For those who have been to Toronto, Canada you will know that one of the places you are likely to visit is the CN Tower. It remains as one of the tallest structures in the world and affords an unparalleled view of the city, and surrounding areas. On a clear day you can see for miles including all the way from the observation deck to the ground. The observation deck consists of a floor that is partially made from glass blocks. You can walk on them and look all the way down, unless you are like me. No matter how much I try my body will not let me walk on the glass blocks even though in my head I know it is safe. Is there a real risk here to explain my behavior or is there a problem with my perception?
There is no doubt that a hole in the floor of the CN tower would be dangerous like many of the other dangers we are taught to avoid. When I was young my parents taught me (among other things) not to put my hands in an open flame, stick my fingers in an electrical socket, or play too close to the edge of a cliff. All of these are dangerous and pose real threats to our well being. Being fearless in the presence of these dangers is not wise and so it is good that we teach our kids and ourselves to have a proper respect for them.
However, many of the risks that we face in life and in business are less physical (at least not directly) and do not illicit the same fear response. These risks are anticipated threats predicted by risk models, observations of past events, or other forms of analysis. It is with these that we often find a lack of proper respect, and sometimes even awareness of their existence.
As an example, the introduction of mobile devices created the possibility to answer calls, text messages and emails, all while driving. It also created the opportunity for risk. However, for most people the perceived risk is not "real" as demonstrated by continued use of cell phones while driving.
Unless involved personally in an automobile accident many are not likely to stop using cell phones. For behavioural change to occur we need to learn that distracted driving is dangerous just like we had to learn to not play too close to the edge of a cliff. Until the perception of risk is changed many will endure the consequences of fines, loss of demerit points and possibly their drivers license all introduced for the purpose of curtailing distracting driving.
Although it does not have to be this way, as we instead can choose to change our behaviors and develop a proper respect (you might call this fear) of the dangers involved.
The way we deal with the risks of "distracted driving" has similarities with how some companies contend with the risks associated with compliance. Organizations may find that in the pursuit of opportunities they end up being distracted with respect to safety, quality, environmental and regulatory objectives.
Just like many who continue to use cell phones while driving they may comfort themselves by saying that they have not yet had any accidents and they can handle it. However, the risks still remain even if not perceived, ignored, or not personally experienced.
Until these companies change their behaviors they will also endure the consequences of fines, the loss of reputation and trust, and possibly the loss of their operating licence. Even for them it does not need to be this way – they can choose to be more proactive with their compliance.
Now back to me and the CN Tower glass floor. What was going on? In my case the glass blocks created an illusion of danger when none exists. It tricked my perception of reality. While it is good to fear things which are "really" dangerous it is not good to fear things which are not. That is why for some it important to face our fears to discover if they are based on reality.
This is another example of how risk perception affects our decisions. My perception of danger was too high rather than too little as in the case with those who continue to text while driving. Both extremes are problematic.
However, calibrating risk perceptions is not always easy to do. So it's back to the CN Tower to face the glass floor dragon again. Wish me luck!