MANAGING SAFETY PERFORMANCE NEWS

A Behavior Problem

“A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” 
 
 
     ~Charles Kettering
 
 

Now that it feels safe to get up and move about the country, I decided to find my way downtown. Downtown being mid-town Manhattan. New York City is finally re-opening.  This was personal – not business. I won’t deny this trip into the City came as a long overdue antidote to what’s become way too much social distancing. 
 
I’m sure you can understand.
 
But don’t think for a second that I threw caution to the wind. Masking up is still a requirement of entering the terminal, getting a ticket and boarding the plane. By comparison, social distance is more of an option. On board, if you’re not sipping or swallowing, a mask is required. If you’re worried about flying (or for that matter, hate wearing a mask) I will report that compliance is very high. 
 
That’s an interesting finding, not to mention useful to the process of managing safety performance. But not the point, here and now. The drive into the City is the point of this story.
 
Thirty miles north of town, driving in the middle lane on a three-lane freeway, the driver on my right decided he’d rather be where I was. Abruptly and without warning, he cut in front of me. I can’t say I saw that coming, but I can say I was not the least bit surprised. Thankfully, I dodged that bullet and gave him his space. 
 
Actually, it was my space. But I was not about to let that small act of insanity ruin what was going to be a great weekend. “Go have a good, safe rest of the day, pal.”
 
Or not. No sooner did the driver take possession of the space formerly occupied by me, he decided to reduce his speed to twenty miles below the posted limit. If that wasn’t enough, he replicated the same stunt, moving one more lane to the left! 
 
What was he thinking?
 
As I passed the car – requiring no special effort on my part as it was still going well under the speed limit – I got a good look at the driver. No, he was not talking on his cell phone; yes, he was wearing a mask.
 
Under his chin.

Abnormal Behavior?
 
There’s no need to make this kind of stuff up to keep the News interesting: I’m sure you have your version of this story, worse than mine. Start to finish, this sorry spectacle could not have lasted fifteen seconds. But it left a lasting impression. More to the point, there’s something here important to understand about safety. 
 
Out on the highway and back on the job.
 
Behavior like this might strike you as totally irrational – and totally real. You see it a lot; every time you do, you’re left scratching your head in disbelief: What were they thinking? 
 
You might think the answer was: “They weren’t.” But in all likelihood this driver was engaged in thought – conscious and subconscious – about hazard and risk. That thinking produced the set of behaviors engaged in by the motorist. 
 
Moreover, that way of thinking and behaving is normal for we humans. Not by all of us, not all of the time, and not always to this extreme. But it is commonplace on the road, in the house, and out on the job. If you can recognize the behavior and understand its motivation, you’ll be a long way down the road to successfully managing that behavior when it shows up on your job, by your crew. 
 
So, what were the behaviors? What was the most likely motivation? When you see it from your followers, what do you do to make a difference?
 
Darn good questions, all!
 
The Rest of The Story
 
There is a bit more to this story: two small details left out that help make sense as to what was going on. On the right of the highway was an oncoming feeder lane; not very far ahead on the left was an offramp.  Either the driver was completely lost – or knew exactly what he was doing.
 
Between the mask and the local license plate (not to mention the condition of the car) it’s a good bet it’s the latter. Way past being a good bet; more like a lock. Entered from right and cut over to the left. I can tell you this was a high-risk maneuver. 
 
As to why a local would drive like that, the next exit was roughly three miles down the highway. Exiting there, making a U turn, and heading almost that same distance back would take a lot of time. 
 
Bad behavior that saves time: where have you heard that before? Oh, yeah: it’s called a shortcut.
 
While we are on the subject, of behavior and shortcuts, why would a single passenger in a car drive with their mask under their chin? 
 
Because that saves the effort of taking the mask off and putting it back on. Something that is particularly helpful on short trips, like picking up lunch. 
 
Life Imitates Science
 
Remember those lab rats, put into a maze by some clever behavioral scientist, looking for cheese? It didn’t take the rats long to find their cheese. Or much longer to figure out the shortest path to that reward. Bright test subjects, these rats.
 
Psychologist B. F. Skinner named the phenomena Operant Conditioning. Shocking news: the behavior isn’t limited to lab rats. Long story short: while human behavior can and will vary widely and even randomly, when there’s a benefit or a consequence for a specific behavior, most of us will do what it takes to get what we want.
 
Or to avoid getting stuck with something we don’t want.
 
In the big scheme of things, Operant Conditioning is a simple explanation for much of what goes on in life. You don’t have to take my word for it: ask any parent. They’ll tell you all about how the process works on kids. A smart parent will also tell you, as simple as it is, doing it well is far from easy. Particularly when the child throws a temper tantrum in a restaurant, with friends and family present.
 
In a word, doing anything well is execution: execution is the doing part of every work process. If you think something is easy, try doing it yourself! 
 
So, taking a shortcut is the quicker way to get us where we want to go. Leaving the mask on is the easier way to put it back on when required, like picking up the lunch order at the restaurant counter and bringing it back to the lunchroom at work.
 
That assumes without a mask, we won’t get through the front door of either place. Knowing that to be the case, normal people normally comply.
 
But not everyone complies with the rules. Then what?
 
Regarding Consequences
 
This is the point in the conversation where some leaders turn squeamish: Do we really have to talk about consequences? You don’t have to threaten people to get what you want. Leaders who say (or think) that are missing the biggest part about consequences. They think a discussion about consequences is a threat. The simple truth about consequences is that every behavior produces consequences.
 
Every lab rat knows that: I’ll head down that path because there’s cheese waiting for me. If, one day the scientist decides to change the experiment and the cheese turns up missing, the scientist will get an angry look from the test subject: You moved my cheese. This is a complete waste of my time.
 
Because it is.
 
If you’re struggling to understand behavior – particularly when you don’t like the behavior – you would do well to ask yourself, What are the consequences – rewards or costs – from the behavior I’m seeing? It’s usually not that hard to figure out: just put yourself in that other person’s shoes. 
 
Case in point: that driver. The next exit is three miles down the road. In light traffic – which never happens! Making that U turn adds seven minutes to the trip. Why not cut across a couple of lanes?
 
Because you might cause an accident! Duh.
 
Never happened to me. Never gonna to me.
 
In a word, that is risk: the probability of a bad event happening. That driver sees no risk. 
 
But it gets worse. Every time the driver takes that shortcut, it serves as positive reinforcement for bad behavior: See. What did I tell you: nothing bad will happen. Trust me: I know what I’m doing.
 
A wrong assumption begets bad behavior; bad behavior becomes bad habit. When everyone’s in the habit, that’s culture. 
 
Practical Solutions
 
If you’re following this case closely, I’m sure you’ve got a solution in mind: re-engineer the interchange so there’s no need to cross multiple lanes to exit. That’ll solve the problem: at least that one, right there.
 
But in order to be able to execute that solution, you’d need have a job title like Governor or Chief Highway Engineer. That you? 
 
Hardly. So, what do you do in situations like this, when you aren’t the big cheese? Wishing “They should do something?” or getting frustrated, “Why don’t they do something?” doesn’t do a thing to make a difference.
 
In real life, leaders like you are required to be resourceful: come up with practical solutions involving problems under your control. 
 
One thing every front-line leader has going for them is the ability to influence behavior and control certain consequences. Successfully doing so in a situation like this might solve a problem that is a lot bigger than that one intersection.
 
And might make a bigger difference.
 
Paul Balmert
June 2021

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