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Don’t blame me. The ‘system’ wrote this

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

My friend was holding a can of soft drink and as he checked his watch he poured the drink on his foot. A person in my line of work—Human Factors—would call this ‘human error’.

How would we interpret the situation if, instead of laughing, I simply rolled my eyes and lost respect for my friend?

What if they ruined their shoes?

What if it left a puddle on the ground that led to someone slipping over?

What if after slipping over the person cracked their head and died?

What if that unfortunate person was also holding the cure for cancer and now this silly act of tomfoolery had led to the unnecessary suffering and death of people all over the planet?

But let’s say my friend knew they were going to pour the drink on their foot. It might be for a laugh and to get a reaction—to play the clown. This would no longer be an error but a form of intentional behaviour. That is, there is some additional calculation of the brain that determines the behaviour is a worthy idea.

So now, instead of being a catastrophic event caused by a harmless error, my friend is culpable. That few seconds of planning and intent is everything.

The cause of the event can be found in the deep, complex recesses of my friend’s brain. Somewhere in there neurons fired in unison and sent signals to my friend’s wrist to twist and pour the drink. Somewhere in this brain there is something to blame and assign fault.

Alternatively, the blame is elsewhere. It could be attributed to the broader system. My friend may have been trying to impress me with their sense of humour. So, he was under peer influence.

The soft drink can manufacturers could be blamed as they designed the can. They also failed to display a warning message that these kinds of events could occur.

The surface on the footpath may be to be partly to blame. Surely, it shouldn’t become slippery from a small amount of liquid.

Local councils may have under-invested in the quality of footpaths due to a broader systemic issue related to funding.

The funding was the result of an economic downturn and, yep, we were willing to tolerate the possibility of soft drink-related deaths so we could save a few dollars.

Perhaps even the broader culture is to blame. After all, we live in the age of YouTube videos and Facebook where individuals love to play the fool to get some much-needed applause from their peers.

Of course, if we play out a genuine scenario where an error—as harmless as it can be—led to true catastrophic events, the same basic logic is often applied after the event. What plays out time and time again is the extent to which a person caused a problem and how much of this was caused by the ‘system’.

I feel deeply uncomfortable with blaming individuals even when they choose to do silly things. This is because I sometimes do silly things myself. Likewise, I feel deeply uncomfortable with blaming the ‘system’ as it leads to a whole host of other implications.

Importantly, blaming behaviour on the ‘system of influences’ suggests that we must also accept that success, bravery, creativity and acts of kindness are the result of the system. Nevertheless, we often seek to praise and reward individuals when they demonstrate these positive attributes but can quickly revert to blaming the system when they display poor behaviour.

Is the system causing these things or not? I’m not sure we can have our cake and eat it too.

The heart of my discomfort is probably related to the concept of free will. When we seek to blame individuals for their mistakes and punish them, we must also assume that they have the free will to choose this action.

When we blame the system, and argue a complex series of events over time culminated in the event, making the individual a passive participant in the transaction of soft drink homicide, we imply that the individual does not have free will.

Systems thinking might be seen as a cover for deterministic thinking.

Deep down we want to blame people because the idea that we don’t have a choice in the matter is also alarming. If I do not have choice, then what am I? And can I celebrate my successes? Who’s typing this blog anyway? The system?

And if people generally feel more comfortable blaming others then this is ultimately a product of the system too. So, we have a deterministic system that basically advocates free will. Is your head spinning with this pop-philosophy?

There is, of course, a softer conclusion to draw. We might argue that individuals have choice but are heavily influenced by their past and immediate surroundings. Somewhere in my friend’s brain, the system has contaminated their intentions but those neurons still have the capacity to side-step the infection and come up with an alternative.

The individual, according to this view, triumphs over the system. But, then again, how did the brain achieve this? Aren’t those neurons ultimately a product of the person’s genes, development and experiences? That is, all elements of the system anyway?

So, when I see someone actively trying to force blame on individuals, I believe we are no better at understanding individuals—perhaps much less so—than we were thousands of years ago when ancient philosophers debated free will and determinism.

Deep down, they are reconciling their discomfort with determinism like the time Aristotle pretended to spill wine on his foot to get a good laugh…


Can you control the odd billion changes that are occurring right now?

