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What affects your attention?

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

In the Oil&Gas industry, safety is a number one priority. Things can turn nasty easily, because a small mistake can have a huge impact in an environment full of highly explosive chemicals. Working safely saves lives. In creating a safe working culture, continuous proactive attention is key. To do so, our client organizes annual conferences about Safety for their contractors. Every conference focused on a specific issue, and the client was always open to our suggestions on how to approach the content.

Among the series of conferences, there was one that tackled an intriguing question: What is the role of the subconsciousness in working safely? To address this, we knew that a strong experience at the start of the conference would raise the level of discussions and learning far better than an analytical keynote. We did our content analysis and found a solution.

We designed the opening of this conference in such a way that the participants, all CEO’s and safety experts of these contracting firms, were confronted with their own subconscious behavior. To do that, we did something well known in social psychology: If people witness a social rule being violated, even if they are not aware of it, they are more likely to ignore social rules themselves. This can be seen in public spaces: graffiti attracts graffiti, bad parking causes others to park badly too.

This is what we did. From the parking lot, 150 participants had to cross a narrow pedestrian bridge to get to the venue. On that bridge we placed a sign, saying “A gentle request, please check your mobile phone and switch it into airplane mode, to avoid disturbing other guests”. We carefully observed how many people actually checked their phones. After 75 people passed the bridge, we quickly added some graffiti on the sign, to make it look shabby and misused by youth. We continued to observe how many participants checked their phone.

When our participants were having their morning coffee, I got the results and smiled. Because this gave me the option to perform the best possible opening of a conference ever. This is what I said in the opening plenary:

“Welcome ladies and gentlemen! Today we will investigate how we can use the subconsciousness to help your employees to work more safely. They need that guidance, because they sometimes do not obey to the rules and regulations. Even a very simple request is sometimes ignored. Difficult to understand for you well-educated people. You will be compliant to requests, simply because you understand the necessity, but they do not, right?”

People signaled that the agreed. I continued.

“We need to understand how we can help them, given the fact that we are the example of good compliance, let’s see what we can do. Actually, we already did something, when you arrived this morning, 20 minutes ago.”

Some people in the audience started to smile, because they felt something was about to happen. Then I explained the experiment with the sign and told them what we changed after 75 people passed the narrow bridge…and I waited a second to create a bit of drama before I shared the results of our exact measurements of how many people checked their phones.

“Ladies and gentlemen, before we added the graffiti, more than 76% of you checked their phones. After, it dropped to 32%. This is not because the second half of you are idiots, always too late…(laughter) but because something was done that you did not notice but nevertheless it changed your behavior. After all, it was just a simple request. Let’s investigate this in-depth today”.

The rest of the day we learned how professionals from outside their own field dealt with safety. We had a musical conductor responsible for a safe social environment in an orchestra, a special agent working in a SWAT team about safety during raids against organized crime, an academic researcher on several fascinating findings in social behavior of groups of people and an intercultural consultant who cracked a few nuts on paradigms in other countries.

It was a day full of excitement, true learning and intense discussions. And the best? It most likely saved lives…

This case provided by Eric de Groot, the leading Meeting Designer of Orange Gibbon Ltd.

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