The team may complete the job sooner – but they will do this with a greater risk of injury.

(Notice the passing comment at the end to “be safe”.  That was sincere and helpful, wasn’t it?)

Priming Experiments

Behavioral psychologists have proven that exposing people to a series of words with the same theme can have a significant influence on their subsequent actions.  This was initially demonstrated through a series of classic “priming” experiments by a number of researchers.  One of them is described below.

Some students were asked to come see their professor in his office.  They had to walk down a long hallway to enter the office, where they were given a sheet of paper with a list of five-word sets.  They were challenged to make a grammatical sentence from four of these words.

Here is the test:

him was worried she always

from are Florida oranges temperature

ball the throw toss silently

shoes give replace old the

he observes occasionally people watches

be will sweat lonely they

sky the seamless gray is

should now withdraw forgetful we

us bingo sing play let

sunlight makes temperature wrinkle raisins

The real experiment was not determining if the students could arrange these words into sentences.  The students had no difficulty with the test.  Instead, the researchers (discretely) measured how long it took the students to walk down the hallway going TO the office and FROM the office after taking the test. Then they compared these times.  The results showed that it took significantly longer for people to walk down the same hallway after taking the test as compared to when they first arrived at the office.

How could this be?

The students were being primed.  Words scattered throughout this test are connected with old age (worried, Florida, wrinkled, lonely, old, gray, bingo, wrinkle, forgetful).  The researchers concluded that these words triggered the “adaptive unconscious” in the brains of the students to think about the state of being old.  And without even realizing it, the subjects acted old by walking more slowly!

Other priming experiments have replicated these results using other sets of behavioral word triggers.

For example, in priming one group, researchers used words of aggression (bold, rude, bother, disturb, intrude, etc). Another group was ‘primed’ with words of respect (considerate, appreciate, patient, yield, courteous, etc). These individuals were observed to see how long it would take them to interrupt a staged conversation between two people.  Sure enough, people who were subjected to “aggression” priming  interrupted the staged conversation more than twice as quickly as those who were primed with synonyms of “respect.”

Let’s return to our supervisor, Jeff.  We can see even more clearly that he was priming his employees to work at a fast pace – and thus triggering their adaptive unconscious to think about working quickly.  This means they will be more likely to take shortcuts, not wait for someone to help them, skip a step in a procedure, etc.  By simply hearing Jeff’s words, his crew was highly influenced to take unnecessary risks. Perhaps he did not intend this to be the outcome.  Nevertheless, his choice of words set the stage for risk-taking.

Positive Priming

The good news is that we can use this knowledge of priming to influence others in a positive way.  Let’s rewind the clock and imagine Jeff giving the pre-job briefing.  This time, he has a very different conversation.

 “OK, guys – listen up.  We have to replace the large pump in the northwest corner of the basement.  As you know, it’s in a very tight space with no head room and there isn’t much ventilation or lighting down there – so make sure you hook up a fan and some temporary lighting.  Check out the entire area before you start the job and make sure you have everything to do this job safely. We all know that this is a big job.  No cutting corners. Take whatever time you need to do the job right.   It’s gonna be hot down there, so you guys need to take a break at least every hour – more often if you need to. Take a cooler of drinks with you to stay hydrated.  Work at a pace that makes sense.  No heroes.  You guys need to watch out for each other.  If you see something that doesn’t look right, stop. Call me or send someone to get me and we will talk it over.  I’ll be checking on the job frequently to see how you guys are feeling and if you need any relief.  If you run into any problems and aren’t sure what to do – take a time out to think about it.  I know I can count on you guys to get this job done safely. Before I go, let me remind you to: stop when you are unsure, stay hydrated, take frequent breaks, help each other, and watch out for pinch points.  

What questions or concerns do you have?

In this version, Jeff changed the message entirely.  He was priming the crew to work deliberately and with increased situational awareness.  And it was delivered in a caring tone. Let’s look at his choice of key words or phrases:

check out, make sure, safely, no cutting corners, take time, take breaks, stay hydrated, no heroes, watch out, stop when unsure, check frequently, feeling, relief, help each other, pinch points, concerns


There are many influences on risk.  Perhaps this crew would complete the job without incident, regardless of what they heard from their supervisor in a pre-job brief.  However, employees who are primed with words that encourage risk-taking will most likely have a higher incident rate than those who are primed for risk awareness.


What is the lesson?  Choose your words thoughtfully when you are in a position of influence.  They carry more weight than you realize.



Thomas K. Srull and Robert S. Wyer.  The Role of Category Accessibility in the Interpretation of Information About Persons: Some Determinants and Implications,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37 (1979): 1660-1672.

John A. Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows, “Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action, “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71, no. 2 (1996): 230-244.

Gladwell, Malcolm.  Blink:  The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.  Back Bay Books.  New York, NY.  2005.  ISBN 978-0-316-17232-5 (hc).

Photo Credit: Steve A. Johnson.  Creative Commons.

About David Galloway

David Allan Galloway is author of Safety WALK Safety TALK, instructor of an online course with the same title, leadership coach, keynote speaker, and President of Continuous MILE Consulting. He has over four decades of industry experience, with leadership roles in Operations, Research, Product Development, Quality, Engineering, Logistics, and Strategy.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.