In Times of Crisis, Be Careful Who You Follow

LeadershipA group of young hikers, anxious to explore the treacherous mountain ranges of Alaska, interviewed a number of guides at a remote outpost. “Yep, I’m the best there is,” bragged an older, very weathered looking man; “I know every mountain and valley in Alaska – been hiking them for over 50 years.“

Impressed with his obvious experience, the hikers chose the elderly gentleman to lead their expedition. Days into their journey, the group seemed to be wandering aimlessly, passing by landmarks they’d seen before. Cold, hungry, and very skeptical, the group questioned, “We’ve been hiking 6 days and we’re lost – you said you were the best guide in Alaska.”

“I am,” snapped the old-timer, “but we’re in Canada now!”

Moral of the story: be careful who you follow.

Following last week’s deadly capsize and chaotic evacuation of the ultramodern cruise ship Costa Concordia, maritime experts have been raising questions about the captain’s behavior, crew preparedness and bungled evacuation procedures.

The preliminary indications are that there may have been significant human error on the part of the ship’s master, Francesco Schettino, which resulted in grave consequences, including 15 deaths and as many as 17 missing persons to date.

In an article entitled “The Link between Personality and Human Error: Using Assessments To Hire Safety-Minded Employees,” Greg Ford (HRVoice.Org) observes the strong role of personality and safety:

What’s interesting is that up to 90% of incidents are due to human error, not faulty equipment or other factors. For the past fifty years, social scientists have been researching personality . . . there has been more and more research into how certain personality types are naturally more “safety-oriented” than others.

Hogan Research Division (HRD) has been researching predictors of safety-related behaviors for nearly 30 years across a variety of industries. In a seminal whitepaper, they conclude:

Our research shows that individual differences in personality predict both safety related behaviors (as indicated by supervisory ratings) and on-the-job accidents and injuries. This research stands in contrast to previous findings showing little to no relationships between individual personality measures and safety incidents.

Employees with an “at risk” personality can be identified by assessing them on the following six dimensions:

Defiant vs. Compliant

Low scorers ignore authority and company rules.

High scorers willingly follow rules and guidelines.

Panicky vs. Strong

pressure and make mistakes.

High scorers are steady under pressure.

Irritable vs. Cheerful

Low scorers lose their tempers and then make mistakes.

High scorers control their tempers.

Distractible vs. Vigilant

Low scorers are easily distracted and then make mistakes.

High scorers stay focused on the task at hand.

Reckless vs. Cautious

Low scorers tend to take unnecessary risks.

High scorers evaluate their options before making risky decisions.

Arrogant vs. Trainable

Low scorers overestimate their competency and are hard to train.

High scorers listen to advice and like to learn.

“Everybody has a default personality. Some call it hard-wiring,” says Stephen Race, an assessment specialist with Performance Vector (HRVoice.Org). Race says, “We can teach people to behave in a certain way for short periods of time, but they will always revert back to who they are, especially when faced with unexpected circumstances.”

Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, who famously and safely ditched U.S. Airlines flight 1549 onto the Hudson River after crippling bird strikes, epitomized the expression of a safety conscious personality. Consistently described by all who know him as “cool, calm, and collected,” Sully credits his upbringing, family bonds, and a strong sense of personal integrity. He felt this led to him being hard-wired for safety.

Despite the remarkable fact that there is no training for such emergency landings, Sully described having a strong physiological reaction toward handling this unknown situation. His default personality was calm and focused, rather than panicky and overly reactive to this crucial situation, and as a result, all 155 passengers were able to rejoin their families and feel the embrace of their loved ones yet again.

The analysis of the cruise ship tragedy has just begun, and the role of Captain Schettino’s actions does not look good. He’s admitted that he messed up. Captain Sullenberger, in his book, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, offers a deeply inspiring message for all of us. Sully says, “We need to try to do the right thing every time, to perform at our best, because we never know what moment in our lives we’ll be judged on.”