What Can Coffee Teach Us About Risk Perspective and Decision-Making?

I recently had a very important engagement to attend. It was a military retirement ceremony for one of my best friends. He was about to leave the military service after serving honorably for over 20 years. The ceremony was going to be fairly elaborate, with numerous speeches, a large audience, and a catered reception afterward. This was going to be a great day. Despite waking up at zero dark thirty, the day had gotten off to a great start. I would have about a 3-hour drive ahead of me, but it was worth it. After all, I would have my trusty mug of hot coffee by my side to make the trip more pleasant. But that is where the story on risk perspective begins.

As I was about to walk out the door to hit the road, I filled up one of my favorite ceramic coffee mugs with steaming hot coffee. I tend to favor certain mugs and I really don’t like travel mugs with plastic lids. Before I turned to leave I looked down at the ceramic mug and the questions began to surface...

“What if this mug spills on my clothes?”

            “I will have nowhere to change...”

“What if I have to attend this ceremony with a huge coffee stain on my pants and/or shirt?”

            “That will be embarrassing for my friend and me...”

As I asked myself these questions I began to justify my actions so I would not have to pour my coffee into one of those pesky plastic-lid travel mugs, which I do not like. My answers were, “I am a pretty good coffee drinker. I probably won’t spill my coffee. I have driven many times before and not had a spill.” But then the voice of reason crept into my mind and I realized that there had been times when I had spilled coffee in the past, and IF I did end up spilling the coffee the results might be terrible. Then there were questions I had not considered, such as, “What if I burn myself?”  Maybe that should have been the first question.

At this point I started questioning what would be lost by transferring my coffee into the travel mug. Yes, perhaps this was not my favorite mug, but it might help prevent a spill or mitigate the consequences of a spill. I told myself that the benefit of minimizing the spill potential was worth dealing with the temporary displeasure of having to use a less-than-favorite travel mug.

Isn’t this how we make a lot of our risk-informed decisions? Don’t we often examine hazards, the potential consequences, and the likelihood of occurrence and tell ourselves it will not be that bad? Don’t we often think that we are good enough to prevent the hazard from occurring? Do we think we are better or more skilled than we really are, or do we think we are better prepared to handle the unpredictable incidents than we really are? If so, why do we so often rationalize risks so that we don’t have to take the often-minor steps to improve levels of safety? Sometimes our risk controls are fairly easy to use and do not hinder us in many ways from accomplishing our mission, job, or task. Even if this is true, it is so easy to dismiss the potential hazards and assume we will be good enough to not get into trouble. As leaders and decision-makers this is an important point to consider. Sometimes the short amount of time it takes to use a hazard control is well worth the effort in that it can help to prevent an accident or incident from occurring or may minimize the consequences.

So, in your organization, what is your “cup of coffee” and how is your risk perspective and decision-making process influenced by the “travel mug” or risk controls?

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