Beliefs drive behaviour

Beliefs drive behaviour

Kyle Bloch highlights how our beliefs and assumptions influence our actions, especially during emergency situations, and provides pointers on how employers can promote a culture of safety

It’s been an interesting exercise to watch the evolving responses to Covid-19 over the past few weeks. What began as a pass for media hype soon turned into hysteria with thousands of people rushing to their local supermarket in an attempt to stockpile non-perishables and toilet paper.

Furthermore, one look at the unfortunate mis-association between the Coronavirus and Corona Extra beer serves as a stark reminder that we often display irrational behaviour. This misconception resulted in an alleged quarterly loss of £132 million (more than R2 723 million) for the Mexican company. In the face of emergencies, we often expect ourselves to respond appropriately, and in a calculated fashion, but the opposite is repeatedly apparent.

The map is not the territory

“The map is not the territory” – this phrase is often used to describe the way our brain reduces reality to an incomplete picture, according to our unique frame of reference. We thus perceive the world not as it is but, instead, as a version filtered through our beliefs and assumptions.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner, posits in his book – Thinking, Fast and Slow: ”We can be blind to the obvious, and also blind to our blindness.” He highlights not only our limited capacity in perceiving reality, but also our inability to reflect on the mechanisms that shape that reality. The implication can be devastating when the quality of our decisions is impaired.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 1,35 million people die from road traffic crashes each year. For every one percent increase in mean speed, there’s a four percent increase in fatal crash risk. The numbers are sobering and frequently publicised. Yet, each one of us knows a friend or family member who still speeds – sometimes that person being us. Our behaviour is shaped by our beliefs which, in turn, influence the way we think and feel. We drive at high speeds because we believe we can handle our cars, and we do so with an air of confidence, ignoring the realities. 

The consequences have relevance not only on our roads but also in companies where the nature of the job proves a high risk to employees. Employees who demonstrate limiting beliefs about safety can actively promote a state of reactiveness. Employees throw all rational thinking out the proverbial window and may act in a manner that endangers their own lives or the lives of others. Only by challenging our employees’ limiting beliefs about safety can we begin to influence their behaviour.

Three ways to activate rational thinking

Our first port of call is to educate ourselves, by being informed not only about our safety management policies and processes but also about the mechanics of our brain. If we understand the principles in which our brains function, we can begin to put in place brain-friendly measures that initiate better thinking.

For instance, we can implement a simple, yet effective protocol: to take three deep breaths before taking action. This pause could be the difference between life and death; it gives our brain time to short-circuit our immediate neural responses. We, in turn, develop the capacity to engage our prefrontal cortex in balanced thinking that will lead to better decision-making.

Secondly, and with a more proactive approach in mind, we can take steps to coach our people by actively asking powerful questions that challenge beliefs. The purpose is to facilitate a learning conversation that encourages employees to think through their deeply held assumptions. A typical example is that “safety subordinates production”. One does not need to imagine the negative implications for a safety culture. Taking short cuts to finish the job quickly often leads to an increase in the probability of injuries and fatalities.

Powerful questions need to be open and invite the employee to provide a more detailed answer. Leaders want to activate their employees’ prefrontal cortex by asking questions like: “What could happen to you if you continue to behave in an unsafe manner?”; and “How should you be making this space safe?”

Lastly, with the introduction of new information, beliefs are continuously being evaluated and updated. The more ingrained the belief, the more significant the input has to be to prompt a change.

Therefore, developing a safety culture that inspires to educate employees, in novel ways, should be prioritised, instead of depending on the traditional classroom method. Blended learning, on-the-job training, virtual reality and safety campaigns are all examples of impactful ways of educating employees.

A call for intentionality

Understanding the way the brain works, appreciating our evolutionary drive to survive and considering the impact – these issues have to be taken into account for the safety of our people; we can intentionally lead by design instead of leaving our culture up for debate.

Published by

Kyle Bloch

Kyle Bloch is a registered industrial-organisational psychologist with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). He is the operations manager at StratisQ Africa focusing on safety across multiple sectors and industries.
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