I have been thinking about the role of “attention” in personal safety lately. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard supervisors say…”He wouldn’t have gotten hurt if he had just been paying attention.” In reality, he was paying attention, just to the wrong things. Let me illustrate this with a brief observation. Two of my grandsons (ages 4 and 6) play organized baseball. The 4-year old plays what is called Tee-ball. It is Tee-ball because the coach places the ball on a chest high Tee and the batter attempts to hit the ball into the field of play where there are players on the opposing team manning the normal defensive positions. It is my observation of the players on defense that has helped me understand attention to a greater depth. Most of the batters at this age can’t hit the ball past the infield and most of them are lucky to get it to the pitchers mound, so the outfielders have very little chance of actually having a ball get to them and they seem to know this. For the most part, the “pitcher” (i.e., the person standing on the mound) and to some extent the other in-fielders watch the batter and respond to the ball. The outfielders however are a very different story. They spend their time playing in the dirt, rolling on the ground, chasing butterflies or chasing each other. When, on the rare occasion that a ball does get to the outfield the coach has to yell instructions to his outfielders to get them to look for the ball, pick it up and throw it to the infield. There is a definite difference of attention between the infield and the outfield in Tee-ball. This is not the case in the “machine-pitch” league that my 6-year old grandson plays in however. For the most part all of the defensive players seem to attend to the batter and respond when the ball is hit. So what is the difference? Obviously there is a maturational difference between the 4/5-year olds and the 6/7-year olds but I don’t think this explains all of the attentional difference because even Tee-ball players seem to pay more attention when playing the infield. I think much of it has to do with expectations and saliency. Attention is the process of selecting among the many competing stimuli that are present in one’s environment and then processing some while inhibiting the processing of others. That selection process is driven by the goals and expectations that we have and the salience of the external variables in our environment. The goal of a 4-year old “pitcher” is to impress her parents, grandparents and coach and she expects the ball to come her way, thus attention is directed to the batter and the ball. The 4-year old outfielder has a goal of getting through this inning so that he can bat again and impress his audience knowing that the probability of having a ball come his way is very small. The goals and expectations are different in the infield and outfield so the stimuli that are attended to are different. The same is true in the workplace. What is salient, important and obvious to the supervisor (after the injury occurred) are not necessarily what was salient, important and obvious to the injured employee before the injury occurred. We can’t attend to everything, so it is the job of the supervisor (parent; Tee-ball coach) to make those stimuli that are the most important (e.g., risk in the workplace, batter and ball in the Tee-ball game) salient. This is where the discussions that take place before, during and after the job are so important to focusing the attention of workers on the salient stimuli in their environment. Blaming the person for “not paying attention” is not the answer because we don’t intentionally “not pay attention”. Creating a context where the important stimuli are salient is a good starting point.
If you examine the research literature on the topic of “psychological stress” you will find that there is a lot of disagreement on a definition of that term. However, there is almost total agreement that while stress can have positive effects in some situations, it can also have very negative effects on human performance in other situations. For our purposes we will accept the Mirriam-Webster definition of stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” While this definition ignores the positive effects of moderate stress that research shows is needed for motivation and action, it does describe a state that we all have experienced, and some of you may be experiencing right now. Stress comes in several forms, including acute stress (in an emergency situation), chronic stress (from factors such as job, family, etc), stressful life events (e.g., divorce, death of a loved one, etc) and just those daily hassles (e.g., traffic, arguments, etc). The one common thing in all of these types of stress is that they originate as a response to context. There’s that word again….the one that we seem to talk about in just about all of our blogs. Not only is stress a response to various aspects of our context, stress becomes part of our context and then impacts our performance and the decisions that we make. Stress is our physiological response to our interpretation/appraisal of our context and it directly impacts cognition, social behavior and general performance. Salient contextual factors such as noise, peer pressure, authority pressure, task load and time pressure have been shown to have detrimental impact on performance. Research is clear that high levels of stress cause us to narrow our attention span, decrease search behavior, react slower to peripheral cues, reduce our vigilance, degrade problem solving and rely on over learned responses that may or may not be best in the current situation. In other words, we tend to make poorer decisions that can lead to failure and even injury. Stress also causes us to lose our team perspective and it decreases the frequency with which we provide help to others. This is especially impactful when working in high risk environments where watching your partners back and intervening when necessary is critical to maintaining safety and stopping unsafe actions and incidents.
