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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Alert24 - Safeguard Update

Psychology of safety

Psychology of safety
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New Zealand

The goal of having zero harm in your workplace is not only unattainable but actually counterproductive, Australian social psychologist Dr Rob Long told OHSIG delegates.

"A lot of us have good intentions and poor training," he said. "We need to learn about risk. Absolute and perfectionist goals such as 'Zero Harm' demotivate humans, create a blaming culture and are anti-learning."

Long, who specialises in the psychology of risk, explained that the human mind has three modes of operation, which he calls minds one, two and three. The first mode, the conscious mind, analyses and rationalises information, works slowly and makes considered decisions. The second mind is much faster and involves learning from experience rather than from reason. The third mind is much faster again, non-rational, and responds to intuition and gut feelings.

"I think a lot of people assume that what happens in safety is only in mind one, but it's not. Most decision making is done in the unconscious mind. When people do something and say 'I wasn't thinking' it's the truth. You're dealing with automacity - the unconscious mind working in mind three."

For workplaces, third mind thinking has both benefits and the potential for serious problems, he said. "Third mind thinking is mighty efficient but the unconscious mind is in control. The workplace is most creative and most efficient when workers are in this mode, but it's easy for them to miss what they're not looking for. You need to find some mechanism to pitch people back into mind one."

Health and safety practitioners also need to understand how the messages people receive shape their thinking, Long said. Studies have shown that the unconscious mind is primed by what it sees and hears, and words or concepts offered in one context can retain that association long afterwards.

For this reason safety people need to think about the wider context and implications of what they say. "Every time you think about the words you're going to use in the workplace, ask yourself: what's the trajectory? Where is this taking us, ethically, practically, socially, psychologically, humanly and logically?"

It was especially important for OHS practitioners to understand the psychology of goal setting, he said. "When people set goals they think they are neutral, but in fact the opposite is true. Every goal you set will have an unconscious by-product or trade off."

Espoused goals are usually in conflict with risk reality, he said, and this creates hidden dynamics that can work to subvert the goal, especially if it is an avoidance goal rather than a promotional one. A perfectionist goal such as zero harm primes failure, low reporting, blaming, masking, and makes people afraid to talk about risk, Long said. In contrast, high level goals, such as care and tolerance, are more effective in changing culture, but are not widely used in workplaces because they are difficult to achieve and cannot be measured.

"If we were more silent about the absolutes and more verbal about the person-side of work, it would change behaviour. There are big organisations doing this now and it's effective, but it's a really big challenge."



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