Safety and the C word - a red herring?

We often use the word complacency when it comes to unsafe or at risk behaviour. And it can be a useful starting point to describe an unwanted outcome. But if we stop there and attribute unsafe or at risk behaviour to complacency without any further enquiry then we completely miss the opportunity to learn how the work environment that we create is supporting this unwanted behaviour.

“Complacency: self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.”

So we’d typically use the term complacency when the performer doesn’t attend to and respond to a hazard in the environment in a way in which we’re prescribed. And all too often that’s because their brain has learnt not to. Not because there’s something wrong with the person. Bad outcomes don’t happen that often and so our brains, wired as they are, readily learn not to attend or respond to hazards we're repeatidly exposed to with no ill effects.

This is a basic form of learning common to all organisms which describes the process of people becoming used to something, so that they no longer find it unpleasant or think it is a threat.

“Habituation: the process of people becoming used to something, so that they no longer find it unpleasant or think it is a threat.”

For example the first time we drive on a motorway, for most people ours brain are super attentive to the movement of other vehicles in such close proximity. But with a bit of exposure and if nothing bad happens in those first few experiences, our brains quickly learn not to pay so much attention.

There’s a survival benefit to this process. The brain requires an awful lot of energy to attend to the things going on around us. If we attend to every stimulus in the environment, we’d never be able to consume enough calories to power it and our heads would need to be the size of a planet.

Translate that to a work based example. You go to work on a new site and there are materials laying around causing a trip hazard. You’re not used to working in that kind of environment and so your brain attends to the things that are out of place and perhaps you even do some clearing up. But let’s say you’re under time pressure to get things done and so you’re now reinforced for stepping over the mess to get on with your job. It’s likely that over time, with repeated exposure and reinforcement for cracking on, the desired response reduces. You stop noticing the trip hazards and you stop responding to reduce the risk.

“Complacency is not a problem with individuals, it’s how we’re wired.”

Left to nature, the more times we’re exposed to an aversive stimulus or hazard in our environment and nothing bad happens, the less likely we are to attend and respond to it. If our behaviour also receives reinforcement for exposing ourself to the hazard without taking avoidant action, the faster the process.

And that’s why safety is so challenging. Typically we are repeatedly exposed to similar hazards, we do unsafe or at risk behaviour and nothing bad happens. We receive reinforcement for it because it’s easier or quicker or whatever and so nature takes its course and over time we learn not to respond.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. If we change the balance of day to day consequences in the work environment, the brain will learn from the adjusted environment and our attention and behaviour will adapt accordingly.

So going back to our work based example. Let’s say after a lifetime of working on untidy sites you now go to work for a guy who is meticulous about housekeeping. He sets very clear expectations and is relentless in his follow up day in day out, reinforcing behaviours around clearing materials and equipment. What we start to see is the brain learning to attend to things that are out of place and respond as desired. We respond to the hazard (or stimulus) in the environment because it signals that reinforcement for behaviour is available.

"We need to design our workplaces based on how human brains learn."

Just as we’re learning what not to respond to we’re also constantly learning what to show an increased response to. This is happening continually through our interaction with our environment. Only by understanding how people are interacting with the day to day work environment can we get real insight into why behaviours we don’t want may be occurring. Only by changing the balance of day to day consequences provided by local environment creators can we change behaviour in a sustainable manner. And only by supporting those local environment creators so that they can be the best they can be can this happen.

Some simple question to ask when you find yourself observing what feels like complacency:

  • What unsafe or at risk behaviour is occurring?

  • How is the local work environment prompting or encouraging this behaviour?

  • How can we design this out to make the unsafe or at risk behaviour less likely?

  • What behaviour did we want to happen instead?

  • What prompt or encouragement is currently missing from the local work environment?

  • How can we design this in to make the desired behaviour more likely?

  • Who is the local environment creator?

  • What do we need them to do differently on a day to day basis?

  • How can we engage them in creating a work environment that supports the desired behaviour?

This approach is more effortful, but necessary for sustainable change.

So don’t be complacent about the use of the term complacency when it comes to safety. It’s a red herring that distracts us from asking much more important questions.


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