So how do we deal with this so that stress doesn’t negatively impact performance?
We suggest a two-pronged approach involving (1) control of context and (2) control of how we interpret context in the moment. Keep in mind that we are talking about normal stress reactions that we all experience, not pathological reactions that are best dealt with by trained therapists. Let’s start with control of context and let’s set that context in the workplace. In the workplace, context is, to a large extent under the control/influence of supervision and management. So what should supervisors and managers do? They should attempt to set realistic production objectives with realistic time constraints to create a context that help control stress produced by task load and time pressure. They should minimize where possible the amount and duration of noise. They should make sure that employees are trained so that they have the knowledge and skills required to meet those production objectives. Simply being aware of the negative impact of stress, the relationship between stress and context, and the impact that they personally can have on that context will go a long way in stress control. But what about how the individual interprets context in the moment. Simple awareness that we can control stress reactions through our interpretation of context is a very good starting point. In our February 25, 2015 blog we discussed how we are “Hardwired to Jump to Conclusions”. In that discussion we saw how research supports the involvement of two different cognitive “Systems” in decision making and that System 1 tends to make quick decisions based on past experience and System 2 tends to be more rational and analytic. Research demonstrates that the more stress we are experiencing, the more likely we are to engage in System 1 thinking which increases the likelihood that we will make less informed and perhaps less effective decisions. We suggest that you use the initial physiological stress reactions as a “trigger” to stop, engage System 2 cognitive functions and evaluate your current context to determine what, if anything, can be done to create a different, less stressful context. But what if you can’t change the context? As we all know, there are times when we have a deadline and we are stuck in traffic and we can’t change that. But we can stop, engage System 2 thinking, slow down our physiological response, realize that stressing out is not going to change the situation and figure out the best way out of this situation. This of course takes practice and there are times when we won’t be successful, but understanding stress and how to respond to it can become an effective strategy to help us perform effectively in stressful conditions.
Most of our blog posts focus on current thinking about various aspects of safety and human performance and are an attempt to not only contribute to that discussion but to generate further discussion as well. I can’t think of an instance when we took a personal perspective on the subject, but an experience that I had a couple of weeks ago got me thinking about willingness to take risk and how context really does play a crucial role in that decision. I was attending a weekend long family reunion in the Texas hill country where we had 25 family members all staying together in a lodge that we had rented. It was a terrific weekend with a lot of food, fun, reminiscing and watching young cousins really get to know each other for the first time. My nephew brought his boat so that the adventuresome could try their hand at tubing on the river that ran by the property. I decided that since I had engaged in this activity many times in the past that I would simply act as a spotter for my nephew and watch my kids and their kids enjoy the fun. (Actually I was thinking that the rough water and bouncing of the tube would probably have my body hurting for the next week. This, I contend was a good evaluation of risk followed by good decision making).
There was also a rope swing attached to a tree next to the water allowing for high flight followed by a dip in the rather cold river water that attracted everyone to watch the young try their hand at this activity. There were actually two levels from which to begin the adventure over the water, one at the level of the river and one from a wall about 10-feet higher. All of the really young and really old (i.e. my brother-in-law) tried their hand at the rope from the level of the water and all were successful including my older brother-in-law. I arrived at the rope swing shortly after he had made his plunge only to have him and his supporting cast challenge me to take part. I told them that I would think about it and this is where “context” really impacted my decision to take a risk. The last time I had swung on a rope and dropped into water was probably 20 years ago. At that time I would swing out and complete a flip before I entered the water. No reason not to do the same thing now….right? No way I could accomplish this feat in front of my wife, sister, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, not to mention my brother-in-law, by starting from the waters edge. It would have to be from the 10-foot launching point. In my mind, at that moment this all sounded completely reasonable, not to mention fun! As I took my position on the wall I was thinking to myself that all I needed to do was perform like I did last time (20 years ago) and everything would be great. I was successful in getting out over the water before letting go, (needless to say that I didn’t perform the flip that I had imagined…..seems that upper body strength at 65 is less than at 45). I’m not sure how it happened, but I ended up injuring the knuckle on one of my fingers and I woke up the next morning with a stiff left shoulder. By the way, two weeks later I am feeling much better as the swelling in my finger and stiffness in my shoulder are almost gone.
