– Breaching norms challenges our perception of right and wrong

A constantly returning request from the participants enrolled in the Green-Jakobsen safety leadership courses is advice on how to cultivate/change crew safety behaviour and awareness. This article argues that leaders who are consciously capable of creating/showing unexpected, different, grotesque or even wrong actions can stimulate change.

Do something different, grotesque or wrong and you will see human response

The article also argues that the strongest change is achieved when humans are fully aware of their own actions, beliefs and perception.   

Based on these beliefs and to help leaders develop these skills five simple behaviour change strategies will be presented. Two of these can be described as breaching strategies; one is the use of metaphors and the final two help stimulate sustainability. 

Humans see a lot, but most of it is unnoticed

To change or correct crew safety behaviour and develop new behaviour is not always easy and leaders therefore need to develop an understanding of what they can do in order to achieve this. A behaviour change method is needed. 

In our daily life whether on board, at home, driving our car or getting on with our daily routines most of our ‘ways of doing’ and behaviours remain unnoticed by ourselves. In fact we only notice fractions of our total behaviour.  The simple reason for this is that we are constantly preoccupied with our thoughts, tasks, daily activities and the impressions that we receive and deal with all the time.

On top of this, humans have experiences. Seafarers have safety experience but do these experiences present a true picture of the actual safety conditions and performance? Far too often an accident free life at sea results in overrating own performance and being overconfident. The following perception: ‘I have never experienced any accidents, so I must be working safely!’ – is a problem and a perception that has to be fought.

Far too often an accident free life at sea results in overrating own performance and being overconfident

To manage or fight this perception it is necessary to understand the forces that have an impact on human behaviour and perception of life. When humans experience new situations, ways of doing things and changed conditions humans reflect. Reflection can hereafter result in change – change in perception, behaviour, attitude, values, etc. In other words, our new experiences can change the way we see things.

The more dramatic these new situations and conditions are the more likely it is that humans will change. Sickness, wars, death of closest relatives or friends, new job, etc. are all very strong behaviour change initiators. Seen from a behavioural change perspective the goal is to exploit this knowledge or put it into to a leadership context.

Does experience automatically convey understanding?

The hundreds of seafarer safety performance interviews carried out by Green-Jakobsen (in our Safety Maturity Assessments) have revealed that seafarers seldom spend sufficient time evaluating, discussing and developing own safety performance. The reason for lacking this evaluation focus is defined by Green-Jakobsen as the ‘Misleading Experience’.  Due to the fact that seafarers (most of the time) do their job without getting hurt, they often believe in the experience that the work was carried out in a safe manner.

Notwithstanding the fact that experience can be of important value, it is worth noticing that experience is not always leading to understanding. We might feel safe according to the way we see things. How we see things – our ‘seeing experience’ shapes the way we see the world – our fundamental beliefs. However, the problem is that humans are often unaware of their behaviour and attitude and what influence this can potentially have on safety. Therefore, experience can be misleading and definitely doesn’t offer any ‘getting-home-safe’ guaranties – on the contrary.

It is worth noticing that experience is not always leading to understanding

Most accidents happen during reoccurring standard operations and we need to be willing to and capable of evaluating, discussing and developing (changing) our safety behaviour. The way we construct our reality sometimes needs to be reassessed. Leaders have to understand this.

Behavioural change strategies

The starting point for changing seafarer safety behaviour and awareness is to challenge experience – especially the experience standing in the way of a seaman’s continuous performance reflections and safety awareness. Safety may have been brilliant a month ago, yesterday or even 30 seconds ago, but how is it at this very moment? Some of the typical safety behaviour challenges you will meet are:

Human overrating of own capabilities – ‘I have never been hurt, therefore I must be working safely’
Experience is not equal to understanding – ‘I have many years of experience so don’t tell me what to do’
Habits become attitudes and beliefs – ‘We have always done it this way’
Lack of reflection – ‘We do it this way because we have been told to’
People only change when confronted with problems – ‘We do a lot when something happens’
Resistance towards change – ‘Ehh – was does this wise guy know about safety? I’ll do it my way!!’
The starting point for changing seafarer safety behaviour is to challenge experience

Seen from a safety leadership perspective how do we exploit this knowledge and convert them into initiatives that a leader can take? The figure below shows five models that have been defined to stimulate change challenging existing ‘ways of doing’. If the leader makes use of one or more of these models reflection and change can be stimulated.

The ‘Non-compliantist’ (breaching strategy)
What the leader does Real life examples of ‘Non-compliantist’ actions 
The ‘Non-compliantist’ intervention strategy is to make calculated mistakes. Making mistakes will challenge the existing ways of doing things, the accepted norms, culture and behaviour.Non-compliant leader behaviour will activate/challenge other crew members’ perception of right and wrong, create reflection and force them to argue why things have to be done in a specific way.The purpose of making calculated mistakes is to stimulate sub-ordinate interventions, assertiveness, initiatives or reflections.If the leader sees no reaction then he/she has an extremely good starting point for a dialogue. The leaders uses his/her own self-made mistakes to challenge experience and ‘models of the world’. 
  1. The senior officers have numerous times experienced lack of subordinate safety interventions and want to stimulate crew intervention and assertiveness. In order to so they decide to gather the crew to express their expectations and concerns.
  2. Since they don’t believe that words only will do the job they decide one week later to show minor non-compliant safety behaviour. One officer forgets his hard hat another doesn’t wear his safety shoes on deck. When the crew see the officers’ actions they do nothing.
  3. The senior officers gather the crew again and explain what they had just experienced. The crew admit that they saw the non-compliant actions but didn’t feel comfortable intervening. The crew got the message and now understand what is expected of them and feel that the senior officers have shown how important it is to intervene

