Understanding Risk Perception



Humans bore quickly; we become blasé. Just as we forget to appreciate the wonders of a beautiful view that we see all the time, there is, too, a darker and more dangerous side to this desensitisation. In the workplace, we become guilty of blurring into the background things that are designed to stop us in our tracks to keep us safe. Andrew Sharman seeks an answer to why this is.

I was with a new client recently who told me about a problem that they had with their alarms and their gas detection systems. It seems that their alarm systems are so sensitive they go off very frequently. Their concern is that people now just ignore the alarm completely and simply carry on working.

Some of you might be aware of the famous Rolling Stones song “Jumping Jack Flash”? They performed it recently at the Qasr Al Hosn Festival in Abu Dhabi. This song always reminds me of a great guy I once met of the same first name. He makes engines at a particularly popular car manufacturer, he has done for many years and he does it very well indeed. He possesses many fantastic traits, but has also developed a few habits over the years that might not be totally supportive of him creating high performance engines for us to enjoy for much longer.

“in the workplace, we become guilty of blurring into the background things that are designed to stop us in our tracks”

Jack Flash”? They performed it recently at the Qasr Al Hosn Festival in Abu Dhabi. This song always reminds me of a great guy I once met of the same first name. He makes engines at a particularly popular car manufacturer, he has done for many years and he does it very well indeed. He possesses many fantastic traits, but has also developed a few habits over the years that might not be totally supportive of him creating high performance engines for us to enjoy for much longer.

You see, he doesn’t like to carry around his personal gas meter. He cites his company’s top of the range gas detection system, insistent that it will let him know when he needs to get out, but besides that, having never needed one he just doesn’t see the importance.

I’ve met a few others over the years who have held similar attitudes and habits regarding gas monitoring equipment, and cumulatively this has compelled me to dig deeper into the psychology behind these kinds of decision making processes and habits to identify just how far we could go to change things.

Why take such a risk?

The risks of noxious gases at work are well known within respective industries. There’s both legislation in place as well as company procedures that attempt to force compliance. Workers often receive mandatory training and there’s likely to be supervision and collective detection systems or surveillance systems, too. Whilst this is cause for applause, we know enough about human behaviour to know that it’s just not acceptable to rely on compliance; we can do much more to create an environment that will really encourage people to work safely.

Most would agree that human behaviour plays a major part in workplace accidents, incidents and injuries and we like to describe such behaviour as failures or mistakes. Actually, closer scrutiny may reveal that many of these behaviours were not actually ‘errors’ at all but rather, deliberate actions towards a specific performance outcome.

In the world of safety, we call these deliberate actions that lead to such incidents ‘violations’ and that’s exactly what’s going on. Both Jack and those acting like him know what they should be doing, so it’s not a case of having made mistakes or having forgotten to use equipment. It’s not a slip or lapse in concentration, this is most definitely a violation. Jack deliberately didn’t use his personal gas detection system, just like others are deliberately ignoring the alarm on the collective detection system!

“Professional Judgement and Decision Making is a fascinating area of study and can give us an understanding of why people do what they do”

In trying to convince these people that they are failing, however, you’ll likely be greeted by many a confused look, since they won’t consider their actions to be in the slightest erroneous. After all, they’ve done it this way for years, and so their actions are 100% intentional – and certainly not ‘failing’.

Uniquely similar

No two people are the same – we all know this. Yet when it comes to compliance, in our consulting experience people tend to fit into one of three categories: Compliers, Rebels, and the less predictable In-Betweeners.

Let’s start with the Compliers. We’ve all met them. Their values and belief systems are set up for them to obey the law and any rules or procedures. Put simply, they just don’t break any rules.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Rebels. It can seem at times that they almost purposefully break the rules just to see what will happen. Other times, these decision making processes have been formed over many years – just like Jack and his aversion to using his personal gas detector – and shifting this mindset will take serious effort.

These two camps are of course the extremes, and in reality, most people sit somewhere in the middle, complying sometimes, flouting the rules on other days. This pick and mix attitude to safety is interesting to examine, since a better understanding of the factors driving people’s safety barometers will of course improve safety for the masses.

The decision making process

Better decision making is one of the most sought after and highly valued mental skills and it’s easy to understand why good decision making is so desired. Think how important these traits are in sport, politics, in business, the military and emergency services. Think of the people that you might have seen over the years who just seemed to be one or two steps ahead of everyone else and just seem to make exactly the right decision at exactly the right time. How do they do that?

Decision making or PJDM (Professional Judgement and Decision Making) as it is known in sport or performance psychology, is a fascinating area of study and we can relate this research to safety to give us an understanding of why people do what they do. There has been extensive research recently to try to ascertain just why some people make much better decisions than others.

