The Fourth Rule of Human Risk is…

Continuing the five-part series on The Rules of Human Risk here is:

Rule 4: To change Behaviour, change the Environment

Whilst the previous Rule focussed on the complex and often illogical nature of human decision-making, this one looks at how we can go about influencing it.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, that isn’t by simply focussing on the people whose behaviour we are trying to influence. That would be a logical solution; good for solving logical problems, less good for solving the complex and illogical one posed by the human algorithm.

Rather than trying to change the algorithm, we need instead to influence the inputs it uses in order to impact its output; the decisions that people make.

A quote from Alexander Den Heijer helps illustrate the logic behind this:

When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower

Den Heijer was using this metaphor in the context of personal development. But it’s equally relevant for managing Human Risk.

If we want people to behave in a different manner, then we need to focus on changing the environment in which the decisions about those behaviours are made.

That’s not always easy. When we use the word “Environment” in the context of flowers, we’re referring to tangible things like soil, water, temperature and light where making changes is relatively easy. Yet, when I use it in the context of the human algorithm, it also includes complex intangibles like culture, feelings and past experience.

In part, this helps explain why many organisations focus on Human Risk as a product of individual decision-making, rather than of the environment.

To see this in action, watch what happens when something goes wrong in an organisation you’re part of. It’ll tell you a lot about what the organisation’s priorities are.

Very often, what you’ll see is that identifying the name(s) of and dealing with those responsible is considered to be a higher priority than understanding or fixing the environmental factors that might have contributed to the situation.

It is much easier, logical and politically expedient to have an individual to point a finger at. Yet what is easier and logical, can also be incredibly unhelpful.

By framing issues as “people” problems, organisations can solve them by “re-programming”, or in extremis firing, those responsible who can conveniently be labelled as proverbial “bad apples”.

What the “bad apple” narrative intentionally seeks to preclude, is the idea that it might actually be the barrel the apples are in, that is bad, rather than simply the apples themselves.

If you never focus on the barrel, the risk is of more of the apples inside it going bad.

Note that the Rule is intentionally silent on the matter of culpability; it should not be read as suggesting that there is no such thing as personal responsibility or contributory negligence on the part of individuals. Or that every aspect of human decision-making is entirely down to the Environment.

Equally, it recognises the existence of “bad actors“, a very small minority whose motivation is wilful wrong-doing. However, unlike many traditional approaches to managing Human Risk, it promotes a nuanced approach that avoids a simple characterisation of people into “good” or “bad“. The reality is much more complex.

As Professor Yuval Feldman, author of The Law Of Good People explains in an interview:

We have a misconstrued perception of who the “bad guys” are.
In reality, (almost) all of us are violators of laws, regulations, contracts, and ethical norms.
Various studies on the causes of such “ordinary unethicality,” including insurance fraud, employee theft, and tax evasion, suggest how prevalent, mindless, and sometimes banal wrongdoing can be.

If we really want to manage Human Risk, then we need to think in a much more sophisticated way about what drives behaviour.

If this all sounds a little too hard, it needn’t be. The reason we know that human decision-making is heavily influenced by the Environment is that there is BeSci research that proves it. This isn’t just academic. Advertisers, social media companies and public authorities are just three of the many types of organisation that already use the BeSci research findings to great effect in influencing human decision-making.

We can do exactly the same for managing Human Risk. To find out how get in touch.

The author is the founder of Human Risk, a Behavioural Science Consulting and Training Firm specialising in the fields of Risk, Compliance, Conduct and Culture.

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