Green-Jakobsen has clients all over the world. Engaging in talks with our clients is the best way to gain insight in tendencies and challenges in the industry. In connection with client projects we are sometimes involved in surveys and assessments, and through talks and implementation of projects a general challenge in the industry has become evident: how do we get seafarers and employees to answer honestly to surveys?
“We struggle to get honest answers on our surveys and also when the seafarers do self-assessments. We can see that it is not in accordance with the truth. – We know the vessel, and we know our crew. So, we struggle to get honest answers, but we don’t know how to get them to answer honestly. We keep on telling them, but nothing happens!” Head of crewing
Among organisational development researchers this phenomenon is well-known and referred to as social desirability bias. It happens when the respondents’ answers are affected by their desire to be socially accepted and to show that they follow the social norms and rules of the organisation. In short, seafarers want themselves and the vessel to look as good as possible. Therefore, when answering surveys, they often avoid reporting behaviours that are perceived as inappropriate, and instead report them to be appropriate.
For many of our clients, the problem about getting honest answers in surveys, performance evaluations, self-assessments, and even in safety reports, is well-known. And unfortunately it is unresolved.
To really understand the challenge posed by social desirability bias and how to overcome it, Green-Jakobsen has compared existing research within this area with our own and our clients’ experience. We would like to share the outcome of this through two articles.
This article describes the phenomenon ‘social desirability bias’, how it appears in the maritime industry and ways it can be overcome through survey design. A following article will focus on how the development of an open and trusting culture can motivate honest answers and serve as the foundation for a proactive safety culture.
Throughout our various types of projects Green-Jakobsen has frequently encountered social desirability bias as it is a prominent issue in the maritime industry. Especially, when we talk about safety with seafarers, social desirability bias becomes a challenge.
One of the reasons why social desirability bias is very common in the maritime industry is the vetting and audit culture. Seafarers are trained in giving the correct answers during audits and vetting sessions. Even though the seafarers are aware that it is not an audit, they provide the “right” answer by default, and not the honest answers. Green-Jakobsen has coined this phenomenon audit answers. When we do interviews with seafarers, we often experience audit answers at first hand:
”I’m facing a dilemma. Because I know what the correct answer is – and I can give you that: “we always do risk assessments”. But that is not the honest answer, because we do it after we do the task.” Seafarer
Beside audit answers, Green-Jakobsen has experienced various reasons and explanations from seafarers as to why they give answers that are social desirability biased rather than honest answers:
Now we know a bit more about the industry-related factors that make seafarers give social desirable answers. But why are social desirable answers such a big problem? Here we need to consider how the answers are used.
Typically, all the survey answers are compiled into a vast data pool. Survey analysts extract data from the pool to generate various analyses and data results. These data results are presented as ‘reflections of reality’, e.g. this is how safety is on board. Very often decisions and business strategies are based on the results. So, if the answers that serve as the foundation for the data are social desirability biased, the results will likewise show a social desirable, and not honest, reflection of reality. Consequently, any idea, decision or strategy drawn from the results will be based on a fallacious and weak foundation.
In order to become aware of how we can overcome social desirability bias, it is important to take the methods we use for gaining insights into account.
It is very common to use surveys and self-assessments (performance evaluations) to gain insight about what is going on on board. However, surveys and self-assessments are based on self-reporting: The seafarers inform about their own way of doing and what they think. The challenge about self-reporting is that it contains a number of factors that trigger social desirability responses:
In our perspective, the organisations as well as the survey designers (in this case Green-Jakobsen) can influence these factors and hereby reduce the social desirability bias.
Several factors in the maritime industry affect the tendency of social desirability bias. Some of these factors are found in the organisation, others at an individual level, and some in the survey design. Some of these factors are easier to accommodate than others. In this article we have provided some focus points for how these can be overcome and how we can ensure more honest answers in our surveys, performance evaluations, self-assessments, etc.
However, it is our belief that the most long-lasting and efficient way to get honest answers is for the organisation to develop an open and trusting culture. This is an effort that can take years to develop. However, such an effort will not only benefit survey answers and self-assessments. An open and trusting culture is also an important factor in creating a proactive safety culture in the organisation.
Hence, the next article will go much more into details on how an open and trusting culture can help overcome social desirability bias as well as serve as the foundation for a proactive safety culture.