Don't Wait for a Defining Moment, Part 1

At a recent trade association safety summit, a featured speaker from a company that had won a national safety award recounted the story of an employee who was badly injured in a furnace explosion, receiving burns covering 75 percent of her body; she died three days later. He called this the "defining moment" for his company. This tragic incident served as the catalyst and wake-up call that provided the clarity and honesty needed to admit that their commitment to safety was more show than substance. The death of an employee is a profound defining moment that affects the very fiber of an organization. Unfortunately, too often it takes such an occurrence to move people and organizations to change.

Defining moments came up again at the conclusion of a workshop I gave at the summit on how to create an organizational safety system that engages employees and managers in a continuous process of input, feedback, and reflection. At the end of the presentation, a participant asked if my client had a "defining moment" that acted as the force to implement the system.

"Unfortunately, it did. The organization had a good safety record and scored well on surveys, but their success bred a climate of complacency, which contributed to accepting safety near-misses as normal—a process called the normalization of deviance."

"My organization fortunately hasn't had a defining moment," said the participant. "That's the good news. But because of our luck, we think we're safe, which stifles motivation to improve. I'm concerned that it's only a matter of time before we have our defining moment. What can I do to wake us up?" I understood her concern and dilemma. It's not easy to disrupt a climate of complacency, which will delude an organization into a believing it doesn't have to be concerned about safety.

Defining Moments Are Human Nature
To wake an organization up to the reality that complacency is a warning sign and precursor to a potential defining moment, it's important to understand how it impacts every aspect of life: personal, organizational, and societal. Because complacency often goes unaddressed, defining moments often serve as a catalyst for change—it's human nature.

We experienced this on Sept. 11, 2001. And we probably know someone who had a serious heart attack or found out that they had cancer and how that became a defining moment for them and their family. In life, defining moments sometimes just happen—but in many situations there are warning signs and clues, which for some reason we choose to ignore, dismiss, or downplay. One explanation is neurobiology—our brains prefer the status quo; its mission is to expend the least amount of effort as possible.

The 'Hakuna Matata' Philosophy
If you've seen "The Lion King," you probably found yourself humming along to "Hakuna Matata." In Swahili, the phrase, roughly translated, means "no worries."

This is the philosophy that our brain tries to function on. It prefers operating on automatic pilot. It can do this because it has a sophisticated method of hardwiring habits and patterns, which reduce the amount of physical, mental, and emotional energy and effort we have to exert to get through our day. "No worries" means there is a habit and pattern to take care of everything—so relax.

When Hakuna Matata Prevents Change
In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow," Dan Kahneman, psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize, calls this automatic pilot mode "system 1 thinking"—thinking fast. System 1 thinking is automatic and requires very little effort; it's what we operate from most of the time. A simple example is the act of crossing your arms. It's an automatic response (no worries) to a desire to cross one's arms. If I asked you to cross your arms the opposite way from your normal pattern, your brain would have to shift into "system 2 thinking"—thinking slow, which requires effort. You would stop and think about the mechanics of the change and maybe try the new way a few times before you could accomplish the feat. It requires physical, mental, and emotional effort to accomplish the new movement because you are rebelling against an established habit. The discomfort you notice physically and emotionally might convince you to decide it isn't worth the effort and give you reason to revert back to your "no worries" normal habit of crossing your arms.

This same process affects all change. If people don't feel a compelling reason for the change, and if the change causes discomfort (physically, psychologically, and/or emotionally), the brain will fight the change to subvert the effort and maintain the status quo. System 1 thinking rules the moment!

This mode of thinking is helpful in reducing the amount of time and energy we must expend in navigating our world by hardwiring life into a circuit board of habits and patterns. It makes life manageable, but it's also the culprit in creating the conditions for unfortunate and tragic defining moments. And it's the main reason why it's so difficult to get managers and employees engaged in a process of change and continuous improvement. We all would like life to be "hakuna matata."

Don't Wait for a Defining Moment
In his book "Change or Die," Alan Deutshman reports that when researchers followed patients two years after they had coronary bypass grafting and were told by their physicians that they must change their lifestyle to prevent further disease and possible death, 90 percent did not change!

This phenomenon happens in all aspects of life.

For over a decade the writing was on the wall for IBM: The world was shifting from computers the size of refrigerators to computers that fit on desks, but IBM resisted and persisted in doing it their way. They went from a company that made more money than nearly any other in the world to losing $5 billion in 1992!

The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger was a defining moment for NASA, but what if the defining moment would have been when engineers discovered that a critical part (the O-ring) would not function under certain temperature conditions, or when they tried the night before to convince NASA that it was unsafe to launch the shuttle because the conditions would cause that part to fail? Like IBM, the organization's system 1 thinking patterns argued vigorously that to cancel and reschedule the flight would result in enormous effort and expense to NASA and its contractors and would bring into question the competency of everyone involved.

What we deem a defining moment tends to be not one unfortunate costly incident, but rather the accumulation of many moments that provided an opportunity and a window into the future and the potential to have prevented it from ever occurring. Why do we resist change until a defining moment happens? Can we overcome the powerful influence of system 1 thinking and our desire for "hakuna matata," or are we doomed to wait for a defining moment before we confront reality?

In Part 2 of this article next week, I'll discuss a strategy for sparking change before a defining moment can occur.

Tom Wojick is the founder and president of The Renewal Group, dedicated to awakening, inspiring, and empowering human motivation and potential in the workplace – the key to a thriving safety culture. It is located in Cranston, R.I. To learn more, visit

Posted on Sep 30, 2016

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