The Stress Observation Safety Dilemma

Have you overrated your Safety Observation Skills?. Article by Dr Robert Long. If you liked this article then you should read the whole series: CLICK HERE. I highly recommend you check out Rob’s new book “RISK MAKES SENSE”

The Stress Observation Safety Dilemma

I recently conducted a MiProfile survey with 22 middle managers in a construction company where over 85% considered themselves to be ‘excellent’ communicators. After conducting the survey the middle managers were asked how many had any training in communication skills, the response was one. There is a naïve belief that anyone can observe and converse about anything and this belief was evidenced in this group survey, a good example of what Schubert labeled ‘unconscious incompetence’. I will return to this point in a moment.

We know from studies in heuristics (human micro-rules) that most people overrate their skills in many areas of life, this is called the Lake Wobegon Effect (named after Garrison Keillor‘s fictional town where “all the children are above average”). This cognitive bias holds that without comparative reflection, humans tend to overrate their abilities. I sometimes illustrate this cognitive bias in training situations and ask people to rate their ability as a vehicle driver. Most people rate themselves as ‘good’ and ‘better than average’ and only change their rating once a comparative benchmark is included such as a well known racing car driver.

The way we overrate ourselves in things is though ‘selective memory’. Humans tend to forget the times they make mistakes and blunders (except for my zero harm friends) and remember more vividly times of success and brilliance. It is always the other drivers on the road who drive so incompetently, not us. These two factors (Lake Wobegon Effect and selective memory) are a significant factor in ensuring effective observations and conversations in safety. They also affect the way we report and attribute risk to near hits.

Realistically, most of us are not that good at observations and conversations in safety. Most times people are consumed in their observations by the ‘cosmetics’ (appearance) of safety, rather than the substance (culture and psychology of risk) of safety. A safety walk and talk is pretty ineffective if all we see is tag dates and trip hazards.

If we want to lead in safety we have to be a bit more sophisticated in our skills in observation and conversation than just looking at cosmetics and physical hazards. My middle managers at the start of this article thought that excellent communication was all about ‘telling’. Some thought that yelling was effective communication. Others thought that the more blunt the communication the better. Little do they know that most of this shows that they are not only poor communicators but have next to no idea how to win and influence safety.

Let’s have a look at just one issue and see how this affects the way we observe and converse with others about safety. How does work pressure affect what we see and how we speak to others?

Most of us work under some form of work pressure, deadline, goal and accountability, these are not bad. Pressure mildly affects us biologically and psychological systems. Excessive pressure releases massive amounts of the hormones testosterone and cortisol into our system resulting in four states of being:

Stress: The state of heightened awareness of self in respect to responsibility.

Distress: The state of breakdown in human functioning. Dysfunctionality is reflected in heightened depression, debilitating anxiety, overload, physical illness, anger, frustration and lack of control.

Eustress: The state of launching off stress into a state of euphoria and excitement. This is particularly problematic when those about are conversely anxious or depressed.

Destress: The state of relaxation and relief.

We need to know when we are observing others in safety if we are observing an aberration of behavior or a ‘normal state’ of behavior. We need be skilled in how to listen and observe, so we can recognise signals and cues which have safety implications. We also need to do so without being judgmental. We then need to interpret what we see and hear and consider the risk implications of our observations.

If you work in a workplace which is constantly stressed you may find that you are yet to observe any normal behavior, you might only see normal behavior after work. If you work in a distressed culture you may see normalized yelling, telling and coercion.

Distress of itself can turn a low risk activity into a high risk activity for example, the release of anger under frustration is highly unpredictable. Unless we are expert observers, we rarely know the breaking point of others.

So, let’s learn how to ‘look at’ and ‘speak into’ ‘workspace’, ‘headspace’, and ‘groupspace’. Here are a few key questions to help you approach your next safety walk with what you have learned from this approach:

  1. What am I hearing?

  2. What am I seeing?

  3. Do others see or hear what I see and hear?

  4. What state of stress exists?

  5. Can I see distress, what are the cues? If I do see distress, how will I approach it and ‘speak to’ this state in this person?

  6. Is there a mismatch of eustress and distress in the team, what is this doing to the group members?

  7. What can I not see?

  8. What have I not heard?

  9. Am I observing a normal state of affairs or is something different because I am here?

  10. If pressure increased or decreased, what is likely to result? What are the safety implications of this observation?

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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