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Disasters such as the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion and the Chernobyl nuclear accident are said to have involved flawed decisions, driven by individual perceptions. Not surprisingly, individuals’ behaviors—and the perceptions that drive those behaviors—are key to determining the safety performance of an organization.

Executive Summary

The same part of the brain that prompts employers to count someone out of the running for a job because unconscious negative associations trigger their decisions can also prevent the proper assessment of risk, consultant Angela Peacock believes. Here, she describes how disasters like Deepwater Horizon came about. Leveraging the idea that decisions driven by individual beliefs, feelings and biases can lead to tragic outcomes, she makes the case for diversity and inclusion as a cornerstone of a risk-aware culture.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, for example, it was reported that rig staff had tested the concrete seal on the excavated well before removing the drilling column. The results indicated that the seal was not secure and removing the column might cause a catastrophic blowout. So, why were the signs ignored? A disaster analyst said that confirmation biases caused workers to explain away the results rather than investigating further.

Underpinning behavioral safety is a cycle linking beliefs, feelings, behaviors and results in a self-affirming loop. If we believe something is lower risk than is actually the case, our confidence and bravado will drive positive behaviors that may, with a measure of good fortune, carry us through. Our perception is then reinforced and confidence increased.

But how does this play out in a group situation where differing opinions and assumptions should make us look more deeply and assess risk more honestly?

Truly inclusive working cultures empower everyone in an organization and drive the strategy. But if the culture is undermined by bias that restricts who or what we include, it can severely affect safety and risk management. Macho cultures, for example, have been found to exacerbate poor, often unconscious decision-making, which contributes to safety issues.

Men who work in dangerous places often act invulnerable to prove their merit as workers and as men—objectives that can lead to decreased safety and efficiency. In dangerous, male-dominated work settings, men’s tendency to gain respect by demonstrating and defending their masculinity is costly.

Research has revealed that macho cultures place high value on the need to prove oneself. Members of these cultures perceive that revealing one’s weaknesses exposes incapability. A macho culture engenders an atmosphere that stifles speaking out, the ability to question or point out flawed decision-making and, worse still, the capacity to highlight hazards or accident risks.

Consider what this means in the insurance profession today. We have to ensure that the cultures we create differ from the macho-dominated ones of the past to ensure we hear from everyone. The very business of risk needs now, more than ever, to have input from more than just the usual suspects.

It is encouraging that senior teams are increasingly viewing the creation of an inclusive environment as a key lever in achieving their strategic goals. Initially, the link was understood purely in the sense of matching customers—”if we don’t do this, we won’t be able to sell to ‘them.'”

Thankfully, today we are seeing a different approach. Management committees and executive teams are now making the critical link between creating an inclusive environment and the success of specific products, distribution approaches and geographies.

Ensuring—ahead of the need to do so—that your internal culture really does welcome difference and is geared toward ensuring that difference can flourish over the longer term makes sense at every level. As competition to enter new markets continues to increase, the awareness of combining all manner of talented people and ensuring you get the best from all of them becomes business critical.

But an inclusive environment cannot be made to happen with an edict from above. While senior team buy-in is essential, organizational understanding is even more vital. Insurance organizations attempting to create environments ready to welcome the next artificial intelligence or deep-learning rock stars must first recognize the impact of bias within everyone.

Despite brave efforts, things are moving too slowly—coupled with an even more dangerous element of proclaiming commitment to diversity while allowing the old environments to continue.

A strong organizational risk culture requires more than easily apparent dimensions of diversity based on factors such as gender, color, age and professional background. We need to turn our attention to the blatant underplaying of lack of inclusion in the insurance industry that is still allowing sexism to flourish—with all the associated risks to brand and reputation.

What’s essential is a strong and deliberate “tone from the top,” which welcomes constructive dialogue with all employees about how the organization is keeping true to its purpose and, crucially, how it behaves in doing that.

Organizations need to create inclusive environments where all individuals at every level of the business can be appreciated, respected and, above all, heard to help their—and the company’s—growth and development. That change can only start with individual recognition of our own behaviors and biases—and leaders who take responsibility for building their own and then others’ awareness.