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This week’s thoughtdrop has a slightly more sombre tone than usual. We will discuss an important issue which can have serious consequences. This thoughtdrop will discuss Distraction. It will explore how distraction is a human trait that causes problems in many settings. We’ll also discuss what you can do so there’s less chance that distraction will cause you and your team problems. Please bear in mind this thoughtdrop is aimed at people from a variety of different professions and environments – as such I have taken the liberty of simplifying some of the technical language.

The Curious Case of Phineas Gage

In September 1848, Phineas Gage was clearing rocks for a new railway line in Vermont in the United States. Part of the job involved drilling holes into rocks and then using a long metal rod to force dynamite into the hole, so the rock could be blown apart. Unfortunately, Phineas became distracted by his workmates and turned around, while placing his head over the rod. At the exact time he turned around, the dynamite exploded, and the rod shot out of the rock. The rod travelled through Phineas’s left cheek and exited through his head.

People were amazed because, somehow Phineas survived, but people were also intrigued. Because although physically he was fine – with the exception that he had lost sight in one eye, his personality had changed. Before his accident, Phineas was the team supervisor and he was known for being disciplined and well mannered; after his accident Phineas seemed to lose his inhibitions and would say inappropriate things and became disagreeable. He also lost some of his memory function, for instance he could not remember the names of some of his long-time friends.

As a psychologist with a specialist interest in behaviours at work, I’m fascinated by the story of Phineas. While most psychologists are interested in Phineas’s apparent behavior change, I’m just as interested in the situation that led to his injury; namely Phineas was distracted by his work mates.

Distraction in Aviation

And over a hundred and fifty years later, distraction at work is still a major influence in workplace accidents and incidents. The potential for distraction to cause injury or mishap is well known in aviation, where pilots, maintenance engineers and air-traffic control operators are taught about the Dirty Dozen – twelve key human factor influencers of poor outcomes; of which Distraction is one of the 12 culprits.

Distraction might cause people to lower their awareness and miss hazards or forget to do essential actions. Distractions due to crew members getting caught up in conversation might have relatively harmless but embarrassing outcomes, such as flying 100 miles past the intended destination (1). But distraction can produce more tragic outcomes. For example, consider the case of cargo Flight 1353 from Louisville KY to Birmingham AL which crashed into trees before it reached the runway, taking the life of both pilots. The investigation found many causes, including the pilots not noticing that the wrong flight plan was entered into the Flight Management Computer. The investigation pointed to the pilots holding a conversation which distracted them from the cues available and the expected routine task of verifying the flight plan (2). There are plenty of other ways pilots can be distracted, such as being interrupted by cabin crew during the pre-flight checklists. A distractor does not need to be a person. Indeed it can be a piece of equipment, such as a faulty warning light; illuminating for no clear reason. A faulty light can lead pilots to divert all their attention to the apparent problem. In one extreme case, the pilots became so distracted with a faulty light that they failed to correctly control the descent of the plane, with the result that the plane crashed (3).

Distraction in Healthcare

Episodes of distraction can be found in healthcare too. In an excellent paper, Judy Smetzer and her co-authors (4) reflect on the case of a 16 year-old patient who was taken into hospital to deliver her baby. A nurse was put in charge of getting the young mother ready for a spinal anaesthetic. We can assume that the nurse was a caring professional, because we know that she spent two hours talking with the girl and her mother about family dynamics and trying to alleviate anxieties about the delivery – which was going to involve an injection into the spine. We also know that the nurse had volunteered to cover shifts for absent staff, and the previous day had worked a double shift, resulting in the nurse working for 18 hours. No doubt fatigue played a significant part when the same nurse inadvertently, picked up, and gave the young to-be-mother the incorrect drug by an infusion pump. Instead of pumping in an antibiotic to take care of a Strep infection, the nurse had set up a cocktail of painkilling drugs normally used in the spinal anaesthetic. The mix-up resulted in the patient having a cardiovascular collapse. Although the doctors were able to save the baby, the child’s mother lost her life. The investigation found that the nurse was continually distracted during her care for the girl, with continuous interaction with the patient and other visitors in the room.

