How can people make better judgements about risk?

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Monday, 8 February, 2021 - 03:30
Industry news
National News

“Expert intuition” can help people make faster and more accurate judgements about risk, reducing the likelihood of incidents and improving OHS outcomes for organisations, according to an expert in the field.

Economics, psychology and neuroscience have shown the distinction between risk and uncertainty, said Tim Lawler, a senior consultant with WHS consulting, training, recruitment and labour-hire firm Epigroup.

“Risks are ‘known unknowns’, where all possible outcomes are known. Uncertainty refers to the ‘unknown unknowns’, which are complex situations where the weird or unusual happens.”

Lawler explained that both are distinct concepts and rely on different parts of the brain: the orbitofrontal cortex for risk, and the amygdala for uncertainty (Disentangling Risk and Uncertainty: When Risk-Taking Measures Are Not About Risk).

Lawler, who was speaking ahead of a webinar on risk competency to improve safety, which will be held online on Friday 19 February, said psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman have shown through their research that humans have two different ‘systems’ for making judgements: intuition and reasoning.

“Reasoning refers to when we ‘crunch the numbers’ and come to a decision through slow, flexible and effortful thoughts,” said Lawler.

“Intuition refers to our ‘gut instincts’, where we have thoughts that are fast, automatic and difficult to know where they originated from.”

Other psychologists like Gary Klein have taken this research further and shown that people often make better decisions when trusting their gut instincts – especially when they are experts in their field.

“When it comes to dealing with uncertainty, we often don’t have the time to think slowly about the situation – as it may be something very dangerous unfolding very quickly – so we need ‘expert intuition’ to ensure we can deal with it,” said Lawler.

“That kind of intuitive capability only comes through experience, feedback and learning – something that we typically don’t do well in many industries.”

Lawler explained that the tools used for risk assessments often lead workers to only ‘see’ what’s on the page in front of them; “in other words, just the ‘known unknowns’. We need to mix it up,” he said.

“Sometimes we need to throw the JSA away and have a discussion instead – does anyone in the work party have any gut feelings about what they’re doing?”

“Try asking someone to share a personal story about an incident. Studies show that we commit things to our episodic memory and achieve greater learning when information is conveyed via emotion – something you don’t get from a piece of paper!” (The slow forgetting of emotional episodic memories: An emotional binding account)

Lawler said there is a ‘sweet spot’ where people can make decisions about their work, fail, and learn, yet avoid incident and injury.

“Think about your ability to cross a road,” he said.

“As an adult, you would consider yourself an expert at it now, as you only need to glance to know if it is safe to cross or not. How did you become an expert at it? Do you need to be hit by a car to develop expert intuitions? Of course not.

“Perhaps you have young children of your own. How do you act around them while they are learning to cross the road?

“You naturally take on the role of the teacher and mentor, and provide very clear, fast feedback as to how they are doing – but why? Because you care. You care so much about that little human’s development into a safe, expert street crosser that you watch, mentor, instruct, challenge and reward them.”

In workplaces, Lawler said leaders should approach mentorship with the same level of care as a child crossing the street – albeit with a more ‘mature’ approach and language.

But more importantly, organisations should genuinely value the mentors they have.

If they feel they are only valued as workers, Lawler said mentors will see no reason to impart their expertise onto others.

Organisations can help workers improve risk management and challenge the status quo by actually allowing people to challenge the status quo: “you cannot have continuous improvement without change,” said Lawler.

“Don’t fall into the trap of turning to people for ideas based on their pay grade. Experts are often the frontline workers, who will often surprise leaders with their practical ideas.”

There are a number of implications in this for OHS professionals, and Lawler encouraged those with the expertise to be the mentor.

“If you don’t, seek out the expert and help them to mentor others. Be the conduit that supports good feedback mechanisms amongst the teams you work with,” he said.

“If a good idea comes from a frontline worker, support them, have management hear what they have to say, and get it implemented.”

Lawler will be presenting at a webinar on risk competency to improve safety, which will be held online on Friday 19 February from 2:30-3:30pm AEDT. For more information call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the event website.