Toolbox Talks: The downside of experience

We’ve heard it said a thousand times: “There’s no substitute for experience.”

Wouldn’t it be great if our workforce was comprised of seasoned veterans that have seen it all? Nothing surprises them, they’ve done it all before, and they could do the next job in their sleep.

Experience is great—we look for it when we hire and pay a premium for it when we find it. However, with experience comes a little overconfidence and the potential for disengagement. This isn’t to say all experienced workers are disengaged, but rather all experienced workers must fight the natural urge to be disengaged.

It’s a pretty basic function of our brains: Once we learn something, we stop thinking about it.

A study of the brain activity in mice while performing a task verified the decline in engagement as experience grows. Mice were placed in a simple, T-shaped maze where they would receive a food reward for finding the exit. During their time in the maze, their brain activity was measured.

The first time through, their brain activity was consistently high from start to finish, which makes sense. The thought is, “I’m not 100% what I’m doing, so I better pay attention and think through my actions.”

On just their second time through, an interesting thing happened. At first, their brain activity was as high as it was on their initial trip through the maze. After a moment, the mice recognized their surroundings, and headed straight for the exit. As soon as the mice were able to lean on their experience their brain activity dropped off significantly. “Been there, done that. Let’s knock this out.”

Their brain activity stayed low until right at the end when their brain activity spiked again in anticipation of completing the task and getting their reward.

This is true with all of us. The more experience we get, the less with think about it. Think about how much more you paid attention when you first got behind the wheel of a car as opposed to today. You used to keep those hands a 10 and 2 and your eyes constantly scanning the road. Now you’re occasionally steering with your knee and looking at your phone (OK, maybe not YOU, but you get the point).

Since we are wired to stop thinking about the things we have already learned, there is not a perfect solution to combat this. However, there is one thing you can do to put a dent in this and drive better engagement.

Mix it up and keep it fresh. Don’t keep wearing out your people with “Well, it’s the second Tuesday of the month so it’s time for another Power Point presentation about safety. Everybody sign the sheet that’s going around.”

Make thinking about safety and performance a daily goal and approach it from different angles. Share a relevant blog, recent news article, or applicable data. Find a podcast or video journal about safety. Freshen up those posters, hard hat stickers, or other stale job aids we no longer really pay attention to. Find a way to reward people for the right behaviors. Remember: The mouse’s brain activity spiked when the cheese seemed nearer.

If you don’t know where to start, we have a lot of free resources about human performance to help you keep it fresh and increase engagement.

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.