ISHN

PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Too much of a good thing

March 1, 2007
Could this man use a little humility?


“Believe and achieve,” bellows a candidate on the popular TV game show “Deal or No Deal.”

“We believe,” scream the zealous fans at the college basketball game.

“Self-confidence is key to personal success,” asserts the instructor of a leadership seminar.

“Self-affirmations enable you to reach your dreams,” declares the keynote speaker at a professional development conference.

I bet most readers have heard these or similar statements. In the academic world these motivational slogans reflect “self-efficacy” — the belief one can accomplish a certain task well. Research suggests clinical therapy can only be effective if the client has self-efficacy regarding the therapeutic process. In other words, treatment cannot work unless the client believes it will work. The title of Albert Bandura’s renowned 600-page text published in 1997 says it all: “Self Efficacy: The exercise of control.”

Does all this sound like good common sense? Do you believe? In this article, I play “devil’s advocate” to this self-efficacy proposition. I’m not doing this merely for sake of argument, but to seriously challenge this staple of motivational speakers and clinical psychologists. Here’s my view: Too much self-efficacy or self-confidence can be self-defeating in some situations. When those situations involve risks or hazards, the result can be injury or death.

Self-confident “idol wannabes”

The popular reality TV show “American Idol” began a new season in January, and millions watched one “idol wannabe” after another show off vocal talent (or lack thereof). Contestants travel long distances and wait in long lines for their chance to “strut their stuff.” And it’s clear from pre-performance interviews these contestants believe they have the “stuff.” Many believe they could be the next “American Idol.” Their self-confidence is at peak levels, perhaps “over the top.”

Readers who have seen performances of early “American Idol” contestants realize where I’m going with this. Numerous candidates strut confidently on the stage, and then display no talent. Their performance is often humorous and the judges do not refrain from laughing. How can people embarrass themselves like this on national television? Why didn’t someone tell them they had no talent? Perhaps some contestants were misled by family and friends who gave them positive feedback to build their confidence and avoid hurt feelings.

Perhaps some candidates do not feel competent, but are only looking for three minutes of national attention. But many performers are visibly surprised and devastated by the judges’ negative reactions. These individuals’ extreme self-confidence put them in position to be publicly ridiculed and to become emotionally distraught.

Relevance to safety

The conceptual leap to industrial safety is neither difficult nor risky. Can over-confidence on the job put workers at-risk for injury? Does extensive experience at a hazardous task (like driving in heavy traffic) lead to an unhealthy degree of self-confidence or self-efficacy?

Many drivers, for example, gain so much confidence they add distracting behaviors to their driving routine, such as using a cell phone or fumbling for a CD. How about the common belief, “It won’t happen to me”? Does this emanate from excessive self-confidence? Can the perception we are overly competent at a task put us at risk?

Reality check

Here’s another common slogan: “Perception is reality.” Perception may be reality for the individual, but there is a more accurate and valid reality out there. The self-confidence of the incompetent and foundering contestants on “American Idol” gave them a biased reality before their performance, but afterwards feedback gave them another reality. Likewise, risk-taking and distracted workers re-evaluate their realities after a near hit or injury. Some call this a “wake-up call”; I call it a “reality check.”

Self-confidence and outcome feedback

The reality check after an embarrassing performance or a personal injury is too late. Yes, this outcome feedback will likely alter an individual’s reality and inspire a need to change. But what kind of change is called for? And will the person accept the recommended change?

Sometimes people are invested so much in a particular approach, or paradigm, they resist change. Self-confidence can fuel such resistance. In other words, a person’s perception of self-effectiveness can inhibit facing the reality of a need to change. Another saying comes to mind: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

After receiving devastating feedback from three judges, some contestants on “American Idol” declare their intent to try again next year. Their strong self-confidence softens the blow of unfavorable and unfriendly feedback. That’s good news and a benefit of self-confidence. But the bad news is more costly and undermining. Excessive self-confidence can cause denial of the reality of failure and motivate a “stay-the-course” attitude rather than a realistic re-evaluation of talents, resources, and future possibilities.

Self-confidence and process feedback

Whether considering contest contenders or line workers, I’m sure you can see the special value of process feedback. People benefit more from feedback that pinpoints behaviors to continue and behaviors to eliminate than from simple outcome feedback that only evaluates the end result. Learning how well one accomplished a task is certainly useful, and can motivate or de-motivate subsequent performance. But knowing the end result (like where a golf ball lands) is not as helpful as knowing what behavior(s) can be improved (such as posture and follow-through).

The earlier people get feedback about the desirable and undesirable qualities of their behavior, the greater the acceptance and application. This is common sense, right? When we are first learning a task we ask for process feedback, and if a correction is advised, we adjust accordingly. But after substantial experience at a task, process feedback often has less impact.

Self-efficacy plays a role here. Before we gain confidence and a sense of effectiveness at a task, we willingly accept and apply process feedback from a credible source. After experience and self-confidence, process feedback can feel insulting. Now the credibility of the source might be questioned. “Who are you to tell me how to improve? I’ve been doing it this way longer than you’ve been a safety coach.”

To conclude

We need to understand how self-confidence can go awry and inhibit continuous improvement. Such understanding can lead to the kind of reality testing that enables realistic aspirations, and sets the stage for acceptable and applicable behavior-based feedback. Does any of this activate thoughts of humility? This is a theme of my ISHN column next month.