1’s and 0’s: Why Binary Thinking Can Be Detrimental to Safety

I recently listened to a Podcast with bestselling author Dan Pink.  Dan has written some amazing books, including Drive and To Sell is Human. During the Podcast Dan used the term “ambivert” when describing personality types and he explained that the word has been in use for nearly 100 years. I was surprised to learn this, as I was not familiar with the term. Essentially an ambivert combines the traits of extroverts and introverts rather than fitting into only one mold. This Inc.com article describes some of the benefits of this type of personality. One thing that Dan mentioned in the Podcast is how traditional approaches to personality types may seem binary; either we call ourselves introverted or extroverted.

However, ambiverted personalities may span both types and create a more effective approach in situations where people have to be influential. This is important, particularly for leaders who must exercise their leadership skills and apply them within different contexts. If we only use binary approaches to situations we may be missing opportunities for improvement. Taking the idea of ambiversion and how it spans the binary extrovert/introvert continuum, let’s conduct a short thought experiment: Imagine that you are performing walk-arounds on or near the jobsite in an effort to learn more about how your crews and teams do their work and you witness an employee with his safety glasses off. What would you do? Would you use a binary approach (right /wrong) or an approach that spans the yes-no/right-wrong continuum?

If you are like many people your mind might race to the rules and you might immediately realize that this employee appears to be violating a rule. Oh yes, and what if they are the “cardinal rules” or “absolutes” which result in no-questions-asked discipline when employees are caught in the act of violating these rules? What would you do? Is a binary approach in order? If the employee is immediately reprimanded for not having the glasses on, this may seem like a good fix at the moment. However, these types of approaches are binary. They are like 1’s or 0’s, On or Off, or Yes or No approaches. Sometimes the context of the situation doesn’t lend itself well to binary approaches, though. What if the employee had something in his eye? What if the glasses fogged up easily, perhaps restricting the employee’s vision and perhaps even making the job less safe due to the restricted visibility? By asking why the employee took his glasses off may reveal important information. Sometimes the way questions are asked can influence the responses. Sometimes employees may feel defensive when they are asked why they did something, so what or how questions may be in order. Perhaps asking, “What happened to cause you to remove your glasses?”, “How do you perform your work and how do you use your safety glasses?”, or “How do your safety glasses impact your task performance?” may help.  If the why, what, or how questions are not asked, leadership may not realize the problems that may exist within the system and may simply think the problem is with the employee. What if all the team members experienced the same problem of fogging glasses and what if they all had to periodically remove their glasses to wipe off the fog? If binary approaches are used in incident investigations, some important truths may never be revealed and any fixes will likely be short-lived and ineffective. Asking probing questions to get deeper into the why's and how's related to the safety glasses could have potentially revealed opportunities to find a vendor with a better product that is less likely to fog up. This could lead to major system improvements.

Is it possible to use a range of [non-binary] responses to safety problems and perceived violations? Would it require a huge cultural shift to move from rote compliance to systems thinking? From a bigger-picture perspective, if it is useful to use a range of responses depending on the situation to investigate error, failure, or perceived violations, perhaps leaders and managers may also learn to implement non-binary approaches to other organizational performance situations. Perhaps learning to act like an ambivert as the situations unfold will allow leaders to understand the required types of approaches to problems.

What do you think?  In your experience do organizations typically jump to the binary approaches when faced with error or failure or do leaders and managers use a variety of responses so the teams and organization may learn and grow?