 

The ‘Anarchist’ (breaching strategy)
What the leader does Real life examples of ‘Anarchist’ actions 
The ‘Anarchist’ intervention strategy is to order processes in the wrong way. Reordering processes incorrectly will challenge the existing ways of doing things, the accepted norms, culture and behaviour. Leaders deliberately reordering processes in a non-compliant manner will activate/challenge other crew members’ perception of right and wrong, create reflection and force them to argue why things have to be done in a specific way.The purpose of reordering work processes in a non-compliant manner will stimulate sub-ordinate intervention, assertiveness, initiative and reflection.If the leader sees no reaction then he/she has an extremely good starting point for a dialogue. The leaders uses his/her own self-made mistakes to challenge experience and ‘models of the world’
  1. Occasionally senior officers have experienced that the crew made a number of shortcuts during the risk management process. Procedures were not properly followed and important risk management tools were not used. In order to get the crew understand the importance of performing proper risk management they decide to start things like:
    • Let’s do the risk assessment after the job is finished!
    • The safety equipment was working last time we used it so why shouldn’t it work now?
    • Let’s do the Toolbox Talk tonight, then we don’t have to worry about this tomorrow when starting the job!
    • Let me check the oxygen level in the tank later. For now, just use the breathing apparatus!
  2. The officers of course know that they are doing things in the wrong order. However, they want to see how the crew respond towards these miss-management orders and be able to correct potential lack of crew intervention. Doing it this way the officers will see straight away how capable the crew are at dealing with miss-management orders – subsequently either correcting lack of response or praising intervention.

 

The ‘Metaphorist’
What the leader does Real life examples of ‘Metaphorist’ actions 
Metaphors are very strong communication vehicles. They help to convey complicated messages and to get to the point. They help to see topics from a different angle helping others understand the true depth of the message. Strong leaders use strong metaphors and are constantly aware of their strength. When they wish to communicate something of importance they often invent a metaphor for the occasion.In our daily life we constantly – and very often subconsciously – use metaphors such as:

  • ‘You can drag the horse to the drinking trough but you can’t force it to drink’
  • ‘Living life in the fast track’
  • ‘Don’t work harder – work smarter’
  • ‘Having to wait this long is like a pain in the neck’
  • ‘Your interventions are the crews’ safety valves!’
  • ‘Speaking up when you see someone on board making a mistake is to allow them to cash in on their insurance premium!’
  • ‘A Toolbox Talk is to exercise your safety Toolbox!’
  • ‘Feeling safe is a safety hazard!’  
  • ‘Navigating down the Amazon River is like dancing with a partner not following the beat!’
  • ‘Ignoring known and poor safety conditions is the same as accepting poor safety performance!’
  • ‘Risk Assessment is your legalised right to explore how you can avoid getting hurt!’
  • ‘The performance culture on board our vessel is like a 3-legged horse. We are constantly limping!’
  • ‘Forgetting to discuss our performance is equally as wrong as falling asleep on a  watch’
  • ‘Putting on a non-critical attitude while having a pilot on the bridge is as critical as not having a mate license!’
  • ‘Our safety culture is explainable but not acceptable’  

 

The ‘Pleasurerist’ (Sustainability stimulation)
What the leader does Real life examples of ‘Pleasurerist’ actions 
This change strategy embraces the principle of creating a comfortable change climate. If change is to be achieved make sure that the conditions and environment created is relaxing and accommodating.
Far too often leaders make life more difficult for themselves simply because they don’t understand that people will listen and accept change requests better when they feel comfortable.
The principle is as important as it is basic and simple. But for it to be practised it sometimes requires to be organised properly. Leaders often forget this – maybe due to general business.
  • Discuss the need for behavioural change in a non-stressful environment.
  • Create a relaxed atmosphere and don’t let others, mobile phones or emails disturb your focus
  • Practise both active listening and feedback skills
  • Highlight the strengths of a seafarer safety performance but manage the poor performance
  • Avoid being aggravated or upset while requesting behavioural change
  • Remember to praise the seafarer when change is seen
  • Focus on what the seafarer should to do more of – not only on what he/she has to stop doing. Positive reinforcement is a far better behaviour driver than negative reinforcement.

 

The ‘Repetitionist’ (Sustainability stimulation)
What the leader does Real life examples of ‘Repetitionist’ actions 
If any changes are to be achieved and maintained most humans have to be reminded. Leaders must remember this important fact and should not get discouraged, disappointed or aggravated if behavioural change isn’t seen straight away.Expect that reminders are necessary and try to understand that lack of change isn’t necessarily due to poor attitude. Patience should be an important leadership virtue but persistency is even more important. If you believe in the need for changed behaviour keep on pushing.
  • Strong leaders will set personal targets for their crew and during a period of time he/she will constantly monitor, evaluate, remind and provide feedback on performance
  • Explain to the seafarer when and what behaviours you wish to see. This way the seafarer will understand better what is expected from him
  • Agree upon ‘timeouts’ to discuss with the seafarer what the experiences were when applying the changed behaviour
  • If needed, discuss adjustments of the changed behaviour  

 

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Contact us for personal advice

Erik Green
Erik Green
Managing Director and Partner
Copenhagen

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