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

In just one minute, 243,000 photos will be uploaded to Facebook. One-hundred and forty four people will move to a new home. Approximately 136, 824, 00 pounds of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere.

You are changing constantly and so is everything around you.

Larger organisations are essentially all about responding to and enacting changes on a massive scale. In the face of these dynamic environments, we set up support structures to ensure that change can occur as cleanly and efficiently as possible. Buildings go up. Bridges are built.

It’s essential that there are dedicated people to help remove all obstacles so that people can focus on the changes that count.

Think about the challenges of a Human Resource team. New people enter organisations every week. Employees leave.

Human Resources need to ensure this occurs as effectively as possible whilst trying to work out what type of person they want to enter and which ones they want to retain, train, and how to go about building all the qualities we want in people.

You may believe the best approach to bringing this stability and achieving long-term success is to control things centrally, like a mother ship or a queen bee. To ensure consistency and compliance, everything goes through a controlled decision-making group.

This approach may involve enforcing the policies and standards and having final say on all capability decisions. If you tend to believe that change needs to be controlled, then you may prefer this centralised approach.

Think about the trusty ol’ iPhone. What if Apple adopted a centralised approach managing their customers?

What if they found ways to penalise you if you didn’t use this phone? What if after purchasing the phone, they told you there was a series of mandatory training programs you will need to attend before you can switch it on?

This may seem odd, but it’s essentially what organisations do everyday when we occupy a more centralised approach to managing change.

In contrast, you may believe that change needs to be embraced and that you are better off letting people surf the waves rather than restricting them in the swimming pool. You may, instead, give people the swimming lessons and surf board, and allow them to tumble off the surfboard from time to time.

If you hold beliefs that people need freedom and autonomy, therefore, you may prefer a decentralised approach to providing support. That is, you are there to enable and influence rather than ensure compliance.

This approach more closely aligns with a ‘customer service’ approach to support where you are essentially there to help people.

Take a safety support function that desperately wants to lower injury rates. Their tendency may be to initiate more standards, procedures, rules, and audits. The importance of their goal, after all, is something we can’t deny.

What if, instead, they adopted a decentralised, customer-centric approach? They could, for example, build resilience and motivation, which could help maintain alertness and situation awareness. This approach also has the benefit of being more flexible to the inevitable changes that surround us.

The centralised approach is too easy. We mandate a new rule then shake our heads in disbelief when these important rules are ignored or bent.

Of course, simply responding mindlessly to customers can be risky. A doctor, for example, who simply orders an operation that a patient demands is not really looking after their customer.

For internal support services, responding quickly and efficiently to customers can also mean that lots of new changes occur that create confusion and may not align with the broader organisational goals.

Ultimately, it probably boils down to what a customer needs rather than what a customer wants.

And now we’ve reached the end of the blog, just reflect on how much has changed.

About 116 people just got married. 58 airplanes just took off. About seven billion human hearts beat 500,500,000,000 times.

Mother ship, this is Dr Duck. How are we going to control all of this?



Last month, my colleague, Maurice Cristiano, and myself, conducted some research to find out some best practice thinking in regards to internal support services. The above is a bit of a summary of the views and advice of some experts we spoke to with a bit of my own interpretation and opinion mixed in.

We’d like to thank the following people for their insights. Please note that this blog does not necessarily reflect their views or the views of my workplace.

Marvin Oka – Behavioural Modeller, Keynote Speaker, Corporate Consultant

Dr Simon Moss – Senior Lecturer at Charles Darwin University

Peter Howell – Group Manager HR Operations at John Holland

Michael Ingpen – Business Analyst

Saiful Nasir – Lead Consultant – Business Process Management

Craig Roberton – Principal Consultant at RXP Services Ltd

Craig Skipsey – Evangelist at

Robert De Wet – Semi retired construction innovation and bid coach

Dr Fiona Kenvyn – Human Factors consultant

Chris Burton – Asia Pacific Learning Development Manager at TMS

Sara Pazell – Occupational Advisor: Human Factors & Ergonomics/Human Performance Technologist

Marigo Raftopoulos – CEO Strategic Innovation Lab

Do you scoff at Apple products?

in Media Psychology by


How many people have you met who are proud they do not own an Apple iPhone or iPad?You know the type. They disregard the slick designs and marketing and focus on the technical and functional characteristics of products.

