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"Leading with Eyes Wide Open" Series: #3

[September 22, 2020] by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas


This is the third blog in our series titled “Leading with Eyes Wide Open.” It is for those who want to step up their game as leaders in the crisis, with increased awareness and understanding of the many opportunities and vulnerabilities in our midst, particularly when there are big consequences at stake. Through an understanding of the science of reliability, we can build our effectiveness as well as our resilience during times of disruption.

Reliability and Resilience

Reliability is the extent to which a system (human, technical, organizational) yields the same results on repeated trials. If it is “highly reliable” it is error-tolerant and gives consistent and positive results (Scott, 2010). The gap between actual performance and 100 percent reliability represents failure, be it small or large. The gap could be a result of human fallibility, a system design problem, or both.

Anticipating that we can always deliver at 100 percent, however, is unrealistic and sets us up for failure. Many of us, particularly women, have a difficult time accepting anything less than perfection, resulting in personal and/or other blame and shame. Today we will explore this human side of the equation – human reliability – and what we can do to lead more realistically and effectively in spite of ourselves.

Human reliability

Have you ever thought to yourself, or even said out loud – “Leadership would be so much easier if I just didn’t have to deal with people?” Many of our greatest challenges as leaders involve dealing with the infallibilities and idiosyncrasies of humans – ourselves included.

We all take risks (not a bad thing), make mistakes (again – not a bad thing) and perform in a variety of ways on any given day. While we’d each like to think of ourselves as amazing, consistent and reliable, there are limits to our performance. Human factors such as emotions, behavioral choices, priorities, work under pressure, fatigue, and perceptions of risk, impact our effectiveness. And some days we experience a tsunami of these factors all at the same time! Unearthing and better understanding our own habits of thought, conscious or not, is critical to upping our performance and recovering from setbacks.

So, what are some of those human factors that influence our behaviors? These are the biases and tendencies that come from our personal experiences and upbringing. These behavioral influencers include (Griffith, 2020; Scott, Sarikas & Bessler, 2020):

  • The choices we make in the past and present;

  • The knowledge, skills and abilities we possess;

  • Personal factors such as health, energy and personal conflicts;

  • Our perceptions of risks and competing priorities;

  • The cultures in which we live and work; and

  • The system factors within our lives, such as support structures, incentives, rules, regulations and controls.

Surprise! These affect us all, invading our thinking and coloring the way we see a situation, often without our even knowing it. We will explore some of the common tendencies and biases we commonly see in the workplace, particularly when dealing with more complex issues (Scott, 2010).

  • Time pressure. Most of us tend to think in terms of cause-and-effect relationships. For example, if you turn the thermostat up, the temperature in the room will rise. When under time pressure, a common tendency is to apply overdoses of established measures. So, in this example, rather than turn up the dial and wait, you become impatient and repeatedly turn up the thermostat, overshooting the mark. Ever see this in the workplace? You’re working on a project with a tight deadline and are asked to provide some important information that takes time to access and analyze. You acknowledge the request and get to work. A short time later, you’re asked again by the same anxious person if the data is ready. And then again … each time interrupting and distracting you from the task at hand.

  • Deterioration of planful thinking. With repetitive failures, there is often a marked increase in a person’s willingness to bend the rules. And as failures continue individuals may attribute all phenomena to a single cause, leading to blame and shame – that one bad person, or that one big mistake. Staying open and exploring the problem in all of its complexity will lead us to much healthier conclusions.

  • Confirmation bias. This very common bias is when someone looks for evidence that confirms their own thinking rather than evidence that could lead to a different conclusion. Information that you don’t agree with or understand is quickly rejected as false. You see this in the workplace when someone asks a question and then tunes out until they hear a view similar to their own – and then they suddenly engage and pour on the praise. You owe it to yourself to stay open and seek out information that goes beyond your personal views. This doesn’t mean you will necessarily change your viewpoint, but you should feel better knowing how you arrived at your conclusion.

  • Simplification. This is the tendency to economize or simplify when planning without taking the side effects and long-term repercussions into account. As a result, the majority of the efforts go into treating the symptom(s) rather than solving the underlying problem. We see many change initiatives that fit into this category, resulting in unresolved issues and unsustainable improvements. This results in a “stupid gone viral” waste of time, energy and resources.

