Unlocking Your Potential: Mastering the 5 Principles of Human Performance – Part 2

In Converation with the Safety Collaborators Podcast

Episode 017

Mar 7, 2023

In this episode, we begin with two questions:

  1. Did he climb over the fence to drink, smoke, eat or have sex?
  2. Have you ever felt named, blamed, shamed, and retrained?

and to understand them, we take a look at the second and third principles of the 5 Principles of Human Performance by Todd Conklin.

Principle 2 - Blame fixes Nothing

When something goes wrong, you climb over the fence to try fixing the problem (because that seemed like the best idea then), making things worse. But you were trying to do your job. You didn't go over the fence to drink, smoke, eat or have sex, so there's no point blaming you for what went wrong.

If blame fixes nothing, what does it do?

When we blame, we are saying that a choice was made to make an error - when in reality, we don't know why we did it or why it happened, and it was not on purpose. Recalling the first principle of human performance, discussed in Podcast E016, we know that Error is Normal and we will always make errors because we're human. How different would our work environments be if we could accept that?

In very complex environments, workers need to remember every process step; of course, there are tools to help us do this. They are in place so that should somebody make a mistake, we have something to refer back to that helps us remember the steps. But does that actually help the situation? or the worker? Unfortunately, no, and so 'blame fixes nothing' is a key vital principle in the five principles.

Nuala was reminded of a story someone shared:

He was working on a small vessel and hammering something with his left hand (due to the angle and bad weather), resulting in a tiny broken bone at the top of his right-hand thumb. This turned into a traumatic interrogation, with everyone saying he couldn't be blamed for the broken thumb while trying to find someone else to blame because somebody needed to be blamed. Eventually, unable to stand it any longer, he stood up and shouted, 'I broke my thumb. There was no one else to blame. My thumb broke when I was trying to do my job so that we could continue operating safely. What more do you want from me?

What emotional state was this poor person in to have to stand up and feel like he needed to shout to be heard? He stood up for himself, but how many don't? How many people just shut down and go into protection mode? In the heat of the moment, it is a normal reaction to blame, and as humans, we are constantly blaming ourselves. How many times have you told yourself that something you did was stupid? In those moments, you are blaming yourself.

So what happens to a person emotionally when you blame them for something?

When people are blamed for something, it can have a significant emotional impact on them. Blaming someone can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety, which can cause a person to experience negative emotions such as anger, sadness, and frustration. Blame can also affect a person's self-esteem and self-worth, causing them to feel inadequate and inferior.

Additionally, being blamed for something can lead to feelings of defensiveness and resistance, as the person being blamed may feel that they are being unfairly treated. This can create tension and conflict in relationships and make it difficult to resolve the situation.

It's important to note that everyone reacts differently to being blamed, and some people may be more resilient and able to handle the situation better than others.

In general, blame can damage a person's emotional well-being and have long-lasting effects. It also stops the person from giving us information which enables learning and improvement, which leads us to the third principle:

Principle 3 - Learning and Improving is Vital, Learning is Deliberate

Often when something goes wrong, you will feel that the spotlight is on you and feel blamed and publicly shamed. You find yourself sitting in training (after HR was told you messed up and need retraining), wondering why because there's nothing new to learn. It's just ticking a box so the company can say you were trained, so you don't have permission to make another error.

In our introductory Podcast E016, we shared the example of the worker who was told to clean under the generator, which he did while the generator was still running. Now there's damage to the generator, and he has been made to feel potentially guilty that it's his fault. In this case, there may not have been enough information or detail given to this individual; none of us knows the ins and outs.

But by stopping and asking:

  • What was the risk perception of this person? 
  • Was this person even aware that a running generator can create risk? 

One could hypothesise that the extent of the toolbox talk was to go and clean under the generator.

When you blame, you immediately block learning.

Rather than asking how the worker could have been stopped from cleaning under the generator while it was running or what could be changed for the future, the blame has been placed on the worker, with no learning gained - except perhaps that they want to keep their pay, which is hardly successful learning - and no encouragement for them to take the initiative next time.

And the person might learn they can't trust you because you won't have their back when something goes wrong. 

  • How does learning happen in your working environment?
  • How do you treat even some of the minor incidents or small errors?
  • How do you deal with those? Do you ignore them? Or overreact? Or somewhere in between?
  • If you want to create a learning environment, how do you make opportunities for that improvement discussion?