As I reflect on the event, I am amazed at how the context (peer pressure, past success, cheering from my grandchildren, failure to assess my physical condition, etc) led to a decision that was completely rational to me in the moment. I am pretty sure that the memory of the pain for the next several days afterwards will impact my decision making should such an opportunity arise again. Next time I will enter from the waters edge!
What does it mean to have a "Formal Culture" and an "Informal Culture"?
Have you ever instituted a new policy or procedure into your organization, spent countless hours and dollars trying to drive the initiative throughout the organization, only to see it fall flat? Organizations large and small face a similar problem -- how to make their organization become what they envision it to be.
When organizational experts refer to the overall performance of an organization, they often use the word “culture”. While there is disagreement on the exact definition of organizational culture, most would agree that it includes the values and behaviors that the majority of participants engage in; what most of the people believe and do most of the time. This is called the “informal culture” as compared to the “formal culture”, or what the leadership wants the culture to be. It makes no difference if your organization is a large corporation, a small “mom and pop”, a non-profit, or an educational institution, each of you have a formal and informal culture. One aspect of great organizations is that they close the gap between the two cultures so that “what’s going on - out there” very much resembles the vision of leadership.
“Informal Culture is what most of the people believe and do most of the time.”
You may wonder if these great organizations close this culture gap by hiring the “right people”, or if they do something more intentional to close this gap. The answer quite simply is both. Great organizations start with great people, but they also understand and affect the other aspects of their culture.
The Best Organizations
The best organizations don’t stop with simply creating rules and policies, they do much more to impact the everyday behavior of their employees. If you’ll refer back to our August 2012 Post on the role of contextual factors in industrial safety incident prevention, the very best bosses and organizations understand that human performance is a result of complex systems. Organizational factors such as rules, policies, and reward systems are only a portion of the complex system that drives human performance. The best organizations understand that it is also people, both the individual and intact teams, plus surroundings that drive their overall performance. If the employee base has failed to implement a new directive from leadership, there could be several reasons affecting this. It could be that employees don’t understand the new initiative, operational pressures contradict the initiative, they don’t have the equipment necessary to make it happen, or a myriad of other factors. The very best organizations are those that are able to gather field intelligence detailing actual performance and factors driving the performance, and then institute corrective measures that enable the workforce to align their own performance with the vision of leadership.
So what does that mean for you if you are in an organization with a gap between your formal and informal cultures? We would first encourage you to perform a cultural analysis to get a better understanding of your informal culture. With this knowledge you will be able to understand what contextual factors are driving the performance of your employees. This information will allow you to initiate corrective measures to close the gap between your formal and informal cultures. The best organizations don’t make the mistake of simply focusing on changing people, they focus on the entire context to enable those on board to perform to a higher standard.
Things Supervisors do that, Coincidentally, Improve Safety
Common sense tells us that leaders play a special role in the performance of their employees, and there is substantial research to help us understand why this is the case. For example, Stanley Milgram’s famous studies of obedience in the 1960s demonstrated that, to their own dismay, people will administer what they think are painful electric shocks to strangers when asked to do so by an authority figure. This study and many others reveal that leaders are far more influential over the behavior of others than is commonly recognized.
In the workplace, good leadership usually translates to better productivity, efficiency and quality. Coincidentally, as research demonstrates, leaders whose teams are the most efficient and consistently productive also usually have the best safety records. These leaders do not necessarily “beat the safety drum” louder than others. They aren’t the ones with the most “Safety First” stickers on their hardhats or the tallest stack of “near miss” reports on their desks; rather, their style of leadership produces what we call the “Safety Side Effect.” The idea is this: Safe performance is a bi-product of the way that good leaders facilitate and focus the efforts of their subordinate employees. But what, specifically, produces this effect?