But if you are one of the many millions of iPhone owners you might be more willing to admit you simply like the look and feel of your device. If you didn’t care about appearances you would be more than happy to scroll through a basic checklist of apps rather than navigating through colourful buttons.These preferences extend to your home too.

Open your pantry and you will find an assortment of brands that probably taste exactly the same as a generic product. Your television might have looked just as good if you purchased a lesser brand, so long as you weren’t aware it wasn’t really a Sony.

You may have tirelessly debated over a shade of paint and were willing to spend more because that premium off-white really looks better than the cheaper off-white.

Many people, however, do not think they are easily manipulated by all that. They love the idea that they are sensible and rational and can, therefore, find a bargain and spend their dollars where it counts.

For example, they believe they are not influenced by advertising, branding and other messages designed to persuade. It’s referred to as the ‘third-person’ effect. 

And it is true to a point.

In one study, when participants were exposed to the features of a very expensive product they were subsequently less likely to purchase that item than a more functional one. Presumably, the mere exposure to extravagance deterred individuals from making the superficial choice.

However, when the participants were distracted and not given enough time to think things through, they were more likely to purchase the expensive product.

The reason this happens is that when not given much time to think, we can base our decisions on emotion. The luxury products, for example, make us feel a bit more comfortable and we use this as a quick method to gauge their quality.

So, the third-person effect makes some sense when we have time to really think things through. Unfortunately, many of life’s decisions are made on the run and we are often distracted by choices as well as different views and opinions.

And advertising is relentless. It invades every aspect of our lives: on our pantry shelf, on television, radio, clothing, store windows, labels and billboards. Even written in the sky.

You may think you can logically ignore all this but eventually advertising, luxury brands and other superficialities will weed you out and make you invest in something you don’t really need. After all, you were suckered into reading this fairly superficial blog. And all the way to the end too. That’ll be ten dollars, thanks.

Aesthetics is more than just window dressing (except when you’re working on windows)

in Work Psychology by


Steve Jobs knew instinctively that consumers would want to select their own typefaces or fonts. People don’t just want to read and deliver content. They also want it to look good too.

Since the early days of the Apple Macs, we now have more and more options on how to format and improve the attractiveness of our documents and presentations.Finally there’s research that validates all that tinkering around with fonts, borders, styles, layouts, headers, footers and clip art.


This research shows that working on these aesthetics—that is, the beauty and attractiveness of things—is one of the easiest ways to lower resistance to new ideas.To understand why this is let’s look at one of the main reasons why people resist change: well-ingrained behaviours, beliefs and values.

When the change appears to challenge who we are and what we believe, we react and can dismiss the ideas even if they sensible.

What appears to lower this resistance is getting people to actively think or talk about their personal values or what seems to interest them—called self-affirmation. Self-affirmation appears to anchor and solidify our sense of self so that we don’t feel as threatened when a change is proposed.

A universal value relates to aesthetics. In general, we all value beauty and attractiveness, even if it’s just on an unconscious level. So, by exposing individuals to something which is more aesthetic is a way of reaffirming one of their core values.

For example, in one study individuals were shown a university guidebook which described and showed the campus. One group of participants were exposed to an aesthetically pleasing campus. Another group looked at a campus with a focus on functionality and efficiency.


Aesthetically pleasing


Not aesthetically pleasing

After reviewing the guidebook, participants were presented with options that were either advocated by the researcher or not.Participants exposed to the aesthetically pleasing campus were more inclined to endorse the advocated option. In other words, they were more easily influenced after viewing the aesthetically pleasing material.

In a related study, the researchers found that being shown these aesthetically pleasing products led to increased openness. Participants stated they were more likely engage in certain behaviours like attending a service of a religion they did not practise.

So, spending that little bit of extra time working on the look and feel of a solution isn’t just for your own satisfaction. It could actually make the the difference in persuading someone to your cause.

Guilt makes you take risks

in Work Psychology by

Because the people, processes, systems, structures and culture of workplaces are not perfect we ultimately need to rely on individual responsibility, judgment and decision-making. And to control the individual, organisations often use blame to make employees fall in line.

