Training supervisors and frontline employees to ask effective questions at strategic moments can help trigger critical thinking and situational awareness.
Successfully combatting complacency starts by understanding that the root cause of complacency is how the brain handles repetitive behavior. In other words, complacency is a byproduct of habit. In casual conversation, people often talk about habit as a behavior. But that’s not quite right. A habit is a behavior that results from a neural pathway.
Advances in neuroscience have revealed that habit results from the collaboration of two parts of the brain. The first is the prefrontal cortex (PFC) which sits above the eyes. It’s responsible for advanced executive functions such as paying attention, predicting outcomes and prioritizing information. The PFC is critical to activities such as planning a critical lift, having interactive job briefs or taking a site walk.
The second is the Striatum. The Striatum is about the size of a walnut and sits on top of the brain stem. It’s the habit center, reward center and goal-motivated behavior center.
When the brain is doing something new, a communication loop fires up between these two parts in the brain, and all the neurons during the activity fire. However, the brain is a quick learner. The next time it repeats that action, it’s a little more familiar. Fewer neurons fire.
As this process is repeated, the action gets easier and easier and fewer and fewer neurons fire. When something has been repeated often enough to become a habit, the PFC does not need to be involved, and it’s not all the neurons during this activity. It’s just the ones at the beginning and the end.
Repetition is the Mother of Habit
In a nutshell, repetition is the mother of habit. By repeating an action over and over, the brain carves a deep neural pathway that requires very little work in order to operate.
In many ways this is a good thing, because the brain must process an unquantifiable amount of information. This includes everything from our own autonomic nervous systems (internal temperature, heart rate, eye blinking, and more) to taking in external stimuli (colors, shapes, locations, movement, and more) to just doing our jobs.
Unfortunately, the processing capacity of the brain is limited. There is so much information to process that the brain needs to prioritize, and it uses shortcuts to accomplish as much as possible. There are many different types of shortcuts, but the one applicable to our topic here is habit.
A habit is a neurological shortcut the brain can use when engaged in a repetitive task. The range of repetitive tasks is quite large. Not only does it include actions like brushing your teeth and wearing PPE, but also behaviors like asking for help, reacting calmly in stressful situations, and problem solving. Beyond behaviors, people have created habits to process emotions, thoughts, decisions, and actions.
Habits are a double-edged sword. They provide human beings with the ability to learn rapidly and perform repetitive tasks with as little energy and effort as possible, freeing up those cognitive resources which can be used for other tasks. But there is a price exacted when habits are triggered: the PFC is often no longer actively involved in brain processing. When the PFC is not engaging, then we have lost an important safety resource.
Based on this understanding of the biological process of the human brain, we can offer a more accurate definition of complacency that opens the door to more effective strategies.
Complacency is a state of decreased external awareness and reduced sensitivity to hazards caused by the brain’s ability to activate neural pathways that require less PFC activity.
This definition reflects the current neurobiological assessment of what happens in the brain when habits are established, and it reveals that complacency is a physical state. It’s a byproduct of the part of the brain people can use by virtue of the fact they’ve done an activity so many times.
Now the solution becomes clear. The solution to complacency is to move the brain activity and reengage the PFC. While we’ve identified several different practices that can accomplish this task, one of our favorites is asking good questions. A good question can only be answered by the PFC.
Another reason asking questions is such a powerful strategy is that it can be used to short circuit complacency in ourselves and in others. Any individual can ask themselves a question that will reengage their PFC, but also safety professionals can use questions as they’re doing their audits or site walks. Plus, supervisors can ask questions as their teams are starting a job or in the middle of their work.
Good Times to Ask Questions
There are at least four good times to be asking questions. First, when a group is starting the day or a task together. Second, when an individual is starting a task or switching to a different task. Third, when there is some type of pressure element such as time, visibility, or interpersonal conflict. The human brain under pressure is much more likely to use existing neural pathways, so these are prime opportunities for a strategic pause to reengage the PFC. Fourth, when people are engaged in repetitive work.
Our research has identified at least five different types of questions that accomplish different goals:
People will often naturally start here as they think about how to do a task. Pre-job planning checklists often include a number of planning questions that may not be formed as questions, but nevertheless serve the same purpose. For example, when a team member is filling out the tool section of the checklist, the implied question is, “What tools do we need? Do we need a grinder? Yes.” Check. “Do we need fall protection? No.”
The purpose of these questions is to gather information using the senses. What do I see, hear, smell, and how does that compare to my past experiences and what the job aids tell me about potential hazards I might encounter? Many of these questions can also be systemized into a pre-job planning checklist.
These are questions that play the movie forward and imagine what the future looks like if things continue on this path. Or they might play the movie backward. If this is where we want to go, what are the steps that will take us there? What unexpected events could interfere with that?
- Perspective Changing
These ask people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes or look at the situation from a different angle. These are often closely related to predicting questions, because answering them often involves imagining what will happen as the movie plays forward from that point of view.
In any given situation, there is a lot of information. Your employees have to sift through it very quickly to identify what’s most important and what applies to the situation versus what’s just noise and can be ignored. The more experience people have, the more intuitively they’ll be able to prioritize. To accelerate learning, leaders and senior staff should be explicit about what they’re seeing and why they’re paying attention to specific items.
You can think of these categories as forming a circle. Typically, employees start with planning questions. Then they ask perceiving questions to gather more information. Then they play the movie forward to predict what could potentially happen and then look at the situation from a different point of view. With that additional information, they then prioritize to get clear on what’s most important and what needs to happen first. Finally, they return to planning questions to incorporate the insights they’ve gained.
Proceeding through these different categories of questions should occur regularly, but may not happen in order. For example, after the initial planning phase, perceiving questions may reveal hazards or a problem with equipment that requires them to return immediately to the planning phase.
Training supervisors and frontline employees to ask effective questions at strategic moments can reengage the PFC which triggers critical thinking and situational awareness. It’s a powerful strategy to combat the ever-present hazard of complacency.