To err is human

To err is human

People make mistakes – it’s human nature. However, most mistakes are preventable. What can be done to help employees make things “go right”? Safety thought leader and professional speaker, JÜRGEN TIETZ, offers some insights

One of the most frequent comments I get when talking to people about safety is: “Why are people making stupid mistakes?” In many people’s minds this then extends to the (illogical) conclusion that people who make mistakes are stupid.

Apart from being a generalisation and over-simplification of a complex behavioural issue, one which often leads to stereotyping, it also shines a light on the power of the made-up mind.

When we assume that the mistake was stupid, we ourselves are making the first mistake. We need to first establish why people did what they did. Was it really a mistake, or the result of a genuine effort to do the right thing that did not work out as intended?

There are many reasons why things are done differently at the “sharp end” and these are often overlooked when we try and find the cause of a “deviation”:

• As humans we are able to think with reason, memories and moods;

• We make adjustments to stay on course, but things can still go wrong;

• A mistake is a behaviour and not a personality trait;

• There is no one size fits all – some people are more prone to making mistakes than others;

• We all take risks; the level varying over time and with mood;

• We don’t always read people and situations correctly;

• We are good at finding mistakes, especially in hindsight, and at blaming others;

• Our schooling is based on marking papers by finding mistakes; and

• There are many kinds of intelligence; people who are seen to make stupid mistakes in one domain are often highly intelligent in another respect – intelligence quotient (IQ), emotional intelligence (EQ) … whatever “quotients” or “smarts” you want to use.

That being said, it cannot be denied that there are some actions which are avoidable. These include:

• Lack of awareness and making assumptions;

• Lack of care for others and property;

• Bad analysis and being wilfully ignorant;

• Taking “lazy” shortcuts without thinking about what we are doing;

• Allowing ourselves to be distracted;

• Allowing worry and fear to cloud our judgment;

• Not making time to stop and think about the consequences of our actions; and

• Too much haste and too much noise to see clearly.

Take action:

1. Be careful before blaming “the people factor” – don’t assume the person/people made a mistake. Without people making adjustments and controlling processes, virtually nothing in this world would function on its own.

2. Don’t look for and label things that do not conform to your standards as a “mistake” or “near miss”.

3. Shift your mindset from “preventing things from going wrong” (reactive) to “ensuring things go right” (proactive). This is in line with “catching” people who are doing the right thing and giving recognition.

Encourage employees to share what they have to do, or adjust to ensure “things go right” (production, quality and costs), especially when the rules don’t work and no one is looking or checking up.

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