I just finished “blink” by Malcolm Gladwell for the WISE book club. Since the ASSP conference isn’t in person this year, we can’t do our book swap, so we revived the WISE Book Club to stay connected. Learn more about WISE here or here.
Since I’m a horrible procrastinator, I just finished the book even though our last book club meeting was over a week ago…
To expedite the book report and keep the spirit of the book’s subtitle “the power of thinking without thinking” – I’m using just the bended pages of my copy of the book as a guide for the highlights and conversation points of the book. Let me know if you have also read the book, and if you’d like to discuss more!
From the chapter The Locked Door, In high-stakes, fast-moving situations, we don’t want to be as dispassionate and purely rational as the Iowa ventromedial patients. We don’t want to stand there endlessly talking through our options. Sometimes we’re better off if the mind behind the locked door makes our decisions for us.
Since I read this book with other safety professionals, I had a safety pro lens to most of the content. This chapter was especially interesting when related to a high risk workplace or task. Gladwell describes the ventromedial prefrontal cortex as our “mental valet” that keeps tabs on what’s going on around us to make sure we act appropriately to the setting but keeps our brain free to focus on the problem or situation at hand. I thought of the impact of safety training, and ensuring we reach our workers with multiple learning styles (listening and doing), and in varied lengths of time (micro training and longer form training). This information contributes to that “mental valet” for the worker, so they are able to make the right, safe, or appropriate decisions for action in the moment.
In the chapter titled The Warren Harding Error, the author furthers the “blink” concept but starts to give the reader some ideas of why this will not work in all scenarios.
The Warren Harding error is the dark side of rapid cognition. It is at the root of a good deal of prejudice and discrimination. It’s why picking the right candidate for a job is so difficult and why, on more occasions than we may care to admit, utter mediocrities sometimes end up in positions of enormous responsibility. Part of what it means to take thin-slicing and first impressions seriously is accepting the fact that sometimes we can know more about someone or something in the blink of an eye than we can after months of study. But we also have to acknowledge and understand those circumstances when rapid cognition leads us astray.
As the book goes on, there are several examples of where thin slicing can go wrong. Often it’s because a person is a novice at the material. This is explained in horrific detail in the police officer shooting examples in the last chapter of the book. I also thought a lot about a Maya Angelou quote during this chapter and after finishing the book, When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. It can seem harsh, but sometimes your brain percepts things about someone you’ve just met that you later argue with yourself about (not out loud fortunately!). These are the times when thin slicing may be working in your favor.
I must admit, there was a chapter that lost my interest, Paul Van Riper’s Big Victory. It was about war games, exercises that military leaders conduct to simulate scenarios that could jeopardize our national defense. A quote stuck out to me, again, I related it to the jobsite and high risk tasks, We would not get caught up in any of these mechanistic processes. We would use the wisdom, the experience, and the good judgement of the people we had. This along with another passage I’ll quote reminded me of McGregor’s Theory X and Y , with Theory Y being preferable as it encourages self direction. Gladwell stated that the person using the quoted method allowed people to operate without having to explain themselves constantly, and that it enabled rapid cognition.
When workers are treated like adults, and allowed to draw on their experience, and are enabled to use their judgement, it implies a level of trust. On the flip side, if you operate in the opposite way, workers second guess themselves or fail to act.
The chapter Seven Seconds in the Bronx, details several accounts of police officer involved shootings that range from shootings resulting in the death of an innocent person, to a short encounter in which an armed person is arrested without injury. In the latter, the book describes the encounter as lasting 1.5 to 2 seconds, just like the others that ended in death, but the officer’s gift of training and expertise allowed a different end. The ability to extract an enormous amount of meaningful information from the very thinnest slice of experience. Gladwell describes the slowing down of a fast-moving situation, which comes from experience, similar to the example earlier in the book of Larry Bird’s basketball court vision. Every moment – every blink – is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, and for correction.
I LOVED that last sentence. It was the a-ha and value-affirming part of the book for me as a safety pro. Isn’t this the goal of safety training and our interactions with workers? To get them to essentially slow down a task, and see each step as an opportunity to find a way to do it more efficiently and safely? As a safety pro, isn’t it a gift that we could aspire to give the workers we influence? Give them Larry Bird’s court sense, but for their work area. Though the subject matter of this chapter was very heavy, my mind went to the concept of flow state. I don’t have this thought line completely figured out, but it’s where the end of the book left me – finding a less distracted flow state in stressful work environments. I’m starting with this article, which will likely lead to reading the book Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
If you’ve read “blink” – what did you read next?
The last chapter of the book, Listening with your Eyes, couples nicely with diversity and inclusion topics I’ve been studying, especially as they relate to safety. Diverse perspectives bring strength to a team and organization, but many leaders struggle to figure out how to really make this happen. After describing the blind audition process many orchestras now use, which has led to more women and minorities in first chair positions and filling the other orchestra seats, Gladwell writes, orchestras now hire better musicians, and better musicians mean better music. When we listen with our eyes we miss out. Think about perspectives you may be missing at your various “tables” because of preconceptions about a person. Those missing perspectives are keeping your culture, programs, and procedures from getting better. In safety, that can mean you are missing ways to keep workers safe.