Despite extensivesafety training, when workers are making decisions on the shop floor – even life-threatening and business critical decisions – they sometimes let emotions cloud their judgment.  Why? What are we doing wrong?

Rationality vs. emotion

We have to dive deep into the nuances of the human decision-making circuitry to understand this conundrum and craft an effective solution. Imagine you are buying a new car. You want to make the most rational, objective choice possible. You don’t want emotion to get in the way of doing the responsible thing for your family. So you do your homework, researching every model your family is interested in. You find out the dealer’s invoice price, the mileage, the JD Powers durability rating, the EPA environmental rating, leg room, trunk capacity, even the number of cup holders. One model is better in mileage and durability, but is worse in leg room, trunk capacity and price. A second model is better in price and leg room, but has a small trunk and gets terrible mileage. A third model is second best all the way across. Which one is the best fit? You know the scores, but which attribute(s) takes precedence?

This is a values tradeoff. Values are judged with the same brain circuitry we use to process emotion, so even making a rational decision requires using our emotional circuitry. As counterintuitive as this may sound, we have to use our emotions to make a 100-percent rational, objective decision. In fact, some classic studies on brain damaged patients found that when emotional circuitry is damaged, people can’t make decisions of any kind. We can do the analysis, but we can’t pull the trigger, because we don’t know how to deal with tradeoffs. Is it worth adding a little bit of risk to meet the customer’s schedule demands? Tradeoffs take place in our emotional circuitry.

Unfortunately, the opposite is not true. Our brains are perfectly capable of making decisions based only on emotion when the circumstances are right. This happens not only with brain damaged patients who have injuries to their rational decision-making circuitry, but also when the rational decision-making circuitry is fatigued or engaged in other tasks. After a long hard day at work, we are quite content to skip the apple and grab the piece of chocolate cake. It is also when workers are most likely to take a shortcut to save a little energy or time at the expense of a greater risk of injury. Emotional decisions often favor ease over a little bit of extra risk.

Minimize emotional reactions

How can supervisors address this? First, we have to train workers to know the tradeoffs they may have to make. Otherwise, they may be prepared to make objective decisions but not know how. We need to train the rational circuitry how to score the relative weights for each option they may face and train the values circuitry how best to resolve tradeoffs when they invariably arise. This is best done through examples. Simulation and scenario-based training is the most effective for decision making.

Finally, we have to make sure workers have the cognitive resources available to make rational decisions at the time they need to make them. They can’t be overly fatigued either physically or mentally. Otherwise, the rational circuitry gets left out of the process. Even if they are aware of and want to choose the correct option, the part of the brain that would allow them to do the correct thing is shut out of the process.

If workers’ rational circuitry is occupied with other work-related activities or distracted by issues such as office politics, child care or job security and they need to make a snap decision, their emotional circuitry will guide them down the path of least effort rather than their rational circuitry guiding them down the path of greatest safety. The emotional circuitry is concerned with short-term goals, and these usually minimize physical and mental effort. Work design, rotation, scheduling and planning are all critical.