I Just Don’t Know
I was talking with a friend recently who works in risk and safety. They shared a story about how a relatively serious incident had occurred at their company and despite a very thorough and detailed examination of the events that lead up to and followed the incident, the reason(s) that it occurred could not be found. It was a complete mystery as to why the things happened the way that they did. My friend said to me “I just don’t know how this come about, it’s got me buggered”.
I remember reading in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow his theory about how if people don’t know the answer to a question asked of them, one option they can take is provide an answer to a different question on a topic that they do know about. Politicians, through spin, are obvious examples of this, but Kahneman’s point is that this is something that we are all prone to do at times, particularly when there are social pressures in place that make it awkward not to provide no answer.
In your work in risk and safety, have you ever felt the pressure to provide an answer in a tight timeframe? Have you ever provided an answer that was plausible and ‘could be’ right, but you weren’t quite sure, because you didn’t have the time to think things through, if it was?
Have you ever made stuff up just to complete a report on time? Stuff that might have been right, sounded like it was right, and to others could be right, but to be honest, you couldn’t be sure? These may be challenging questions, but we can learn so much by reflecting on them and it can be useful to further examine the social arrangements and context in which we may make such decisions.
It can be a challenge in risk and safety at times to say “I just don’t know”. There are often social, cultural and organizational factors and expectations that ‘answers will be found’. Systematic and linear approaches to incident reviews are often mute on such factors and expectations, the focus is usually “Just Get to the Bottom of it”. When this is the focus, when our incident reviews are solely systematic reviews, do we limit opportunities for learning from the incident? Could it be that the more mechanistic our response, the less we ‘think’ and reflect humanly about what has happened?
So why is this? Why do we find it terribly difficult at times to say “I just don’t know”.
Read the full article that I first published here.