License: Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0. Attribution: Nick Youngson
Confirmation bias is the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs1. This biased approach to decision-making is largely unintentional and often results in ignoring inconsistent information. Existing beliefs can include one’s expectations in a given situation and predictions about a particular outcome. People are especially likely to process information to support their own beliefs when the issue is highly important or self-relevant.
In a previous article, I outlined the differences between two distinct cultures – compliance and commitment. This post describes how a confirmation bias can perpetuate a culture of compliance. I will also discuss how the conversations that take place in a work place with a culture of commitment minimize the potential for confirmation bias.
Culture of Compliance
The model below explains how confirmation bias influences decision-making (and the actions taken by managers) when an organization is managed through compliance.
It begins with a person’s existing beliefs.
Distractions are everywhere in our world. We can be distracted while driving, while working, or while doing any number of routine tasks. In the work place, incident investigations reveal that tens of thousands of injuries each year occur when people are not focused on the task at hand.
Most everyone recognizes the dangers associated with being distracted while driving a motor vehicle. Distracted driving is a leading contributor to automobile crashes. For example, here are just a few statistics from an organization dedicated to stopping texting and driving injuries and deaths:
- Every year, about 421,000 people are injured in crashes that have involved a driver who was distracted in some way.
- Each year, over 330,000 accidents caused by texting while driving lead to severe injuries. This means that over 78% of all distracted drivers are distracted because they have been texting while driving.
- 1 out of 4 car accidents in the US are caused by texting while driving.
- Texting and driving is 6 times more likely to get you in an accident than drunk driving.
- It takes an average of three seconds after a driver’s mind is taken off the road for any road accident to occur.
- Reading a text message while driving distracts a driver for a minimum of five seconds each time.
- The chances of a crash are increased by 23 times when you are texting.
Error Rate and Distraction
A recent Michigan State University study provides supporting evidence that being distracted significantly increases human error (which can result in an accident).
Participants in this study were asked to perform a series of tasks in order, such as identifying with a keystroke whether a letter was closer to the beginning or end of the alphabet. Of course, a certain number of errors were made even without interruptions.
Occasionally the participants were told to input two unrelated letters — which took about 3 seconds — before returning to their task. These slight interruptions led to participants making twice as many mistakes when they returned to their sequencing task.
In addition, there are a number of studies and/or exercises which prove that humans cannot consciously complete more than one task at a time. Indeed, one author has labeled the so-called skill of multi-tasking as “worse than a lie.” No matter how you look at it, being distracted (for any reason) significantly increases the risk of making a mistake and/or being injured.
Unfortunately, we are not only distracted by something in our environment, but simply by the way our minds operate!
Victor has over 20 years experience in the warehouse. You have a few years of experience and were just hired a few weeks ago. Today, you are working as a team, unloading pallets of packaged materials that were delivered from the dock. As both of you approach the first pallet, Victor takes a position directly in front of the strapping that is straining under tension. You see that this puts him in the line of fire. Instinctively, you take a step back when Victor pulls a pair of snips from his pocket to cut the strapping…
Do you speak up? Do you stop him? Are you sure?
Perhaps you would say something. But a surprising number of people in this situation would stay silent. Their thought process would be something like, “Surely he must know how to perform this task safely. He’s done it thousands of times. I’m the rookie here. Who am I to question his experience and job knowledge?”
Peer pressure is a powerful social influence. Most of us are fearful of being considered an outcast if we are the dissenter, especially if we have less informal authority than other people in our natural work group.
You may think of peer pressure as overt statements from co-workers. “Look, this is the way things are done around here.” But this is not always the case. In the scenario above, Victor did not have to remind you about his seniority and experience. It was implied and understood.