Distraction in Oil and Gas

One final example from another industry will illustrate how distraction can cause issues in a variety of settings. In offshore drilling the driller and his team use multiple pieces of long pipe (called a drill string) to go down under the sea and drill into the seabed. In one episode (5) while the driller was pulling out the pipe, he became distracted by someone trying to talk with him, with the result that the top of the equipment (called a top drive) holding the drill pipe struck the pulley at the top of the frame that was holding it (the crown). Luckily no one was injured despite bolts and broken metal falling over a 100 feet onto the work area below. Drilling rig’s are high hazard environments where a lapse in concentration can be deadly – it’s thought that over a third of drilling accidents are related to an inadequate level of awareness.

We know that distraction can be a problem across many industries. So what can industries learn from each other? Sterile Flight Deck

Aviation uses a ‘Sterile Flight Deck’ rule which restricts flight crew members from doing anything except their essential duties that they need to perform. Duties that require strong focus at specific times, such as - taxi out, take off, initial climb, final approaching, landing and taxi in. If you are not in aviation, can you apply the sterile deck rule to any particular phases of your team's work?

Do Not Disturb Can you take stronger, clearer measures to let people know when your team members are not to be disturbed? For example, nurses in some hospitals wear tabbards saying ‘do not disturb’ when dispensing medication. Do you need to have the equivalent of an ‘on air’ sign to let people know they should be quiet in a certain area?

Take a Note

The biggest influencer of forgetting to do something at work is distraction. If people are disturbed when carrying out a task with multiple steps, then they should make an effort to write down the last step they completed; so they know which step to go back to, if it’s a lengthy interruption.

Appreciate Individual Differences Some people like some noise in the background, such as a radio playing, they find it helps them relax and work. Other people will find it difficult to concentrate intently with any real level of noise. Get to know what people prefer and where possible, accommodate individual differences.

A Special Plea to Offshore Drilling Teams

One area where I have frequently seen the potential for work related disturbance is offshore driller’s shacks. Offshore drilling rigs enforce a Red Zone in the area where the drill team works. The Red Zone is an area that is rigorously guarded, so only people who are supposed to be working in that area are allowed to go inside, due to its high hazard environment. But the driller works just outside of the zone, sitting inside a room, separated from his team by a large window. He sits in his drilling chair, skilfully pushing joysticks and pressing pedals, while operating millions of pounds worth of equipment. A lapse of concentration could be deadly for his team. And yet, the drillers are constantly disturbed by people outside of their team. The only real restriction to someone coming into the drill shack and directly disturbing the driller, is the general advice that people should phone the drill shack before visiting – a piece of advice often ignored. More often than not, it is the driller who will answer the phone, while operating his machinery. Think about that for a moment; A person operating millions of pounds of equipment, and who needs to concentrate to keep his team safe is expected to pick up a telephone. And yet, in many countries even when Joe Public is driving on the motorway he is not supposed to pick up a phone due to the affect it has on her or his attention. As such I implore the drilling industry to take up the challenge of reducing distractions for drillers. --------------------- The story of Phineas Gage is an extraordinary tale from over 170 years ago; and yet Phineas's experience still resonates today. My hope is that we continue to learn and reduce potential distractions as far as is practicably possible; and at some point in the near future we will no longer harm people because of distraction. #harenssthehumanfactor This article is for education purposes only and may be freely used 1 -,_en-route,_Denver_CO_USA,_2009 2-,_vicinity_Birmingham_AL_USA,_2013 3 4. 5.

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This week we are going to talk about why a hard lockdown was inevitable, and we will explore what lessons organisations can learn from exploring COVID-19 from a social psychology viewpoint, using something called the Commons Dilemma.

Most people these days hear the word Wimbledon and they naturally think of tennis. But those of us in the UK over a certain age, (that most excellent age where your face looks distinguished and your body has assumed the appearance of comfort) will remember The Wombles. A popular kid’s TV show about a family of furry-looking talking animals, who lived underneath Wimbledon Common.

For those who don’t know, a ‘Common’ is a large outdoor space. You may have heard of the saying ‘common ground’ which refers to people with different opinions trying to find some points of agreement. But, hundreds of years ago the common people – those who did not own land, were each allowed to put a limited number of livestock on common land, known as the ‘Common’.

Commons Dilemma

In social psychology there is something called the Commons Dilemma. According to the Dilemma, there is a problem with sharing the common land: individuals are tempted to act in their own short-term interests and put more than their fair share of animals on the land; with the result that the land becomes overgrazed and the system fails.

A quick reflection on the Commons Dilemma can explain why we’ve seen panic buying and why, despite an initial softly, softly approach, fines have been introduced for violating social isolation rules. An understanding of the Commons Dilemma can have powerful lessons for organisations.