Over a 30 year period, we have asked thousands of employees to describe the characteristics of their best boss - the boss who sustained the highest productivity, quality and morale. This “Best Boss” survey identified 20 consistently recurring characteristics, which we described in detail during our 2012 Newsletter series. On close inspection, one of these characteristic - “Holds Himself and Others Accountable for Results” - plays a significant role in bringing about the Safety Side Effect. Best bosses hold a different paradigm of accountability. Rather than viewing accountability as a synonym for “punishment,” these leaders view it as an honest and pragmatic effort to redirect and resolve failures. When performance failure occurs, the best boss...
- consistently steps up to the failure and deals with it immediately or as soon as possible after it occurs;
- honestly explores the many possible reasons WHY the failure occurred, without jumping to the simplistic conclusion that it was one person’s fault; and
- works with the employee to determine a resolution for the failure.
When a leader approaches performance failure in this way, it creates a substantially different working environment for subordinate employees - one in which employees:
- do not so quickly become defensive when others stop their unsafe behavior
- focus more on resolving problems than protecting themselves from blame, and
- freely offer ideas for improving their own safety performance.
I was speaking recently to a group of mid-level safety professionals about redirecting unwanted behaviors and making change within individual and systemic safety systems. I had one participant who was particularly passionate about his views on changing the behaviors of workers. According to him, one cannot be expected to change behavior or work incident free without at least threatening the use of punitive actions. In his own words, “you cannot expect them to work safely if you can’t punish them for not working safely.” He was also quite vocal in his assertion that it is of little use to determine which contextual factors are driving an unsafe behavior. Again quoting him, “why do I need to know why they did it unsafely? If they can’t get it done, find somebody that can.”
I meet managers like this from time-to-time and I’m immediately driven to wonder what it must be like to work for such a person. How could a person like this have risen in the ranks of his corporate structure? How could such an idiot...oh,wait. Am I not making the same mistakes that I now, silently scold him for? You see, when people do things that we see as evil, stupid, or just plain wrong, there are two incredibly common and powerful principles at play. The first principle is called the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) and, if allowed to take over one’s thought process, it will make a tyrant out of the most pleasant of us. The FAE says that when we see people do things that we believe to be undesirable, we attribute it to them as being flawed in some way or to them having bad intentions. They are stupid, evil, heartless, or just plain incompetent. If we assume these traits to be the driving factor of an unsafe act and we have organizational power, we will likely move to punish this bad actor for their evil doings. After all, somebody so (insert evil adjective here) deserves to be punished. The truth is that most people are good and decent people who just want to do a good job.
This leads us to our second important principle, Local Rationality. Local Rationality says that when good and decent people do things that are unsafe or break policies or rules, they usually do it without any ill-intent. In fact, because of their own personal context, they do it because it makes sense to them to do it that way; hence the term “local rationality”. As a matter of fact, had you or I been in their situation, given the exact same context, chances are we would have done the same thing. It isn’t motive that normally needs to be changed, it’s context.
With this knowledge, let’s look back at the two questions from our Safety Manager.
- “How can I be expected to change behavior or work incident free, without threatening to to punish the wrong-doers?” and
- “Why do I need to know why they did it unsafely? If they can’t get it done, find somebody that can.”
Once we understand that, in general, people don’t knowingly and blatantly do unsafe things or break rules, rather that they do it because of a possibly flawed work system, e.g. improper equipment, pressure from others, lack of training, etc., then we have the ability to calmly have a conversation to determine why they did what they did. In other words, we determine the context that drove the person to rush, cut corners, use improper tools, etc. Once we know why they did it, we then have a chance of creating lasting change by changing the contextual factors that led to the unsafe act.
Your key take-aways:
- When you see what you think is a pile of stupidity, be curious as to where it came from. Otherwise, you may find yourself stepping in it yourself.
- Maybe it wasn’t stupidity at all. Maybe it was just the by-product of the context in which they work. Find a fix together and you may both come out smelling like roses.