It's not just about learning how to improve the system or process. It is also learning what to do after you react and go into blame mode.

How do you bring it back? How do you recover?

So part of this learning is creating the space to apologise for how you reacted, taking a step back and relooking at how you could have responded differently.

By modelling humility and vulnerability, leaders create a space that permits people to act the same way.

This leads us back to our other favourite topic, psychological safety - a combination of respect and permission. You need to give respect and permission to learn and evolve and have people who will learn, contribute, or help you innovate as they challenge the system.

In the book, The 5 Principles of Human Performance by Todd Conklin

We loved a section that goes something along the lines of: 'people can fix the most complex problems and still trip on the concrete floor.' Asking them why they tripped on the concrete floor when they never intended to is a complete waste of time because, seriously, who wakes up in the morning and decides they will trip on the concrete floor? 😜

Here are a few of our questions - inspired by the book - for you to think about

  • What is normal work? And how do you learn from it?
  • How do you learn from success?
  • How do you determine what happened versus what didn't?
  • Do you learn and improve? Or blame and punish?
  • How does learning happen in your working environment?
  • Do you create opportunities for improvement discussions?
  • How do you learn from the things that didn't go to plan?

Where are you focused? 

There was a recent video circulating of a teacher doing math sums on the board, and he made a mistake in one of the sums.

The students continuously called out to him about the mistake, so he halted the lesson to enable a conversation about it. He pointed out that he made only one mistake on the entire board, yet this was all they focused on; not one student mentioned anything else he had done correctly.

Where are you learning?

You often hear others talking about failing and learning and improving from failure. We listened to a podcast recently where the hosts spoke about ‘falling versus failing’.

Children don’t fail when they don’t walk straight away; they fall, and what do we do when they fall?

Do we blame them for falling over? Or do we give them a hand up, reassure them and let them try again?

It is a different way of looking at how we learn - we fall every day, and it does not mean the world is ending; it just means we have to get back up and look at it again.

How do you give people a hand up and treat situations as falling rather than failing?

By taking personal responsibility, you impact learning, trust and conversation. When you ask a question and don’t get the answer you were looking for or wanted, don’t blame the person answering - instead, change your question because it will lead to a very different result.

How do you trigger the right response versus just sending the right messages?


Black Sheep

We need responses from people - not just a yes for the sake of peace. We could all be black sheep and stand up for ourselves by giving feedback.

How do you encourage feedback and build on the feedback loop?

It doesn’t mean you will always hear what you want. And more importantly, if you hear what you want to hear, you’re not learning or challenging.

All you’re doing is having sheep follow you, with nobody standing up and saying, ‘I’m the black sheep of this team.’

Next week

Join us next week for Episode 018, the final of this trilogy, which will examine the remaining two principles of human performance, ‘Context influences Behaviour’ and ‘How you Respond to Failure Matters’. And that's our favourite one, individually and as leaders.

You can help us spread the word by sharing this podcast, and please do hit the subscribe button on your favourite podcast platform to stay up to date with our musings.

If you are looking to work through some of these questions to build effective learning strategies for your organisation, for your safety culture moving forward, growth, then email us at hello@safetycollaborations.com


Related Podcasts

Related Blog Post

Recommended Books:

  • The 5 Principles of Human Performance by Todd Conklin, PhD
  • The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety - defining the path to Inclusion and Innovation by Timothy R. Clark
  • Next Generation Safety Leadership - from Compliance to Care by Clive Lloyd

About the Show

Our purpose in sharing this podcast is to have a chinwag (conversation) to help people change how they think and behave about safety. 

We do this by engaging in dialogue and testing the levels of trust and psychological safety, which are core to organisational culture. Making safety part of your DNA so that your people speak up, show up, do right, and become safer every day for yourself, your team, and your business.

We will explore topics related to organisational and safety culture, leadership, the language of risk, emotional literacy, psychological safety, conversational agility, intercultural intelligence, and whatever else pops up during our conversations—sharing our experiences and learnings. 

We intend to share nuggets of wisdom that will challenge your perspectives, potentially solve a nagging problem, share actions you can implement, and give you at least one aha moment.

And, if you enjoyed the show and gained value, please share with just one other person to help spread the word.

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