It was noisy in the meeting room as the construction workers assembled early one morning. The concrete floor and cinder block walls created an echo chamber for the men’s voices and the squeaking of metal chairs being pushed into place. Spartan furniture and a dusty, bare floor were tell-tale signs that this room was used occasionally for crew meetings, but not much else. Some folding tables on one side of the room strained under the weight of 3-ring binders and manuals stacked half-way to the ceiling. Another table in the back held a large coffee urn and numerous boxes of doughnuts, most of which had already been claimed.
While Russ went to the front of the room to get the projector running, I settled into a metal chair beside the doughnut table, fighting the urge to grab one of the few remaining sugary treats. Russ was the internal trainer. He was scheduled to talk to the group for the first hour.
The class about safety culture and leadership had been requested by the contractor’s leadership team. The company recently had some serious injuries and near misses. They were anxious to see what could be done to prevent another event.
The managers were perplexed why some of their guys were taking risks, even though they had implored them to “be careful.” Even more disturbing, it seemed as though someone was making a mistake on the job almost every week. While all of these were small errors, the senior managers knew that any one of these mistakes could cause significant property damage or result in another injury under different circumstances.
As Russ went through the introductory slides and started the first class exercise, a burly man dressed in blue jeans and a shirt that appeared to be one size too small abruptly emerged from an office which adjoined the conference room. The name plate and title above the door indicated that Ed was a supervisor. Ed yanked his office door closed behind him, causing a loud thud when it met the door jamb. I heard him mutter a couple of expletives as he walked briskly by my chair and walked heavily down the stairs on the far side of the room. Continue reading
It takes at least two people to have a conversation. For a conversation to be effective, each person needs to alternatively talk and listen. Unfortunately, some leaders are prone to lecturing, with very little listening. This ineffective communication style isn’t isolated to senior leaders who ascribe to the command-and-control approach to management. It can be seen at all levels of organizations.
The prevalent communication style of managers and supervisors is a barometer of the safety culture. Occasional, one-way safety conversations are telltale signs of a culture of compliance. Frequent, interactive safety conversations are indicative of a culture of commitment.
As indicated in a previous post, the motive for having a conversation significantly influences the safety culture. To recap:
- If the reason you have any safety conversation is to exert control, the approach will be to criticize and seek compliance through correction.
- If the reason you have any safety conversation is because you care, the approach will be to coach and seek commitment through collaboration.
One communication model1 suggests that an effective organizational conversation has four attributes: intimacy (building trust and listening), interactivity (promoting discussion), inclusion (collaborating on solutions), and intentionality (sharing a common purpose).
In this article, I introduce a guide for an effective safety conversation – one that starts with caring. This guide incorporates the four attributes of an effective conversation. It also stimulates a conversation that enables coaching and collaboration.
Five-Step Guide for a Safety ConversationTM
Most organizations that seek to achieve safety excellence realize that this performance level can only be attained with strong leadership. When it comes to safety, there are two prevalent leadership philosophies. There is a stark contrast between the resulting safety cultures. We can better understand the differences by realizing that each is grounded in very different motives. One approach emphasizes control, while the other starts with caring.
Control = Compliance
Some managers define “strong leadership” as carrying a big stick. These managers believe that any time there is an injury or near miss, their principal responsibility is to hold people accountable. In practice, this means that the primary reason they have any safety conversation is to exert more control.
These managers believe that if people would simply comply with the policies, rules, and procedures, then no one would get hurt. Armed with this reasoning, they strive for greater control by criticizing actions that are inconsistent with established policies. Safety conversations center on correcting errant behaviors through counseling or discipline.
This safety philosophy leads to a Culture of Compliance.
The graphic shown here demonstrates the actions which lead to this kind of safety culture, which is summarized in the following statement:
If the reason (Why) you have any safety conversation is to exert control, the approach will be to criticize (How) and seek compliance through correction (What).
A Culture of Compliance results in a false sense of improved safety performance, because many incidents are driven underground. The official safety numbers may look good. However, the number of unreported near misses and unrecorded minor injuries are indicative of an insidious safety culture. Because the causes are never acknowledged and addressed, they accumulate until a significant event occurs. Continue reading