Successful performers such as Mo Salah, Riyadh Mahrez (football), Kareem Abdul Jabaar (Basketball) or Lewis Hamilton (F1) or great business leaders just seem to make better decisions in their professional field than anyone else. Some people seem to be instinctively more aware of their surroundings and are just better at making decisions in key moments.

Well, it’s not just by accident – no pun intended. There are several theories and models that can help us understand and improve our decision making, most are too complex to easily explain in article like this. However, a recent study has analysed exactly why some people are better decision makers than others and its findings are brilliantly simple, it’s just not such great news for us who are in the business of safety performance!

First, we need to understand how our mind, or memory works. The main purpose of memory is to help guide our decisions in life. Every single memory we have serves to help us make our decisions.

If we see or hear of a shark fin in the water, we decide to get out of the water very quickly! That’s because most people have a very limited database of information about sharks from the films and books they might have read, as well as the horrific anecdotal evidence that they might have heard. Very few have actually studied sharks extensively or even swam with them freely.

If we walk into our favourite restaurant and see lots of people we don’t recognise, we might feel uncomfortable and decide to make a discreet and sharp exit. Again, our judgement is based on our database of information that we have collected over many years and our memories guide our decision making.

Workplace applications

Well, research on Decision Making has highlighted that good decision makers in sport simply gather lots more information (memories) than everyone else. They do that by constantly looking around them all the time even when they’re not involved in play or on the ball.

Players like Mahrez and Jabaar looked around, just with quick glances, up to 10 times more than everyone else did during a match. Their minds were constantly picking up new information (memories). Where are my team mates? Where is the opposition? How tough is the defence? And lots more besides.

The interesting thing is that they don’t actually have to consciously look for these things. Because they make hundreds of quick glances their minds store lots more memories. That translates to much better decision making “in the moment” and of course better performance. So, it’s not just a natural gift that these players have. There is a direct and strong correlation between the number of quick glances players made and better decisions.

Exactly the same process applies in other areas of elite performance.

A similar study also found that the very best fighter pilots, paramedics and successful city traders who had to make critical decisions very quickly were also very good at constantly glancing around them to see what was going on much more effectively than their peers.

Why is this bad news?

I know what you’re thinking: what’s this got to do with Jack and why is this bad news for us in safety? Well, Jack is indeed an elite performer in his field of work. He will have collected many tens of thousands of memories of the times he has checked his tasks and he has never yet been poisoned or killed by any gases, he just trusts his judgement that all will be ok because that’s been his experience over the years of working in this environment.

Of course, there are very few people that are still around to tell the tale of what happens when we inhale things like carbon monoxide or ammonia, and Hollywood doesn’t tend to make too many blockbuster films about that stuff. So we have a potential problem here with human behaviour and the use of personal gas detection systems.

We need to properly understand the ABCs of dangerous behaviours and get innovative on the factors and environment that surround this conduct.

As easy as A-B-C

When analysing behaviour, the surrounding circumstances or factors are referred to as antecedents (commonly called ‘activators’) and consequences. the activators are all those things that are in place to encourage people to do things safely before they actually commit to a behaviour – such as training, information films, signs, rules, company policies and procedures and even the law itself.

Even though we might have all these Activators to drive performance in safety, the truth is that these things alone are just not very effective at actually influencing people’s behaviour, unless we become more innovative and start to think a bit differently about how people can be persuaded.

What’s the consequence?

So, is it all about the consequences then? Well yes, but we need to understand that there are four different types of consequences to our actions and only one of the consequences are actually only potentially bad for the individual carrying out the behaviour. The other three consequences that are much more likely to happen are usually good news for the individual carrying out the behaviour – and their organisation, too.

So let’s think about these four consequences for a moment and how they relate to Jack. They are punishment, praise, rewards, and ignoring the action.

Punishment also includes the threat of punishment). We might get hurt or killed, or disciplined or prosecuted, or fired. These are bad things for sure, but they only might happen to the individual carrying out the behaviour. Our guess is that Jack hasn’t had any bad experiences yet whilst he’s not used his detection equipment.

“we need to properly understand the ABCs of dangerous behaviours and get innovative on the factors and environment that surround this conduct”

Next up is praise, or something good happening. It might sound bizarre, but people might well be praised or encouraged by their line manager or supervisor for conducting unsafe behaviours, even if it’s unintended. They say “Thank you so much for getting things done quickly this week” – without realising the safety shortcuts that might have been taken. Positive reinforcement like this makes repeating the behaviour much more likely.