Why have we seen panic buying and people not socially isolating? Giving the answer “well that’s down to people acting out of self-interest” is a grossly simple explanation, which could lead to us to thinking that people are selfish and antisocial: Full stop. But such simplistic answers are not helpful.

If we think that vast swathes of the population have fixed personalities that motivate them to raise a defiant middle finger to the rest of society, then that is a rather defeatist and negative point of view – if that were the case then we would be in a tricky situation with not much hope that we can change behaviour and influence people to act responsibly.

Let’s try and take a more insightful view. Picture Paul the Peasant sneaking down to the Common in the dead of night with a sheep under his arm, that he bought from a neighbouring village. Although he already has his maximum allotted number of sheep on the common, he reasons “it’s only one more sheep, and there’s acres and acres of land – what harm can it cause?” At that point he is under the illusion that his actions are unique, and the effect is negligible. A short time later he gets another deal on a cheap sheep. He sneaks down to the common, again in the dead of night. As he is walking through the common, he hears “Is that you Paul?”, he recognises the voice, and responds “is that you John?”. It turns out that John is there to put a sheep on the common too, and he says that last week he met Ringo and George there as well; and the whole village is putting extra animals on the Common! At this point Paul starts to think “everyone else is doing it, and perhaps I need to get as many sheep on here as I can, get them fat and get them sold, before someone stops us using the Common”. Here Paul sees what he thinks is normal behaviour (everyone else is doing it). He is concerned with being disadvantaged if he doesn’t conform and do what he thinks everyone else is doing.

Panic Buying

Let’s explore panic buying in light of the Common’s Dilemma. At the beginning of the crisis, when the pasta, bread and toilet roll shelves were relatively well stocked people would be buying a little extra thinking that their singular actions would not have too much of an overall effect (it’s only…what harm can it cause?). Pretty soon it became obvious that there were lots and lots of people stocking up (everyone else is doing it) and despite officials saying it was selfish and not necessary (Australian Prime Minster, Scott Morrison went as far as saying panic buying was “Un-Australian”), because vast amounts of society were stocking up, it was seen as normal and necessary. The truth is, that until people could see that the shelves were being replenished fast enough to keep up with demand, people would not take the risk of being disadvantaged and going hungry.

Social Isolation

The softly softly approach to social isolation was doomed to fail, particularly in the early days when Covid-19 was seen as uncommon, just a little worse than winter flu and only dangerous to the old and people with underlying health conditions. When the government first asked the public to socially isolate, people were still seeing others around them going to the park, the pub, the yoga classes etc. The underlying social cue was (everybody else is doing it) carry on as normal – which was reinforced by seeing Members of Parliament packed into the chamber, whilst telling the rest of us to isolate. It was inevitable that a more stringent lockdown would happen with fines to try and enforce people to stay at home. Even now it is no surprise that occasionally people are gathering to play football or buy non-essential items like house paint from DIY stores or visiting a holiday home, viewing these activities as insignificant in the grand scheme of things (it’s only…what harm can it cause?).

Organisational Behaviour

So, what can organisations learn from observing social behaviours during COVID-19?

Rules and Roll-Out

In an organisational environment consider if what you want people to do should be governed by rules with consequences for non-compliance, or if you are going to issue guidance. For example while you might want to offer guidance and encouragement so people partake in your continuous improvement programme, you might introduce a firm rule which demands a reverse parking policy to be followed, with clearly defined consequences for people who

continually park nose-first.

Consider how you will roll a programme out; do you start softly softly before being more demanding? It might very well be that the British Government knew that a hard lockdown was inevitable, but they knew that introducing a hard lockdown risked people taking to the streets in rebellion, and deep social unrest at the loss of liberty. Do you need to introduce the reverse parking policy and give people time to establish the habit, rather than immediately removing car parking privileges?

Transparency and Importance

Adults are sense-making creatures, and unless they see a clear reason and advantage for doing something, they are unlikely to adopt a new behaviour. As the number of COVID- 19 cases has dramatically risen people have realised the importance of socially isolating. If you want people to act in a particular way you have to let them know why it is important to do so, and why it is important now. For example, if you want workers to wear protective gloves, let them know how many finger injuries happen in your company or industry and how many injuries you estimate can be prevented. Too often organisations introduce rules or require behaviours with no rationale or reasoning and wonder why workers do not comply.


