Head first: safer behaviours are all in the brain

Transformational leadership requires more than a job title.

A man walks into a bar… it’s a strange bar and they feel uncomfortable but aren’t certain why.

The bestselling writer Malcom Gladwell would suggest that they are a ‘bloody idiot’ if they don’t listen to their ‘back brain’ and stay near the door while they engage their ‘front brain’ and actively seek evidence for their unease. He is referencing the book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow by Nobel prize psychologist Daniel Kahneman, and its relevance to safety. It makes the case that safety, wellbeing and excellence are inexorably intertwined through the processes of cognitive error, alertness, engagement and empowerment and that much of the relevant action is conducted by the ‘back brain’, subconsciously.

There is a famous example: in 1955 a terrible accident killed 84 people at Le Mans motor race, in France, when a car flew into the crowd. The fatalities could well have included the reigning world champion, Juan Fangio, but, with seconds to spare, he instinctively slowed down as he rounded a blind corner at 200 mph. When asked how he could possibly know something serious had just happened ahead, he explained that he was the world champion, driving a silver Mercedez at more than 200 mph but that no one was looking at him. This wasn’t an expression of his ego at play but a dramatic example of excellent situational awareness.

Situational awareness isn’t merely ‘paying attention’, it’s where experience and alertness combine because at Le Mans a novice driver would probably have been focused on cornering only.

An important but more mundane example of the same back brain interaction would be reading. We can get so good at it that we can do it on automatic and it requires almost no conscious effort at all. This leaves the reader plenty of time and energy to actively think about what we’ve read and how we can use the information.

Excellent, but tired readers can find themselves ‘skating’ over a text taking in nothing, but even the best and well rested readers will make mistakes. For example: assuming they know exactly what a word means when actually they, like most other people, don’t, and the writer is one of the few to use it correctly.

The use of paraphrasing, active listening and other two-way dialogue techniques are essential to minimise the hit and almost every organisation I have ever worked with has said: “We could do with training for upping the objective thinking and other non-technical skills of our management.”  

 An organisation’s culture is set by everything we do – or don’t – say and the way we do it and say it. This works at the front brain but also to a huge extent at a subconscious back brain level such as peer pressure.

Social contagion, or ‘neural mirroring’ is another good example. We often see it at funerals where we find ourselves crying – even over relative strangers– as receptors in our brains are literally triggered by signals from others around us.

More positively, it’s seen in highly motivated teams. Indeed, Captain Class, a recent book by Sam Walker, the well-known sport writer, shows fascinating research about how the best captains of sport teams don’t have to talk much at all – let alone give great speeches – they simply give 100% for the team themselves and communicate effectively with body language and glances that they expect everyone around them to understand and do so too.

Frequently, in work, this will involve mundane everyday acts like picking up litter, but it can be any behaviour that is clearly for the benefit of the team, for example saying what needs to be said.

The study also found that the best leaders are also fair with their time, interacting with stars and journeymen roughly equally, addressing perhaps the two most important, if unspoken, values of them all: fairness and feeling valued. Some studies show we judge unfairness far more harshly than illegality. Similarly, a pay rise makes us beam with joy but being told we’re special often makes us well up with tears.

In short, we know that the transformational leadership behaviours – coaching, praise, leading by example – correlate strongly with safety excellence and increasingly we’re understanding the physiology of authenticity behind this.

Studies also show that our peripheral vision works several times better when we are calm and relaxed. We don’t need a psychologist to tell us this – we know what we’re like when we’re stressed, focused and desperate to deal with whatever is right in front of us. Usually, this isn’t too bad for up front risks in the short term, but not as good for anything else.

There is an anecdote I have heard many years ago. One of the world’s best ever female golfers, Babe Zaharias, played a championship winning put on the 72nd hole, despite a train thundering past just as she took the shot. Asked afterwards how it hadn’t put her off she asked, bemused, ‘what train?’.

 Less positively, it’s said that an inexperienced firearms police officer will focus so intently they become close to autistic when they have to draw their weapon and there are hundreds of examples of this going tragically wrong. If you’re caught up in such a situation you want a Juan Fangio to be the officer in charge.

As well as be aware of risk the best leaders and team mates are quick to notice what needs doing and what needs saying. This necessarily requires alertness.

Experience aside, managing the interplay between front and back brain requires being a good reader, of both ourselves and of others, who are alert and check as they go. To maximise alertness in work it would be ideal: a job we find energising; a boss who inspires; water, not juice or fizzy pop; fruit not cakes, using exercise to energise – not yet another – coffee, using exercise not alcohol to stress bust - and good quality sleep.

To return to the initial anecdote about the person that inadvertently walked into Malcom Gladwell’s dodgy bar – or an unsafe organisation. I would recommend, as the advert says: Ideally, them, but on a good day.

Dr Tim Marsh is Founder of Ryder-Marsh Safety