A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

Safety at Work

Is there such a thing as an accident prone personality?

There is nothing like seeing a great ship on her side to provoke talk about one of the seemingly tedious topics: "safety at work." After all, it has become popular to deride, lampoon and dismiss the ‘health and safety’ lot. They are seen as petty kill joys, imposing ridiculously obsessional behaviours on employees more out of fear of litigation than safety.

But when you see broken aeroplanes in fields, beached ships or collapsed buildings you begin to appreciate the whole point. For some industries, such as construction and transportation, safety is a very serious issue. Accidents cost lives, livelihood, and reputations.

The simple minded view suggests one of two causes, systems or individuals. Accidents do happen as a result of poor systems or a lax safety culture. The Herald of Free Enterprise enquiry into the British ferry that sank, showed how a number of processes failed at the same time leading to catastrophe. They are freak accidents of a sort because when one part fails (the bosun falling asleep) the failure of backup systems and processes become very apparent. Yes, there were human errors, but the procedures at the time were such that it seemed some serious accident was bound to happen. For proof, witness all the changes that took place after the enquiry.

So get your policy and procedures right. But it is little use having them unless they are followed. Safety consciousness means following the rules, whether they be donning particular apparel, or using technology in a particular way. It’s hard often to get people to take things seriously until there is a major accident. Note the desperation of aircraft cabin crew who try hard to get people to pay attention to the message they have heard so many times.

There are many different ways to attempt to raise awareness and create a culture of safety; to understand risk assessment in jobs and how to run safety programmes that work. But there is another obvious safety factor: personality, called human error or whatever. Some people object to the very idea of the accident-prone personality. They see it as victimisation, often on the part of organisations who want to shift blame and responsibility (read compensation).

Yet we all have known the clumsy child, the employee who seems to trip over everything, walk into everything, or the relative seemingly always battered and bruised not by others, but his/her ability to get into all manner of accidents.

Of course, positions are often filled with this in mind. Consider how you might select a nuclear submarine captain or perhaps a bomb disposal engineer. The brain surgeon who has an accident usually only affects a few people; the captain of the hospital ship can have a much greater impact. Here it is the accident-prone senior decision maker. The person who gives instructions (to others) that lead to the accident.

The late and lamented Professor Joyce Hogan, from the American psychological consultancy Hogan Assessment Systems, has dedicated considerable effort in trying to understand those personality factors that make people particularly accident prone. In a long history of research in this area, she and colleagues have isolated six factors.

1. The first is where people stand on the defiant-compliant dimension. Clearly the defiant are bad news. They have really always had a problem with authority. They don’t like being told what to do. The prototype rebellious teenager is seriously defiant…and seriously prone to accidents. Of course, the super-compliant may also pose a problem in their automaton-like obedience to authority. I was only following orders: “befehl ist befehl.”

2. The second factor is a dimension called panicky-strong. This is related to neuroticism, moodiness, anxiety-proneness. What you want is the person cool under fire; unruffled by crisis. This is not ignoring dangers, but rather being confident in one’s analysis and decision making. And this trait helps the people around them stay calm.

3. Third there is irritable-cheerful. The irritable, irascible gloom-merchants tend to lose their temper easily, hurting and negatively affecting all those around them. Boy Scouts are expected to "smile and whistle under all difficulties." This does not mean being cheerful when things go wrong, but not to be fickle, nor readily upset–both unhelpful attributes when the heat is on.

4. Perhaps more important is the distractible-vigilant dimension. Those prone to boredom soon become inattentive. They (literally) take their eye off the ball. Next time you are at an airport, watch the person peering at the screen as your hand luggage is scanned. It calls for one trait above all others: vigilance. The ability to concentrate on the task for a long period is seriously important and a major factor leading to being a safe person at work

5. Next, reckless-cautious. Obviously the idea of moderate, considered risk-taking is important. Some people are quite simply reckless: they don’t heed warnings, they seem to believe in their own invulnerability. Equally it can be a problem being too cautious: avoiding or delaying making key decisions until it is too late.

6. Sixth, there is the issue of arrogance and self-confidence vs. being willing to learn and trainable. We all want managers who are comfortable in their own skin; those who feel able to make good decisions. But, like all traits, this can easily be too much of a good thing. Narcissists are poorly calibrated: they overestimate their own confidence; they don’t listen to others; they become really difficult to train.

So beware the person with a history of arrogant defiance against authority. Beware risk-taking, reckless, irritable people, for theirs is the road to destruction. See why car insurers put such heavy tolls on young men.

The stable, vigilant, cheerful and trainable person is what you want. And how do you assess this? Well, we tend to be more consistent than we think. Watch how people drive: get their history of accidents, points on their licence, etc. Reckless drivers lead reckless lives; distractible drivers find it difficult to keep their eye on any ball.

Try some case studies for proof. Remember the pilot who landed safely his stricken plane in the Hudson River. And look what they are saying about the Italian captain of the Costa Concordia who just ploughed his liner onto the rocks.

 

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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