Here Jack may well be creating his own positive reinforcement and congratulate himself for doing things slightly quicker or it’s easier for him to stick to the way he’s always done it. Indeed, he might even feel that those fancy detection systems are just for beginners, not for seasoned veterans like himself!

Following this, we come to rewards. If people are set targets or deadlines and incentivised to achieve them, they’ll probably do just about anything they can to ensure that they hit that target, but not necessarily very safely.

Incentive schemes in any aspect of performance are extrinsic motivators and a lazy way of trying to inspire people. They also very often lead to all kinds of unwanted outcomes and play havoc with our decision making.

Finally is ‘turning a blind eye’. People think this is not actually a consequence at all but it’s actually a very strong reinforcer of the behaviour that’s observed. Just imagine if someone you admire was with you when you might be doing something wrong. If they just ignore your actions and say nothing, or just walk on by, what does that feel like to you? What will you be encouraged to do next time?

So all these consequences, either perceived or actual, will have played a part in Jack, and others’ decision making and in creating his unsafe habit or not using his gas detection device.

Something else to remember?

To change Jack’s habit here, we will need to use all our principles of behavioural science and there are several ways of approaching this problem. One way is to attempt to change his attitude pretty quickly and sharply to impact on his values and belief systems. This will involve some close supervision for a period of time and a robust approach to the consequences aspect of his behaviour.

An alternative way of approaching this problem is to get much more innovative in our approach to the Antecedents or Activators for Jack. Those things that we can put in place to influence his behaviour before he even goes into the work area.

We can learn much here from how supermarkets and global corporations persuade us to buy their products. They’re absolute masters at applying the principles of behavioural science so let’s take a quick look at just three easy to grasp ways of how they do this and see if we can apply some of these principles for Jack.

Give us a reason

Great retailers know the importance of language and creating a compelling reason for us to buy. They don’t just tell us what we should do they give us a powerful reason why we should buy their product.

I’ve just seen a pretty unethical (but very persuasive) advertisement from a major brand suggesting that if parents buy their sugary breakfast cereal then their children will become more popular at school, great at sport and create fabulous life-long relationships! It was a silly advert but it planted a seed in some parent’s thoughts and gave them a powerful ‘why’.

There are some very successful car and clothing manufacturers who apply exactly the same principles that stick in our heads and encourage loyalty to their brand to buy from them over and over again.

So let’s try to avoid telling Jack what to do as that’s obviously not worked over the years and lets help him find his own reason why he should use his personal gas detector. Does Jack have children or grandchildren? What kind of example is he setting for them? What would they want him to do? A good leader will easily find people’s ‘why’, even if it’s a love of a hobby, and relate that back to their work.

We suggest that you might find time to watch the TED Talk “The Power of Why – How Great Leaders Inspire Action” by Simon Sinek. Modern neuroscience backs everything he says up; notice how language plays a huge part in influencing our behaviour.

Make it easy

It’s no secret, successful retailers make it as easy as possible for us to buy from them and even try to make it very difficult for us to stop buying from them. They create a drive through for us so we don’t even have to get out of our car. They’ll put the stuff they really want us to buy at our eye line or at prominent places throughout the shopping mall where we’ll notice it more. And have you ever tried to cancel your TV, Wi-Fi or mobile phone contract? That’s pretty tough to do and will take a lot of our effort and time.

They also create zingy little phrases like the great Mohamed Ali and his “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” catchphrase. They create colourful signs or songs for us to remember. Yes, go on try to think of some that are in your head right now.

So, let’s create similar circumstances for Jack. Let’s make his detector easy for him to use, easy and comfortable for him to carry or clip on and easy for him to remember it, too. Where does he store his detection system? How can we create a trigger to remind him to use it? Oh and let’s try to make things as awkward as we can for Jack to forget or not use his gas detection monitor!

Choice or autonomy

We like to be given a choice in our decisions, and to believe that we are in control of what we buy. This is another quick and very persuasive technique that’s used extensively in sales. Next time you look at a menu in a restaurant be aware of how your decision making could be manipulated.

The selection with the most profit margin is most likely to be the mid-priced options. The top priced will be a pretty healthy margin too but will be out of reach for most people unless it’s a special occasion and nobody wants to look cheap and buy the cheapest option so most will choose a mid-priced option and that’s where the biggest profit margin will be. It’s very similar with other products.

So can we give Jack a choice and some autonomy in which type or model of detection system he can use. If he’s involved in the decision making process of selection of product then he’s far more likely to actually want to use it. Once he’s used the system a few times a new habit will be created and it will feel odd for him not to have and use his new toy.

So, we’ve shared with you just three or four quick ways of how we can start to create an easier environment for Jack to use his equipment. There are lots more that we’d like to share with you too.