  • Delusional optimism. This is the tendency to preserve an optimistic view of your own abilities and accomplishments and exaggerate your own talents, believing you are above average in your endowment. These individuals have difficulty learning from their errors, becoming defensive, screening out criticism and pushing the blame on to others. Essentially, they shut down their learning precisely at the moment they need it most. Be proud of who you are, own your skills and your failures and learn to be authentic. This doesn’t mean to stop dreaming big – it just means to keep it real and take control of your own learning so you can excel in the areas that are important to you.

  • Repair-service thinking. This is the tendency to focus on the wrong problems and goals, neglecting the fundamental issues and their long-term considerations and consequences. While similar to simplification, it is slightly different in that an interim goal catches your attention, displacing the primary goal. The tasks that become the focus are those that the individual feels competent doing and challenged by with the reward of gratification of some success. The problem is, however, that the fundamental problems continue while the repair person happily tinkers with the wrong issue. Staying comfortable is never fulfilling in the long-term. So, dig in, channel that inner fierceness and take a risk!

  • Neglect to reflect. Successful individuals are those who are capable of approaching problems in a variety of ways, learning as they go. They are better able to make meaning out of their own and other’s experiences as they recognize their own underlying decision-making tendencies, emotional habits, assumptions and unexpected side effects from earlier actions. Neglecting to reflect results in a dissonance from reality and denial of the validity of a situation. This is the person that can easily stray far from reality into la la land. So…quite simply – you need to think about your thinking!

  • Outcome bias. This is the tendency to ignore risky every-day behaviors until there is a bad outcome. In the workplace we often see this when individuals take short cuts that help them perform more efficiently – ignoring inspection points, not following the required steps of a procedure or the standard of practice. When these behaviors are ignored or tolerated on a day-to-day basis, they become normalized. Then when the disastrous outcome happens, everyone piles on and the person is punished without addressing the underlying risks and contributors.

The list of human factors, biases and tendencies that can trip us up is long. We can be reliable, consistent and on our game to a point, but can also easily get off track. Activities that require cognitive dexterity can degrade over time with lack of use (Griffith, 2020). (Similar to trying to hula-hoop decades after your elementary years.)

While well-designed systems can help limit our vulnerabilities and failures (Scott & Sarikas, 2020, Sept 6), we also need to learn to tune in to ourselves to anticipate and better manage our human performance, particularly when there’s a lot at risk.

Practicing our resiliency skills. The time to start learning resilience skills is before a setback or failure occurs. We can begin by slowing down a bit, taking a deep breath and getting curious about what we do and why we do it. This can be hard work, especially when it feels like life is speeding out of control, leaving you wondering how to possibly fit a “slow-down” into the day. It’s okay to start slowly, carving out a few minutes and building from there. The key is to start! Otherwise, most of us will take the path of least resistance -- putting up the walls or putting on the armor when things get rough. But this does not move us into a more positive direction. Resilience starts with leaning in to the vulnerability, holding the tension, staying curious and calm (Brown, 2018).

As we become more aware of our thinking, feelings and tendencies we can learn to tune in to the internal meters and subtle signals and effectively use them to guide us. Knowing what’s truly important to you is the starting point – your values, inner sense of rightness, wholeness and truth. In other words, take some serious “me time” to focus on what is meaningful and important to you. These values will then serve as your guide for purposeful living and leading. When you are able to identify and honor these truths, you begin to notice a grounded confidence that enables you to move beyond yourself and focus on others -- staying open, not rushing to judgment and better able to meet the challenges -- even when you get knocked down.


"I’ve learned so much from my mistakes … I’m thinking of making a few more. ~ Unknown


Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. New York: Penguin Random House LLC.

Griffith, S. (2020, pre-publication). The Hidden Science: Managing Organizational Risk through the Sequence of Reliability. Professional Edition.

Scott, K. (2010). Managing variance through a high-reliability organization framework. In K. Malloch & T. Porter-O’Grady (2010), Evidence-Based Practice in Nursing and Health Care, 2nd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

Scott, K. & Sarikas, B. (2020, September 6). Leading with Eyes Wide Open: Designing Systems for Resilience [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Scott, K., Sarikas, B. & Bessler, C. (2020). Stupid Gone Viral: When Science and Reality Collide. Great Britain: Rethink Press.

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