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  • Tristan Casey: Social Psychology of Risk


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    Dr Tristan Casey is a Lecturer at Griffith University’s Safety Science Innovation Lab. He’ll share his thoughts about the social psychology of risk at a REBOK lunchtime webinar on Tuesday 17 November 2020. Register here

    Why is it important for risk engineers and managers to consider how social and organisational psychology affects risk?

    Safety and risk are socially constructed ideas. There are tools that we can use to calculate risk with some certainty. But the knowledge, experience, beliefs and biases of the person using the tool will affect the results. I see my role as helping technical people to bring their expertise to the fore and making sure they think deeply about their assumptions and anything they may have overlooked. This helps them make better quality decisions around risk.

    Can you give some examples of how social and organisational psychology might affect workplace safety?

    Things can go quite dramatically wrong if we’re not familiar with how social psychology can influence technical decisions. I’m sure a lot of people are familiar with the NASA Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. What we’ve found by unpacking those incidents is that engineers were trying to raise concerns about safety and risk to their senior managers, but organisational factors such as priorities, constraints and pressures shaped the managers’ response to those risks and led to the warnings going unheeded.

    Could you tell me about the concept of psychological safety?

    This has been getting lots of attention. It refers to a climate or atmosphere that makes it safe to engage in controversial discussions, disagree with the majority, or voice an unpopular opinion. A top-down leadership style is not so conducive to creating the right atmosphere. If managers are more consultative and ask for feedback from their teams, they can support them to be successful in communicating and mitigating hazards and frustrations in the workplace. It’s about flipping our idea of what makes an effective leader in a modern organisation.

    How can engineers and managers use social psychology to improve the quality of their decision-making around risk?

    In the last five or 10 years, we’ve been moving towards building capacity to make organisations safer and more successful, rather than focusing on what can go wrong. Engineers and managers can learn how to take advantage of social psychology to make their communication clearer and more influential. For example, they can use their knowledge of cognitive biases such as ‘groupthink’ to facilitate more equal information sharing and participation during risk workshops and meetings.

    Who do you think would benefit from your webinar?

    Risk engineers and safety practitioners. It would also benefit practitioners partnering with frontline workers to understand how they are implementing planned work and managing risk. This will be a very practical, hands on webinar with practices that people can take back to their workplaces.

    I’ll be aiming to improve the audience’s understanding of social phenomena such as team climate, personal biases, and our need to fit in with a group. These factors can be helpful when forming new or high performing teams with strong identities. If we have something to say that doesn’t fit in with the group, these factors can be counterproductive. I’ll also look at the history of social psychology, how it fits in with safety management, and where it’s at today – including current challenges such as COVID-19.


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