Take an employee who works on a construction site. They may have the wrong tools to complete the job, poor supervision and unclear direction. If they decide to cut corners many workplaces are quick to focus on their risk-taking behaviour rather than significantly improve the workplace factors that contributed to this poor performance.When they fail to comply more conscientious employees feel guilty. These feelings of guilt should, in theory, lead to employees reflecting on their failures so that they can be more careful and risk-averse in future.

However, studies have shown that feelings of guilt generate more risk-taking. Across several experiments, researchers made participants complete activities that induced these feelings of guilt. Other participants were simply made to feel other emotions, such as sadness.

The participants were then presented with a series of decisions. The guilty participants consistently made riskier decisions than the other group.

The researchers argue that we experience guilt when we believe we had control over the outcome of a situation. For example, guilty participants in one study believed they had much greater control over uncontrollable factors such as the economy.

So, a focus on blaming employees, rather than fixing workplace conditions, could actually be promoting the illusion of control.

How does this ultimately play out? Blaming employees reinforces this illusion of control. Employees continue to believe that their safety and performance are in their own hands.

Employees, therefore, are indirectly encouraged to rely on their own judgment and make decisions on the fly rather than seek help and recommend or make smarter, long-term changes to their working environment.

When a colleague hurts himself or cuts a corner it’s just his fault for failing to take personal responsibility and accountability. The cycle continues.

Imagine if workplaces were strongly encouraged—and even rewarded—for actively looking for long-term and enduring changes to the workplace. What would really happen if there was a ‘no blame’ policy?

Would people revolt and do silly things or would they now have the right mindset to start fixing the workplace?

Too optimistic about the power of optimism?

in Work Psychology by


“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan*Think about your last job interview. No doubt you wanted to project a positive image. I’m sure you didn’t highlight your shortcomings. Like the time you doubted a decision you had made or the time you fretted over a trivial issue.

And, of course, you were being deliberately positive, telling yourself that all those challenges of the new job are easily overcome with a bit of elbow grease and clever ideas.I’ve been on the other end as an interviewer. In one interview, the young man projected an air of optimism, referring to the excitement and opportunities he would find in a government job. When we asked him why, he said, ‘I don’t know. That’s what my mum said.’

Immediately, the aura of optimism faded.

Research shows that even when the playing field is even, we are biased towards thinking optimistic people will attain more success than those who are pessimistic.

The researchers also showed that optimistic people performed no better on several tasks compared to their pessimistic counterparts. Nevertheless, participants who observed these activities consistently thought the optimistic groups would overcome the odds and succeed.

In other words, those who were observing the tasks were overly optimistic about the benefits of optimism.

Perhaps this is why most people tend to be overly optimistic about their future, a phenomenon called the optimism bias. This bias leads us to believe that we are less susceptible to disease and illness and other unfortunate events.

It’s a particular mindset that makes people less open to changing counter-productive behaviours, which has plagued efforts to improve health and safety. This is one of the reasons why health and safety campaigns have become more extreme and even grotesque.

Of course, you may be thinking, ‘This is all interesting for all those deluded and non-rational people but it doesn’t really apply to me.’

You might think this but there’s another surprise behind door number three: Black Spot Bias. It sounds like some rare and nasty disease but it is simply the condition where we assume that we are not susceptible to the same biases as others.

Unfortunately, you may not believe this either. After all, you may have a black spot for the Black Spot Bias. Either that or you may just be too optimistic.

*Poem by John O’Brien, Said Hanrahan, which deals with pessimism in an amusing fashion.

If you want to influence someone, dance with them

in Work Psychology by


Have you ever seen the end goal so clearly that you thought you had no choice but to drag everyone along, kicking, screaming and wailing. How did that work for you?

If you are like most people, you probably discovered that trying to force an issue only resulting in pushing people away. According to reactance theory, when our freedom is compromised, our motivation plummets and we try to reassert our autonomy.

But here’s a clever way to influence. Get ready to slap your head with me in disbelief. Research suggests that people are more prone to conform when they syncronise their movement with others.

Think of the uniform marching of a squad, a group of dancers or the coordinated movement of athletes. Think of the years at school where you and your fellow students walked from class to class like robots and greeted the teacher in unison before each class.

When we coordinate with other individuals we adopt a ‘copying others’ mindset. When in this frame of mind, we are more inclusive and agreeable. This means we are also more susceptible to complying with the ideas or demands of others. Are you listening? Right?

What’s important is that people feel like they are choosing, not being forced to get involved. So, you can’t simply coerce or pressure another person and expect to get results.