When we see others do something, we are likely to do it ourselves. Consider once more a new reverse parking policy, what approach is going to have the most impact, the newly painted signs in the car park saying ‘reverse parking only’ or the direction that the cars are actually parked in? Your signs are likely to be ineffective if someone drives into the car park, sees the signs but all the cars are parked nose first – that person is likely to take their cue from the actual behaviour of the other drivers and park nose first also (everybody else is doing it). The good news is that conformity also works in a positive direction, after a short time of promoting your parking policy most people will start reverse parking, and then when it seems that most other people are following the policy, there is a snowballing effect, so violations of the policy will be rare. If you do find some people not participating, the most likely reason is that they think that their non-compliance is not a big deal (it’s only…what harm can it cause?). In which case a gentle reminder such as a flyer under the windscreen wiper with the amount of injuries or accidents prevented through reverse parking might be enough.


So, there we have it, the commons dilemma can provide valuable lessons on predicting and guiding human behaviour. And if you are over 40 and were born in the UK…"Remember you’re a Womble!"

This blog is for education purposes and may be freely shared with attribution.

Dr.Jared Dempsey is the Director of Kognivate.

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This week we will talk about why home working might become increasingly normal once the coronavirus pandemic has passed. We will dispel some myths about working away from the office and having the constant presence of a team leader. We will also talk about ways to make your team thrive, even when they are not in the office.

A huge experiment in homeworking

We all know that modern management theory says that where possible, leaders should give autonomy and trust to their followers. A huge amount of money is spent on training supervisors and managers to become better leaders - reports have estimated as much as $14 Billion is spent each year in the United States on training managers to be leaders. As someone who has taught leadership in academic settings, and trained leaders in the workplace; I can safely say that leader development courses teach managers and supervisors not to view workers as naturally lazy leg-swingers, who need constant direction and monitoring. But for many managers and organisations there is a reluctance to let people work from home, based on the fear and misplaced assumption that people will not be as effective without direct supervision. However, homeworking can have considerable benefits for the organisation and the worker. For the organisation, there is the potential to introduce hot-desking and reduce office size and maintenance. For many workers there’s only one

thing better than a day off, and that is a pyjama day. Socially, there’s less commuting, so there’s less congestion, less pollution and less traffic accidents. We are currently engaged in a huge experiment in mass remote working, and it has the potential to forever change the way people work.

Major world events can bring about lasting changes.

The first world war was a devastating blow for the British economy, not only because war is mostly stupid and expensive (buying tanks and feeding an army has never been cheap) but also because countries and companies that bought their goods and supplies from the United Kingdom found new trading partners. International companies found that they needed to find new reliable trading partners as the naval supply lines from the United Kingdom to the rest of the world were curtailed or accosted for the war effort. British exports such as coal were now hijacked to provide supplies for the frontline. Once the war passed, the former customers of British goods continued with their new relationships with countries such as the United States and Japan. The UK was left to lick its wounds. “So What?” I hear you say: the point is that when change is enforced people learn to adapt whilst the positive aspects of the forced changes endure. In the case of international trade, even though the international customers of Britain were forced into looking for alternative supplies, they found that the new arrangements suited their needs.

One possible unintended outcome of the COVID-19 crisis is that organisations and individuals who were reluctant to allow remote working, will find out that it works out quite well, and production is not negatively affected, and attitudes will change permanently to allow more remote working.

Why not work from home?

Let’s have a closer look at why some people and managers prefer office working.

Why is that some people, who have the option of working from home, still prefer to go into the office? Some people like the social interaction and can find that working at home is too distracting – it’s too easy to get sucked into Jerry Springer reruns, there’s always a dish to wash or a tumble dryer to be loaded. They will tell you that they just don’t feel as motivated or effective trying to answer emails and write reports from the comfort of their own sofas. There can be a constant flow of interruptions whether it may be the mail man, the dog or children. Who could forget the infamous live BBC interview with Professor Robert Kelly an American political analyst on inter-Koran affairs? Whilst he faced his computer screen and was interviewed on live TV his not one, but two children and his wife joined him on screen much to the amusement of the world!

Among the negative perceptions of remote working include: a fear that people will engage in what sociologists call social loafing or free riding, in other words people will slope off and let other people take up the slack. If you’ve ever been on a conference call where the person running the meeting has asked for a volunteer, it seems that it takes a loooong

time for anyone to step forward; eventually the silence becomes so painful someone steps up to the plate. It seems that people can find it easier to hide in the shadows in a virtual environment.

