April 2017

Risk – why do people do what they do?

  • By Matt Gill FAusIMM, Managing Director and CEO, White Rock Minerals

If company leaders are to better understand and manage risk, a systematic shift in mindset is required to dissolve the traditionally procedural mindset of mining engineers

Firstly, I need to declare that I am not an academic. Nor have I studied any of the social sciences or human behavioral fields such as psychology. Nor have I gone down the MBA route. I am a dyed-in-the-wool mining engineer with a master’s degree in engineering science. But what I do have, and what I want to share, is over 30 years’ experience working with, managing and leading people, which is often a far more variable and volatile commodity than the mineral that I was trying to mine!

It is extremely difficult to enunciate the experiences and observations gathered, often selectively, over more than 30 years of life experience. It is also rather awkward to share these personal views for fear that they might be seen by others, or argued in the contrary, as if they are fact. We know that we have our own values, beliefs, biases and perceptions, gathered over time, and we must recognise that everyone is different and may not have the same shared experiences or values.

I also temper my engineering desire to want to define things, such as risk, as it immediately conditions the thinking and puts boundaries around such a concept. However, it is sometimes necessary to provide definitions to ensure that everyone is somewhat on the same page (see sidebar).

I have found that it is easiest to convey my thoughts and feelings on risk and people and their behaviours through conversation and presentations at workshops and seminars. This I did most recently at the 2016 IMARC Conference in Melbourne in November. Prior to that, I also shared my views at International Mine Management 2016. This article attempts to encapsulate those conversations and my thoughts.

The challenge

Mining is a very technical world, where everyone is seeking clarity and structure and is looking for a binary and often absolute outcome. ‘Zero harm’ is a very good example of a binary objective. But we are all flawed as human beings, and what we don’t get enough exposure to is what to be aware of when we are managing people. When you are managing risk, you need to know a lot about yourself and other people – more than perhaps you think you do.

From more than 30 years of mining experience, it has become apparent to me that many managers in the sector would better understand the behaviour of people if they better tried to understand what goes on in peoples’ heads in different scenarios. The mining industry has a traditionally male-dominated workforce that operates in a hierarchical structure, and it has created an environment that has neglected the importance of understanding people, their individual and collective mindset and the many cultural dimensions at play.

For example, when I look at a group of people doing a risk register or a fatal risk protocol, there will always be a lot of different personality types who all desire to land on a common set of risk reduction actions and an acceptable five-by-five matrix outcome. Therein lies the challenge; while some people may have a risk tolerance high enough to be happy to jump out of a plane, others may not. Where are you on this risk tolerance continuum? Where are your colleagues and employees? How do you determine when a risk is unacceptable in the face of diverse experiences and opinions?

It’s important that we don’t let the extroverted people with high risk tolerance dominate the dialogue, as some of the most knowledgeable people might also be the quietest.

While seductive, it is also a risk in itself to think that risk is under control as a result of completing a risk assessment. I often worry that, having done a very thorough and diligently recorded risk assessment with controls supposedly in place and more to be implemented, we have somehow ‘conquered’ the risk, pigeon-holed it, got it covered and are therefore able to go on with our normal business. Vigilance is always required when people are involved. I am a firm believer in the merits of ‘chronic unease’ – the ever-present discourse that is needed to ensure constant awareness that risk mitigation steps can fail and unplanned negative events do occur.

This is where understanding your employees’ personality types is invaluable. When conducting a Step Back, Take 5, Job Safety Analysis or formal risk assessment, how handy would it be to have some appreciation of both the obvious and hidden personnel dynamics? Aiming to get the most out of your team and utilise their collective knowledge and experiences should be a key focus. The entire team should have an understanding of the concept of risk taking and its management. They should recognise that hazards are ever-present in the workplace and risk taking occurs in everyday life, but that employees can be trained to identify and assess these risks and act appropriately.

How brave are you?

I have challenged myself to ‘unwire’ my binary engineering mind so as to open it to learning about myself and others. Again, I am not a great reader or scholar, but I firmly believe in the need for a high degree of emotional intelligence (Figure 1). This self-awareness will allow you to better understand yourself, your thoughts, your feelings and your behaviours. Understanding yourself will allow you to better appreciate your own strengths and weaknesses and participate in the social setting around you with more purpose, effectiveness and collegiate intent.

The key to leadership in risk is not only having vision around understanding human judgement and decision-making, but being prepared to accept failure as a learning opportunity. This involves building resilience in the team to be able to bounce back from the inevitable and understanding the nature of motivation and why people do what they do.

I want to challenge mining industry managers and leaders (there is a fundamental difference) to think about how the psychology of risk can improve the many business aspects associated with mining. This is not just in relation to safety, but also includes communication and listening, cultural alignment, reduced turnover and improved productivity.

Engaging with your peers and employees in the area of risk awareness and management is a never-ending journey. I have often seen companies select hazard identification, risk management, supervisor leadership or safety leadership as the topic of the moment, which is often unfortunately inspired by a perceived failure in the system or its people. Unless this focus is built on a solid foundation of purpose and genuine long-term commitment, it is unlikely to be sustainable in the face of other competing time and cost demands, and the recipients will see it for what it is – lip service.

One of the more career-defining decisions I made was to let go of some of the implied power and control that came with the job status I had at the time (site general manager) and commit to a partnership with someone who I thought was a safety consultant, but turned out to be so much more. It was a journey of discovery for me – about myself, my team and the dynamic that was playing out in front of me that I could not properly understand or reconcile. The work focused on hazard identification, risk awareness and management, as it must do, but looked at these from a social psychology perspective. It dealt with perceptions, communication and listening, culture and leadership.

One of the best, and probably bravest, parts of this journey was an attempt to better understand ourselves and others. This may not sound like much, but in the male-dominated engineering world that I was in, even having this conversation was likely to be met with disdain. We did a personality profiling session using the Myers-Briggs test. This was a brave decision in 2003, but, pleasingly, the mining industry has matured since then, and tools such as this are now used more frequently to help in understanding people and behaviours. I too have carried these learnings with me, and I introduced the same approach when I became CEO of another mining company that was also grappling with the complexity of risk, people and behaviours.

I believe that many senior managers are more aware of the psychology of risk and its importance now compared with a few years ago. My experience tells me that senior managers need to lead by example, as it makes the process more genuine and trustworthy, which is critical to the success of managing risk.

How do we make sense of something?

All risk involves a degree of uncertainty and subjective attribution. Risk is a concept. Perception of risk varies according to life experience, cognitive bias, heuristics, memory, visual and spatial literacy, expertise, attribution and anchoring. In other words, risk is a human-constructed sense of meaning associated with uncertainty, probability and context. One person’s risk is another person’s opportunity. Our social arrangements give us meaning, purpose and fulfilment. Social arrangements also determine the way in which we make decisions and judgments.

While it is wonderful to explore the engineering associated with objects, it is from a social psychological analysis that we understand why that object is a risk.

Focusing on people over objects is leadership. Engineers need to look past the physical and look at the people dynamic.

Without an understanding of the social psychology and culture of human judgement and decision-making, risk doesn’t make sense. If we don’t gain a better understanding of these concepts, we won’t get close to understanding why people do what they do.

Feature photo by William Warby. Used under CC BY 2.0.


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