I was reminded this morning of a pattern of behaviour I saw at a client once. Every time a mistake was made in a process the instant reaction was for managers to introduce a new process to prevent the mistake ever happening.
The think that reminded me was a conversation I was having with a colleague around ‘safety behaviours’. In Psychology safety behaviours are the things we do in order to maintain our level of comfort. Examples of safety behaviour might be; freaking out when you see a spider, holding on to something when you’re high up and have a fear of heights or not making eye contact with the audience when public speaking.
In the moment we may feel that these safety behaviours help us to manage our anxiety. Psychologists have discovered that rather than mitigate the anxiety, the safety behaviours in fact reinforce the anxiety. So if the only way to deal with seeing the spider is to remove yourself from it’s presence, then you will always be afraid of the spider. That sounds entirely obvious to those of us not afraid of spiders, but you may not even know you exhibit safety behaviours for the things that do make you anxious.
So how does this apply to my aforementioned client.
Its simple, the clients safety behaviour in this case is to introduce more formal process around the incident that caused anxiety (the failure). By being afraid of failure and the consequences attached to it (blame, shame etc) the instinctive reaction was to apply greater control. The more controlled and strict the process, inevitably the more that anomalies would occur. The more anomalies, the more the safety behaviour would occur. So the belief that greater control would lead to greater safety was mistaken and in fact led to less room for variability and learning.
The key to changing it would have been to have them expose them self to that situation and observe the results over a period of time. The aim being that eventually they would realise they can function without resorting to the safety behaviour.
As a coach I try to look for moments of anxiety with clients, and look for the safety behaviour.
How many times have you seen someone trying to be agile and retreating to traditional methods when things are hard?