It might also seem harder to get and gauge someone’s commitment, without looking them in the eye while asking them to do something and observing their body language as they respond.

What does the research say?

But despite these anxieties, for a long-time research has suggested that:

"there is little difference in the performance of dispersed teams who do not work together and co-located teams who work in the same physical space."

There is no clear evidence that teams who work virtually are any more or less effective than co-located teams who work in the same place. There is some mixed evidence that it takes new teams longer to build trust, but once trust is built, performance levels are roughly the same. But for teams that have already formed, which is the case for most people working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, team dynamics are already set and so the possible difficulty of a newly formed team taking time to get from forming to performing is a moot point.

An added bonus of virtual working is that it seems to flatten hierarchies and remove status differences, allowing people to bring more of themselves to the party regardless of their position.

Hence, for most teams having people working from home will not make them less effective. Furthermore, given the push for work-life balance and flexible working there seems to be a strong case for actively promoting remote and home working.

How to get the Best Out of Virtual Teams

However, to get the best out of our people when they are working virtually, we might need to tweak our leadership approach.

We need to understand which workers feel they benefit from working at home and which workers feel they are just as productive when working remotely.

If someone wants to come into work every day of the week, support them in doing so but make it clear that it’s not an expectation.

The same way we don’t indulge nonsense office politics where people want to be the first one in and the last one out.

Surprisingly, extroverts might prefer virtual working more than introverts. And some nationalities seem to prefer different ways of interacting virtually. For example: Brazilians prefer video conferencing, while Americans prefer chat and email.

Some people who are learning a task or are new to the job might want to have face to face contact. They may feel demonstrations of how to do something are much better when you are in the same room. Also, they might appreciate directly seeing your facial expressions, as they seek confirmation and approval.

During the lockdown that many of us are experiencing, use this time to show your human side as a leader. Ask about how the person is feeling and coping; don’t just launch into being a manager and being wholly task focused.

Avoid the temptation to exert more forceful leadership and engage in micromanaging, to try and compensate for not having the direct contact of face-to-face interactions. Focus more on giving clear objectives and setting up support from yourself or others in the team. As illogical as it might seem, tightening the grip on a virtual team could see you choke the life out of it.

In general, leaders who are more personable seem to get more out of teams that work virtually than leaders who are more focussed on achieving tasks. But if you have a newly formed team with a relatively short deadline to deliver a project people will be looking for answers and guidance. Then task focused leadership and giving clear instructions is probably going to be the best strategy for success. Team members seem to appreciate directness, when things need to be done in short order.

Watch out for personal fallouts and unfulfilled commitments as these can seem to have a greater impact with virtual working versus face to face teams. When there is conflict, it’s easier for people who like to avoid conflict to do so. Subsequently the more dominant personalities might hold the floor, while other team members may be quietly sitting on really good ideas.

Relinquish some control and encourage shared leadership. One study which looked at remote working teams, found that the more a leader recognised the amount of peer support; the more successful the leaders team performed. The more a leader recognises, encourages and utilises the shared leadership of having team members support each other; the more likely the team will be successful.

As the computer savvy millennials start to take up more and more of the working population; remote working and computer mediated technologies will be accepted more readily. In one recent study, even professionals of a normal working age did not find the use of digital communication technologies to be an obstacle. Perhaps that’s not to be so unexpected: many middle-aged people have 10-year-old Facebook accounts and Yahoo email accounts that are even older. Technology is not the intimidating monster it once was. Different people will have different aptitudes but standard basic training when new software is introduced e.g. Microsoft Teams or Zoom, will pay dividends.

Set up rules for meetings. Let people know if there’s an expectation to have the camera on or if voice alone is good enough when using video conferencing applications (some people might prefer to literally take a pyjama day). And come up with clear guidelines for decision making. There is some evidence that decision making can be slower using virtual communication.

Finally, for meetings where you would prefer face to face contact schedule them to happen on regular days. For example: you might decide that all the team needs to be in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while having a degree of flexibility about the rest of the week regarding remote working.

So, there you have it: working remotely is productive and rewarding. In the future leave the car keys hanging where they are, boot up your computer and pour yourself a drink – nothing too strong: your on work time!

Dr. Jared Dempsey is the Principal Psychologist at Kognivate.

This blog is for education purposes and may be freely shared with attribution.

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