System InstinctFebruary 28, 2016
Recently Barack Obama gave a speech directly from his Oval Office. He had done this only twice before during his entire career. The occasion was a shooting in San Bernadino in which 14 people were killed. It appeared that the shooters had a terrorist motive. “W’ll get to the bottom of this” he said in order to reassure the American people. Considering the US faces shootings on a daily basis, leading to an average of 30 fatalities a day, it is noteworthy that this one attack achieved so much attention. An analysis of this reaction can teach us a lot about our own safety behavior.
Obama’s behavior can be understood by considering the motives of the perpetrators. A terrorist attack aims at the state or the system. A “normal” massacre is just targeting innocent individuals. Terrorist motives lead to strong reactions. Since 9-11 we speak about the so-called “war on terror”. An ordinary attack evokes only sympathy for the relatives and a brief fuss about easy accessibility to guns. If the Americans really were interested in protecting lives of ordinary people, they would have restricted this accessibility long ago.
Biology and psychology
How can we explain the massive impact of the terrorist motive? If psychology cannot provide a logical explanation for our behavior, biology usually can. For biologists, the meaning of life very simple: passing on our DNA to the next generation. For this transfer of DNA, the human species is much more important than an individual. Biologically we attach more value to the survival of the system than to that of an individual. That’s why we react violently if the system is attacked. Obama on that Sunday even sacrificed his day of rest.
Just like our need for personal survival, the protection of the human species is programmed in the DNA of each individual. These programs form the basis of our instincts. That is why we want to protect ourselves (our personal safety instinct) but also care for those who protect us (the system instinct). This system instinct manifests itself in an unconscious willingness to take risks at work, which don’t lead to any personal profit, but contribute to the benefit of the organization. Even if the risk is high (a potentially fatal accident), and the yield low (one minute time saving), the system instinct tends to turn off our personal alarm device and encourages us to walk a dangerous but probably more effective road.
Life Saving Rules
In 2008 Shell introduced the Life Saving Rules. A few years later they analyzed deviations of these rules and the motivation behind such deviations. Shell found that in 50% of the cases where people didn’t comply with the rules, they did that for the good of the company. Amongst managers this figure was even 90%. Stating it differently, our willingness to take risks increases if we believe that we can strengthen our system by doing so. Assuming that managers are more involved, the system instinct appears to be stronger if we are more committed to the system. Probably the opposite of this thesis is also true: self-centered egoistic people are not so susceptible to injuries at work.
The world changes rapidly while our DNA remains relatively stable. In black and white terms, we walk around in a modern world with a prehistoric genetic coding and ditto brain. Evolutionary psychologists call this the mismatch theory. Our programming stems mainly from 40,000 years ago, when our ancestors lived as nomad hunters in Northern Africa and the tribe was a central element their lives. In the contemporary society, the role of the tribe is still to some degree that of the family but has been partly replaced by the organization for which we work. On an unconscious level the employer belongs to our extended family and is being experienced as contributing greatly to our livelihood.
Although our organization does not ask us to do so, we are genetically programmed to take risks for the benefit of the system, even if that might harm us. On an unconscious level we are convinced that this is a worthwhile way of acting. Compared to the past however, two things have changed. First, the danger posed by hazards has increased tremendously. Whereas in the distant past a great danger may have led to a small wound, the equivalent danger today could lead to a loss of live. Second, our standards about job safety are much higher then they used to be. Nowadays we want employees to always monitor their safety first and to never put that in jeopardy, not even out of a commitment to the system in which we are working.
Role of management
If we want to further increase safety, we need to compensate our human nature. Precisely because this system instinct is so deeply entrenched and acts on an unconscious level, we need to bring this to the surface in order to adjust its effect. It is a first task of management to expose the system instinct to a reality check and to make everyone realize that we have a choice in this. For the sake of our personal safety, we must tame ourselves and we can do this through proper prioritization: establish a balance between productivity and safety. Safety should never be subordinated to productivity, even though our unconscious instincts sometimes seduce us to do so. Management can influence our priorities by integrating the right balance in all their actions and by becoming a safety model for the team.
Do you want to know more?
o This website contains several other similar articles (risk tolerance).
o The book Safe work behavior through Brain Based Safety is available in Dutch from Syntax Media.
o On April 13/14 2016 an open training course will take place encapsulating ideas central to this book.