Human error is recognized as the leading cause of a significant portion of incident and accidents. This is as true for trips and falls, as it is for offshore vessel collisions and plane crashes. 

Within human error, fatigue and stress are key factors that can increase the risk of incidents. Some individuals cope heroically in the face of stress, such as Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who steered his plane and passengers to safety, landing on the Hudson River in New York after a double engine failure. Others fare less well, sometimes with fatal results.

So how can organizations identify, in advance, how individuals are likely to react to a genuine crisis?
A new study reports that an individual’s answers to two simple questions can more accurately forecast how the individual will respond to a stressful situation than traditional factors such as experience, age and seniority.

The research study published last month, looked at pilots and how these individuals thought during a crisis situation. The research examined pilots thinking styles during a scenario, which were uncovered by two key questions:

  • How demanding do you expect the task to be?
  • How able are you to cope with the demands of the task?

Individuals were asked to score their answers on a 6-point scale.

The difference between the two scores provided a single measure of whether the pilots interpreted the forthcoming situation as a ‘challenge’ (when coping ability outweighs demands) or a ‘threat’ (coping ability insufficient for the demands).

What was startling was this single measure accurately predicted how well the individuals subsequently coped during the scenario. Individuals who rated the upcoming situation as more of a ‘threat’ tended to perform worse than those who rated it more as a ‘challenge’, leading to higher rates of incidents and accidents.

What was more surprising was the two simple questions predicted the individual’s coping abilities better than other relevant factors such as age and years of experience.

So how can this research help those if us working in safety critical sectors, such as offshore? One way is using the two key questions in development exercises. For those who experience challenging scenarios as more as a ‘threat’ than a ‘challenge’, this information can help in identifying these individuals for further support and development. The aim being to build these individuals’ confidence, optimism and resilience – particularly their coping mechanisms during stress times.

While these are not typical features of traditional leadership programmes, supporting safety leaders can require systemic specific competences, which can be developed through an evidenced based approach.

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