Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Assimilation, Accommodation, and Thinking Safety Differently

Last week we were pleasantly surprised to see that Professor Sidney Dekker was one of the keynote speakers at the American Society of Safety Engineers Professional Development Conference in Orlando. For those who are not familiar with Professor Dekker, he is one of a crop of thought leaders in safety science who are challenging our profession to move beyond old models of safety management that just aren’t working anymore, toward a more effective and sustainable future. (For a summary of his presentation, click here).

Professor Dekker painted a striking contrast between old models of safety management and a new view of safety, one that he and others have taken to call “safety, differently.” The figure below presents the contrast between these two models.

Traditional View of Safety
Safety Differently
People are a problem to control
People are the source of safety and success to harness
The best way to intervene in safety as at the behavioral level
The best way to intervene in safety as at the contextual level
Safety is best measured by its absence
Safety is best measured by its presence

Safety Differently is a great model for the future of safety leadership and it’s one we’ve talked a little about before here and will continue to talk more about in the future. So we were pleased to see a large body of our profession exposed to these ideas.

However, being exposed to these ideas is not enough. To make a change we have to do things differently. The problem people run into though when they are exposed to a new way of thinking is that they often don’t adopt the new way of thinking. Instead of letting the new ideas change them they try to change the ideas to make it fit their existing world.

Social and developmental psychologists have a model that may help explain this process a bit better. Typically, when exposed to a new idea people go through a process of assimilation and accommodation. The first step, assimilation, involves the person trying to make sense of the new idea using their current view of the environment. Basically, the first instinct tends to be one of looking for similarities between the new idea and what the person already knows and does.

So, for example, many safety professionals will look at Professor Dekker’s Safety Differently model and find things they are already thinking and doing that are in line with it. For example, many look at current models of safety management systems, behavior-based safety, or the vogue concepts of safety culture and leading metrics and say that the Safety Differently model isn’t all that different.

However, this is a mistake. The mistake is that humans have a tendency to look for what they expect and hope to find, making them more likely to find it. This is called the confirmation bias and it’s something we all suffer from. If all we do when exposed to new information is find reasons why it’s not that new then we will never change and progress. We will always find reasons why what we’re doing is enough and, as the saying goes, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing and getting what we’ve got.

The second step in the process of being exposed to new information is accommodation. Accommodation occurs when the person cannot completely confirm the new idea into existing mental models and so they create new mental models and frameworks, accommodating the new information they have.

This is what we need to get into the habit of doing as a profession. When exposed to new ideas, such as those from Professor Dekker and others, we need to not look for what we’re already doing. Rather, we need to look for how the model conflicts with our current beliefs and practices. What aren’t we doing that the model suggests we do? What are we doing that model suggests we stop doing? In short, we need to look for all the ways the model would change us, rather than us changing the model to fit us.

Now, this isn’t to say that we blindly accept any new idea or model that someone suggests to us. Rather, what we are advocating is taking a process that often happens unconsciously, and usually, as a result, involves significant bias, and make it conscious and deliberate. When someone brings a new idea to the table our bias should not be to find reasons why we’re right and the new idea is wrong. Instead, lets think critically about these new ideas. Challenge old assumptions. Ask hard questions. And, if at the end of this, our old models still stand then we’re the better for it. However, if we ever want to move our profession forward and to start thinking differently about safety, we need to quickly move past the assimilation phase and begin the process of accommodating new ideas into our current ways of thinking.


  1. I found this to be an interesting paper, which by the very nature, forces the reader to agree. Anyone who might challenge the concept would logically be drawn to the conclusion that they had not provided reasonable accommodation to the idea, which supports the premise of the argument.

  2. Interesting perspective Stephen and that certainly was not our intention to have it be "agree with us or you're wrong." The hard part with many of the lessons from psychology is that sometimes it's hard to know how to apply them. After all, if we're told that we're a biased observer of our own thought processes, how can we tell if what we're thinking is unbiased or not?

    The key, from our perspective, is to admit that you're probably always biased in some way. So the assimilation/accommodation paradigm is sort of a way of thinking about how to think. It's about identifying where your current thinking conflicts with a new idea and rather than looking for reasons that you're right (and the new idea is wrong), look for the opposite. If at the end of this exercise you're not convinced by the new idea then disregard it (or assimilate it). However, you often will find that some aspects of the new idea are useful and you can accommodate those. Or you might find that even though the new idea is not convincing, neither are some of your current ideas, leading you to search for a better paradigm.


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