Not Invincible: Optimism Bias and Building an Organisational Safety Culture

If injury or death are not genuine possibilities for you cognitively, you're going to act like you're invincible. And you're not invincible.

By Chally Kacelnik

I was floored by a conversation I witnessed not too long ago. A group of people gently tried to talk around someone who had removed the headrest from her car seat. Nothing anyone could say about safety could convince this person to reattach the headrest. She said that whiplash was a chance she was willing to take. I don’t think it occurred to her that severe physical trauma or death were real possibilities.

I’m sure you’ve seen people engaging in behaviour like this, too: a belief that bad things are less likely happen to them personally. It’s called optimism bias, and it’s an exceedingly common cognitive bias.

Perhaps you’ve seen it at work. Speaking of poor driving behaviour, recently we’ve had a couple of clients – team leaders and managers – who’ve told us that they’ve had to employ tools from our leadership and management toolkit in order to successfully convince team members to wear seatbelts. This shocked me – which then served to reinforce that we all think about safety pretty differently, and it’s important to keep an eye out rather than assume that everyone is acting as you would act.

If injury or death are not genuine possibilities for you cognitively, you’re going to act like you’re invincible. And you’re not invincible.

It’s not just one person who’s in danger, however. People tend to experience stronger optimism bias when they believe themselves to be in control of a situation, and they tend to underestimate the influence on outcomes of other people and factors. In an organisation, you’re necessarily working with others. It’s vital that the right systems are in place to account for, or counteract, behaviours that can have a negative effect on others and the organisation – behaviours that can come from an overinflated optimism bias.

A rigorous approach to safety management systems is crucial. In How to Build a Strong Safety Culture, I spoke about how we help clients to develop and sustain robust safety cultures. A good part of that work is understanding how humans work in practice rather than expecting logical, safety first responses to be automatic.

Embedding a genuine safety culture is a lot of work, because you’ve got to embed it with human beings, many of whom think they’re a little bit bulletproof. Tread accordingly.

At LKS Quaero, we help to create and sustain safer organisations. For more information, visit us at or follow us on LinkedIn and Facebook.