An innovative approach to risk management that takes personality traits into account has recently emerged, and Geoff Trickey took a deeper look.
Risk management has traditionally tended to focus almost entirely on the risk per se – its probability, management and prevention. This may sound eminently sensible, but in fact the risk, hazard or anticipated threat is really only one half of the equation. Risk-aware decision-making also involves considering the perpetrators, the vulnerable, the operatives, the victims and, of course, the risk managers themselves. It is, in other words, primarily a ‘people’ thing.
Sensitivity to risk and loss, as well as the capacity to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty, is something that varies considerably between individuals. A person’s ‘risk personality’ is, arguably, their most distinctive and defining characteristic. This is evident in our social behaviour, our recreational preferences, the way we manage our finances and even the way that we cross the road.
'All too often, safety policies have seen people as the problem and demand rigid deference'
However challenging these human factors may seem to risk managers, they cannot be ignored. They play a huge part in determining the safety of the workplace, and after many decades in search of ‘zero risk’ they are, in part, the explanation for the substantial and stubbornly resistant rump of safety incidents reported year after year.
‘The overwhelming tendency is still to view risk as something objective that can be calculated,’ political scientist Michael Mazarr writes in The true character of risk (2016). ‘Risk management is a human and institutional challenge. In dealing with risk, human factors will defeat procedures every time… It is about habits of mind and organisational culture more than process or structure.’
Case study – part I
Risk Type Compass: a risk journey
A Risk Type Compass (RTC) workshop was set up for a nationwide team of risk managers to assess their effectiveness in prioritising and analysing H&S issues and turning conclusions into actions. It showed that the distribution of the team was heavily weighted towards the ‘excitable’ risk type (an individual whose enthusiasm can make them exciting but unpredictable, impulsive and easily distracted).
A single outlier was a strong ‘prudent’ risk type (a self-controlled and detailed individual, most comfortable with familiarity and continuity). Perhaps not surprisingly, at previous meetings she had been persuaded to take minutes. That individual felt like an outsider when the group got into its stride, and her attempts to tie down specific conclusions often got swept aside by the banter that characterised the group dynamic.
The ‘prudent’ risk type, having previously tired of issuing reminders to colleagues about pending deadlines, tended to give up and try to ‘pull it all together’ single-handedly. Despairing of her colleagues, she finally felt gratified to be vindicated by the RTC workshop. Bringing these issues into the open also demonstrated the potential downsides of various risk type mindsets and helped establish greater self-awareness within the team on the issues of concern.
Time for change
There have been many voices (such as Wucker, 2021) calling for a change of approach that embraces ‘human factors’, recognises the importance of ensuring trust and mutual respect and, therefore, embraces the implications of all this for more purposeful and productive levels of employee engagement. Safety at work has to be everybody’s responsibility. All too often, safety policies have seen people as the problem and demand a rigid deference to protocols and procedures. This approach has worked well in many situations, but it seems to have reached its limit. This rigid approach actively discourages innovation and discretionary decision-making, elevating obedience over the need to take personal responsibility.
The ideal workforce for a tight ‘command and control’ system would be homogenous with respect to personality characteristics: people that are equally compliant, attentive to detail and vigilant, for example. But, inevitably, in reality a substantial proportion of those recruited to safety-critical roles will not be such a ‘natural’ fit. They need somehow to gain the self-awareness necessary to enable them to take personal responsibility for their own decisions and actions.
Sidney Dekker (2015) makes the point that: ‘It calls for a kind of thinking that is quicker to trust people and mistrust bureaucracy… We need to trade our vocabularies of control, constraint and human deficit for new vocabularies of empowerment, diversity, and human opportunity.’ Along similar lines, Erik Hollnagel (2014) reviews the past and future of safety management.
Although coming at this from rather different directions, both authors are advocating a less mechanistic and rigid stance. Greater recognition of the abilities and limitations of different individuals, coupled with finding ways to manage their talents in ways that succeed, is a more realistic strategy.
This all might sound alarming to those with a traditional risk manager mindset. Compared to the rules, procedures and protocols approach, ‘human nature’ can appear too nebulous and unfathomable. That is understandable; after all, human psychology is not a required component of risk management training. But
perhaps the practical conclusions should be. There is sufficient consensus and specificity about decision-making processes to warrant an approach to safety that takes individual differences into account.
Although based on neurological, psychological and psychometric perspectives, it is not necessary to become immersed in these disciplines in order to access the benefits. Recognition of the contributions to decision-making made by cognition (thought and reasoning) and by emotions (feelings and intuitions) has long been a preoccupation of both formal philosophy and more worldly wisdom. Science confirms that decision-making involves both. And personality research has paved the way for the development of measurement tools that reliably measure both domains – colloquially referred to as ‘head vs heart’. This is the Risk Type Compass (RTC) approach.
For risk managers, this approach sidesteps the ancient debate about the uniqueness of individuals, and heads straight to an entry point that puts human factor risk within relatively easy grasp – a typology of risk personalities that allows the ‘people’ side of the risk equation to be taken into account.
Eight risk types
Psychometric measures of emotion and cognition are orthogonal (see Figure 1). Placed at right angles, they lay the foundations for a 360° spectrum reflecting all possible interactions of cognition and emotion (see Figure 2). This spectrum is divided into eight risk type segments for reference and communication purposes (see Figure 3), and these eight risk types are evenly distributed in the population (see Figure 4). No one risk type is ‘better’ or more significant than any other – each has its advantages and limitations and they complement one another. In team situations, this diversity of perspectives
has important advantages.
So how can all this facilitate engagement in a more flexible approach to risk management, maximising employee engagement, participation and trust?
- Getting to grips with human factors. Taken as a whole, personality is complex and nuanced. Narrowing the focus to decision-making is much less challenging. The risk type taxonomy is a reliable way of characterising people in an easily grasped and meaningful way.
- Self-awareness – insight into the personal challenges faced in the light of an individual’s risk disposition – allows both managers and their teams to take responsibility for their unique decision-making biases. In pursuit of behavioural safety objectives, it facilitates achievement of personalised and robust solutions that work in harmony with each individual’s nature.
- Maximise the diversity of viewpoints and strategies. Encouraging employees to achieve safety standards in ways that accord with their nature encourages personal responsibility and ownership. Being based on their own risk dispositions and experience, individual contributions may even go beyond the strictly behavioural requirements of safety.
- Respect for experience allows a discretionary element in the execution of safety behaviours. Reliability and good performance records and status may warrant a proportional relaxation of the rigidity considered necessary in managing less experienced colleagues. Accepting a degree of judgement and status feeds back into the values of the workplace.
Case study – part II
The human factor
Having cascaded RTC training through the organisation, starting with the board and top management, it was finally introduced to the shop floor. Despite doubts expressed by some senior managers, the six-man crew overcame their suspicions that this was yet another management plan to foist something on them.
The RTC’s participative style of training was a new experience for the workforce. The fact that they were included in this company-wide initiative and that there was an interest in them as individuals seemed to win them over.
The focus was on self-awareness and on translating the personal implications of risk types to the specific compliance aspects of their maintenance roles. Individually, this part was what the team found the most challenging aspect of the training. Their positivity and engagement was a strong endorsement of the RTC approach and encouragement for a more ‘person-centric’ risk management culture.
Geoff Trickey is CEO and chartered psychologist at Psychological Consultancy Ltd, and creator of the Risk Type Compass psychometric tool.
Image credit | iStock
Dekker S. (2015) Safety Differently. CRC Press: Boca Raton FL.
Wucker M. (2021) You Are What You Risk. Pegasus Books: New York.