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The Role of Decision Making in Safe Outcomes

Ken Chapman & Tony Orlowski

Co-Authors of Safety Beyond the Numbers

Copyright © 2024


The importance of trusting your own judgment might seem obvious. Unfortunately, the truth is, this is not the “lived experience” of most team members. Team members are often not trusted to make decisions, whether about the success of the business or their personal wellbeing. Decision making is largely, if not entirely, in the domain of the supervisor or some other member of management. This understanding not only limits the potential of the business, it is potentially deadly, in any work environment. It is never part of a safety ownership culture!


In a safety ownership culture, team members are taught, expected, and counted on to make good decisions --- especially when it comes to safe outcomes. This requires a team member to trust their own mind and their own mental processes. They must trust in their ability to learn to judge and to decide. From a behavioral science perspective, this is the primary role of the mind in survival. Trusting one’s own mind keeps us in contact with reality and guides our behavior to fact-based decisions and outcomes.

Manager and employee takin part in an safety ownership culture.
Healthy self-confidence includes getting input from each other.

An individual who, at a core level, distrusts their own mind is at a severe disadvantage in coping with the choices and options that life and work present. Think of it as the immune system of consciousness, providing resistance, strength, and a capacity for regeneration in handling challenges. When a team member trusts their own ability to make decisions they act with confidence and comfort. They perform!


Studies conducted at every level of organizational life suggest that one of the leading causes of failure is the inability to make decisions. That inability is usually due to a lack of self-confidence. That is, distrusting one's own mind  and judgment. Building a safety ownership culture requires teaching the skill and providing the opportunity for team members to make decisions, with the chance to succeed (and to fail!) This means a team member receives full recognition for good decisions. And, the chance to own, correct, learn, and move on from poor decisions.

In a safety ownership culture, decision making is seen as fundamental --- much like blocking and tackling in football. Effective decision-making is thought of as looking at the widest possible context when making decisions. For example, asking questions such as:


1.       What are all the factors I know of that can conceivably bear upon my decision?

2.       What are the foreseeable consequences of my decisions?

3.       Who is likely to be affected, and how?

4.       Which decision leads to a safe outcome for me and my team?


In other words, a confident person is looking for the greatest amount of relevant input they can find to guide the decision-making process. It is not a matter of my decision versus someone else's. It is an issue of respect for fact and for truth, and of who has the greatest access to this information. In most cases, this is the person on the floor who is actually doing the work.

Still, there are times in which healthy self-confidence includes or even demands getting input from others, though that does not mean taking an opinion poll. The consensus model of decision-making has its place, but it should not be the only consideration in decision making. An important part of being an individual is having one’s own opinions and preferences. Sometimes decisions can be made by way of a shared opinion (consensus). Just as often, a team member who accepts ownership of their own safety will push back against accepted but unsafe behaviors. From an ownership perspective, having a co-worker willing to violate a safety protocol does not exempt me from responsibility. I cannot join a “passive consensus” that allows the coworker to place themselves, me, and others at risk. This is true even if my decision to speak up makes things more difficult for me and/or results in my being “disliked” by a team member.


And this is the other side of the coin of trusting your own judgement.  Sometimes it is comfortable letting others take responsibility for you. Not only does the management often take this responsibility, it is also sometimes gladly given! But seldom does this work out positively for a business, or for an individual. In the end, it will at best result in mediocre business outcomes.  Employees will resent you for taking from them what they inherently know is theirs. At the worst, some may lose all they have to give.


SafePath Solutions, Inc.


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