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High-Risk Shortcut Behaviors at Work

An unintended side-effect of characterizing efficiency as an “obligation.”

Tight deadlines and multiple competing demands are a fact of life for many workers. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that individuals sometimes look for ways to take shortcuts at work. Specifically, shortcut behaviors are methods of accomplishing tasks that are faster than standard or typical procedures. Although some shortcuts are relatively harmless, others can have adverse or even disastrous consequences. For instance, workers took several shortcuts prior to the Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion. As deadlines loomed, numerous steps in the drilling process were replaced with faster alternatives, and some procedures were skipped outright (Reader & O’Connor, 2014). The result was one of the largest man-made disasters in history.

Source: Pixabay

Importantly, across a range of occupations and industries, individuals take shortcuts even when the risks associated with doing so are relatively well-known (e.g., Komaki, Barwick, & Scott, 1978; Weyman & Clarke, 2003). In other words, it seems that it is often the case that workers know and understand that shortcuts carry serious risks, yet they take the shortcuts anyway. Unfortunately, the factors that lead individuals to take high-risk shortcuts at work are not well understood. To this end, my colleagues Abigail Scholer, Aaron Schmidt, and I conducted two experiments to better understand this issue.

Participants performed an air traffic control simulation. The object of the task was to ensure that each aircraft reached its destination safely and on time. The aircraft could be issued commands to either fly along pre-determined flight routes, or take “shortcuts” by flying outside these pre-determined routes. Staying within the pre-determined flight routes was the safe option: As long as the aircraft stayed within these routes, a “near miss” (i.e., an unsafe outcome) would not occur. However, this strategy also increased travel time, thereby reducing the likelihood that the aircraft would reach their destinations on time. Thus, participants could use shortcuts to increase efficiency, but doing so came with at a potential cost to safety. For every second that an aircraft was outside the pre-determined flight route (i.e., taking a shortcut) there was a chance that a “near miss” could occur. We incentivized performance by paying participants cash prizes for landing aircraft on time. Yet, participants were not paid if any aircraft were involved in a “near miss.”

Importantly, the participants were well-informed of the risks associated with taking shortcuts. Nonetheless, we found that individuals engaged in shortcut behaviors even when the risks were very high, primarily when two additional conditions were met:

  1. There was a particularly high workload (i.e., there were many aircraft to land).
  2. Participants were told that they had an “obligation” to maintain efficiency.

That is, participants used shortcuts to counteract high workloads and meet their obligations.

These studies provide important insights into the effects that the verbal cues organizations use with employees can have on shortcut behaviors. By framing efficiency as a “duty” or “obligation,” organizations may inadvertently communicate that employees should “do whatever it takes,” even if that includes bending rules and skirting procedures. Therefore, although it is reasonable to emphasize the importance of efficiency in the workplace, it may also be important to remind employees that efficiency should not come at the expense of quality, ethicality, and safety. Failure to do so may leave employees looking to shortcuts when work piles up and deadlines loom.

Our full manuscript can be downloaded here.


Beck, J. W., Scholer, A. A., & Schmidt, A. M. (2017). Workload, risks, and goal framing as antecedents of shortcut behaviors. Journal of Business and Psychology, 32, 421-440.

Komaki, J., Barwick, K. D., & Scott, L. R. (1978). A behavioral approach to occupational safety: Pinpointing and reinforcing safe performance in a food manufacturing plant. Journal of Applied Psychology, 63, 434-445.

Reader, T. W., & O’Connor, P. (2014). The deepwater horizon explosion: Non-technical skills, safety culture, and system complexity. Journal of Risk Research, 17, 405-424.

Weyman, A. K., & Clarke, D. D. (2003). Investigating the influence of organizational role on perceptions of risk in deep coal mines. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 404-412.

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