Human behavior

Why do otherwise rational people make unsafe decisions on the job?

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Responding is Greg Ford, CEO, TalentClick Workforce Solutions Inc., Vancouver, British Columbia.

A while ago, my 15-year-old daughter had an argument with my wife. It started out as a minor argument, but it escalated into something that, well, let’s just say our neighbors thought that our cat was hanging by its tail from our ceiling fan. The thing is, our daughter is a smart kid and knew that if she kept it up, the usual outcome would arise: She would be grounded and have her phone taken away. Yet she couldn’t help herself, and she ended up spending a quiet week at home.

People do this all the time. We make poor choices even though we should know better. It might be that we smoke or drink too much. It might be that we overindulge on pizza at midnight. We make these poor choices even though we logically understand that these behaviors are not healthy.

But that word “understand” is the key. Understanding implies that we have stopped to think, reason and process consequences. Many times, however, the limbic area of our brains (our “lizard brain”) generates knee-jerk reactions based on our natural impulses and urges. We call these our “default settings.” There is nothing rational about them. We were born with these personality traits and it is very difficult to change the hard-wiring, unless there has been a traumatic, life-altering event.

In a safety-sensitive workplace, there are usually an abundance of rules and standard operating procedures. There is usually safe and proper equipment, along with adequate training. And still, there are incidents.

Think back to the last 10 incidents you have had. If you are like most companies, 9 out of 10 were caused by human error. Now ask yourself how many would fit in these categories:

The categories above are all reflective of actual personality traits. While they sound negative, it is important not to point fingers of blame at someone for being born a certain way.

Knowing a person’s default settings can help predict how that person is likely to behave in the future. That knowledge can then help leaders manage and coach toward different outcomes. And knowing how we ourselves are hard-wired can give us the self-awareness to create a “pattern interrupt” and break our usual path of action.

Self-awareness is a powerful tool. Just look at all the behavioral-modification programs that effectively help us eliminate our smoking, drinking and overeating – even when nobody is watching us eat half a pizza at midnight.

  • The person was reckless, impulsive and didn’t think through the consequences of his risky action.
  • The person was distracted and unfocused.
  • The person was irritated, lost his temper and wasn’t getting along with co-workers.
  • The person was defiant and resistant to rules and authority.
  • The person froze under pressure.

The categories above are all reflective of actual personality traits. While they sound negative, it is important not to point fingers of blame at someone for being born a certain way.

Knowing a person’s default settings can help predict how that person is likely to behave in the future. That knowledge can then help leaders manage and coach toward different outcomes. And knowing how we ourselves are hard-wired can give us the self-awareness to create a “pattern interrupt” and break our usual path of action.

Self-awareness is a powerful tool. Just look at all the behavioral-modification programs that effectively help us eliminate our smoking, drinking and overeating – even when nobody is watching us eat half a pizza at midnight.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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