Toolbox Talks: Chose your human performance tools wisely


Human performance tools are like the physical tools you have in your toolbox. You don’t break out every tool you have when one or two will do the trick. You look at the task at hand and grab the appropriate tool.

Building a deck? You probably need a saw and a hammer and can leave the oil filter wrench behind. Building a deck? You probably need your human performance tools of self-checking (measure twice, cut once) and procedures (diagram or instructions) and can leave the peer check behind. Not every tool is required for every job.

When using your human performance tools, it’s also important to use them as designed. When put in the wrong hands, your human performance tools can do more damage than good.

Specifically, we’re talking about misusing the tool of Questioning Attitude. When used as designed, your questioning attitude will alert you to imminent hazards, warning signs, and uncertainties. It promotes a preference for facts over assumptions and leads to more predictable and safe results. Asking “What if…” or “Why is this acceptable?” helps to uncover potential pitfalls and previously unrecognized hazards. But just like our physical tools, some people will misuse it to serve some other purpose.

This is what we call “Questioning With Attitude.”

Questioning with attitude is when someone is trying to circumvent an existing policy or guidance—not out of an abundance of caution, but usually to rationalize taking a shortcut. It can be a very fine line and hard to nail down, which makes it so tempting to misuse. Sometimes it’s clear, while other times it’s more nuanced. For example:

Good questioning attitude: “Am I 100% sure that I know the consequences of the action I’m about to take?”

Clearly questioning with attitude: “I heard the International Space Station is re-entering our atmosphere today. Will the company be providing bunkers for us to work in?”

Walking the line between the two: “Why do I need this rule? I know what I’m doing.”

This last person is feeding into the human performance error trap of overconfidence and misusing the tool of questioning attitude to justify it. It’s important to help this person understand why a rule or policy exists and applies to everyone through a proper human performance safety message.

Whether it’s PPE, procedure requirements, material handling, signage, barriers, exclusion areas or any other policy, there is usually a good, well-thought-out reason. It might be contrary to what they are used to and seem unnecessary in their eyes. They may not recognize how their actions impact others. Maybe this person has been doing this for years and knows all the shortcuts and work-arounds, but now they are influencing others who don’t have the same level of awareness?

What’s more likely happening is they are just succumbing to the human performance error trap of overconfidence by underestimating the risk and overestimating their ability. This type of attitude does not align with the human performance safety culture of “path to zero” as their questions aren’t trying to identify risks; they’re trying to rationalize why they can deviate from best practices.

Answer their questions, but help them understand the human performance trap of overconfidence and how it may be impacting them. Ask them if their questions are really trying to improve processes and outcomes, or just trying to rationalize taking an error-likely shortcut (in a nonconfrontational way, of course).

Toolbox Talks offers quick insights and thoughts to use for your toolbox (tailboard) talks. Dave Sowers is a founding member of Knowledge Vine, a veteran-owned human performance training and consulting organization that strives to reduce the frequency and severity of human errors in the workplace. He has almost 30 years of experience in power generation and the utility industry. He is a veteran of U.S. Navy Nuclear Power Program and holds a bachelor’s degree in resources management and a master’s degree in both management and emergency management and homeland security.