You might, however, invite a colleague to discuss an idea on a walk around the block. Perhaps this coordinated journey may lead to them agreeing with your point of view?

Why you trust that weather forecaster more than the forecast

in Work Psychology by


Computers can churn through data, identify trends and patterns that a human couldn’t comprehend, and spit out statistical probabilities with precision. Yet, we
seem to still prefer that ol’ human touch.

Studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology show that we are more willing to trust the judgment of a person over a statistical model. This confidence remains even when participants are shown evidence that the person had made almost twice as many errors as the model.

I wish I read this study prior to mentioning the term ‘structural equation modelling’ at work. After conducting this advanced analysis on extensive data, I was puzzled when the data failed to convince but, rather, seemed to do the opposite. Years later and other statistics are still quoted from senior leaders, but these finely tuned statistics conducted under controlled conditions are largely forgotten.

Perhaps what underlies these outcomes is a subconscious distrust of computers? Often films depict futuristic computers with artificial intelligence, such as Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, as cold, cunning, and diabolical. Maybe we prefer to trust the flexibility and creativity of the human mind?

The findings published in the journal direct us to be cautious when confronted by a critical decision. How often do we make a decision based on the data, compared to doing so based on the advice from someone who seems to know what they’re talking about?

More importantly, even if you have some important facts to communicate, you may find that people are unwilling to listen. Perhaps better to leave out the stuff about the modelling and tell them you have a hunch!

Why they’re ignoring your advice

in Work Psychology by

When faced with a choice, research shows that individuals tend to be more pragmatic than idealistic. In contrast, when providing advice to others, individuals are more idealistic.

Say you’re about to apply for a new job. The first job may be low paid but could position you in a field that excites and interests you. The second job may not excite you but pays well.

In these hypothetical scenarios we like to believe we’d pursue our dreams but more often than not we move towards the safer option.

However, because our friends and colleagues are not entangled with the complications and reality of the choice, they are more likely to advise you to pursue the idealistic option.

These outcomes can be explained by an interesting line of research, which shows that distance from an event, such as a choice, makes us think in more expansive and open ways. However, when we are closer to the event, our thinking becomes more specific and we tend to focus on complications.

Think about how this plays out at work. You’ve been asked to advise on an important decision. Seeing the forest from the trees, you advise the tougher option that will generate the best quality outcome in the long-term.

Your manager ultimately selects the path of least resistance. You feel deflated. But what would you do in his or her shoes when genuinely faced with the same choice? Research demonstrates that when advisers are asked to put themselves in the shoes of the chooser, they also select the practical option.

Can being more pragmatic make your advice more convincing?

steve job’s influence was all about the skivvy

in Work Psychology by


You are more likely to change your views and agree with people wearing black. It is not clear exactly how colour influences our perceptions but researchers argue black is often perceived as more aggressive than other colours. This perceived aggression may make us more susceptible to conforming to the views of the person.​

In one study, for example, participants were more likely to deliver a guilty verdict of an innocent person if they were working with others wearing black and who were intentionally trying to sway the verdict to guilty. The same influence was not present when those people wore white.

What’s the first thing that pops into your head?

in Work Psychology by

Information that is easily retrieved from memory has greater influence on our behaviour and judgment. This cognitive bias is called the ‘availability heuristic’. For example, we might think a particular risk is more likely if we have experienced the consequence of this risk rather than basing our judgement on facts.

On warmer days, people may be more likely to believe in long term climate change. Indeed, we tend to remember the first thing and the last thing we hear, which may bias interviewers towards the first and last job applicant.

Given the importance of certain decisions in complex working environments, how can we best ensure that we don’t make decisions based on a salient memory?

Fortunately, I’ve developed a decision-making tool that can help. Let me know if you would like to know more.


in Work Psychology by


When groups gather, they have a tendency to share information that everyone in the group already knows, called ‘shared information’, rather than new ideas or information, called ‘unshared information’. This tendency often results from groups meeting to reach a consensus on an issue and is particularly prominent when under time pressure.

This means we are often discussing ideas, opinions and options that do not challenge our thinking or encourage more informed decision-making. Some of the ways to challenge this issue are to include people with divergent views, and intentionally discussing new topics rather than following the same agenda at meetings.

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