How to Manage Risks with Chronic Unease

Editor's Note: A warm welcome to Laura Fruhen who joins us from Australia sharing research on how chronic unease can be used to support safety management in aviation.

Chronic Unease - A State of Mind to Manage (Safety) Risks

When making everyday decisions, we rarely have all the information available. Sometimes, we deal with ambiguous information, so we may rely on assumptions. When managing safety, making sense of unclear and ambiguous information can be critical.

In this blog post, I will discuss chronic unease as a mindset that can support managers in dealing with vague and unclear information in their decision-making.

To Be Wary Is To Be Ready for the Unexpected

Some safety issues present themselves clearly. These are often issues that researchers classify as personal safety (i.e. Do workers use the right personal protective equipment?). Other safety issues can be hard to spot and equally hard to pin down. For example issues that are embedded in the processes of operations and can be visualized by Reason’s (1997) Swiss cheese. They are the holes that might be hiding in each slice of cheese (i.e. barrier).

Some organisations, such as those in the aviation sector, operate in risky contexts and are extremely capable of maintaining their safety barriers, assessing the state of their safety processes, and ensuring the holes in their barriers do not align. They are highly vigilant to weak signals of potential risks. These high reliability organisations (HROs) share certain characteristics that make their risk management so successful as they:

  • Evaluate the absence of surprises as a reason for anxiety, not complacency
  • Assume that they might not fully comprehend the complex systems that they operate and are preoccupied with failure
  • Adopt a many-angled approach of constant improvement towards safety issues

Managing Risks

Organisations don’t always manage risks collectively and it often comes down to the individual decision-maker to determine how to solve a problem or a way to go forward. In fact, organisations are in many ways systems of decision makers.

These decision makers, both individually and collectively, are potential hole-makers as well as hole-fixers in the cheese slices that keep organisations safe. The figure below illustrates the impact that managers can have on many of these barriers through the decisions that they make.

managing risk ATC

Decisions are usually made based on information. The quality of any decision then depends on the information that it is based on - and the skills, knowledge, ability and intuition of the person making the decision.

As humans, we are usually confident in our attention and our ability to notice changes in the environment and to identify (weak) signals of risk. However, the reality is that our attention is very selective and we often use mental shortcuts (called heuristics) to simplify complex problems.

Humans, while confident about their information processing abilities, are in actuality not that great at dealing with ambiguous and complex information. This video nicely illustrates some of the limitations of our attention.

In an organisational context, it can be hard to immediately identify the effects that decisions might have on operations. Similarly, it can be tricky to notice what relevant signals present themselves in the environment and which decisions are the right ones in more and more complex contexts, organisations and operations.

The Uneasy Manager

In our research, Prof. Rhona Flin and I have investigated unease and how it can support managers in their work, particularly in overcoming ambiguity and complexity in information and the environment. Unease has been highlighted as an attribute of managers in highly reliable organisations.

Chronic unease refers to the experience of discomfort and concern about the management of risks. It is a healthy skepticism about one's own decisions and the risks that are inherent in many complex and risky environments. Ultimately, it is the gut feeling that occurs when we are not quite confident in our decisions and our assessment of what is going on. For example, imagine you are an air traffic management supervisor and your employees tell you the following:

“Yesterday we broke the record for the number of arrivals in one hour”.

How do you react? Do you congratulate them? Or do you think about the pressure they may have put on the system? Do you consider the potential risks that could have degraded barriers by operating with higher levels of traffic? Do you worry about the extent to which the ATCOs (Air Traffic Controllers) might have been putting unnecessary pressure on themselves to cope with high traffic loads? Do you worry whether they focus too much on traffic throughput rather than on safety?

What about if your employees tell you the following:

“The met forecast is often inaccurate so we don’t restrict inbounds until the actual visibility falls”

What would your response be? Do you wonder about possible inbound overload due to reduced visibility? Are you concerned about how diversions are being handled? Do you reflect on where to hold inbounds and how to inform ACC (Area Control Centre) to reduce speed of next arrivals? Are you concerned about the safety implications of a forecast that is inaccurate? Are you wondering for how long this practice may have been going on? Do you worry about the reasons why you had not known about this before? Would this even keep you up at night?

Your intuitive reaction to safety issues such as the ones above can help filter attention to the issues that are most critical and focus further investigation of what might actually be going on. This intuition is often derived from experience.

This form of thinking can be particularly helpful when risk related information is ambiguous (that is, it allows for different interpretations or conflicting meanings) or unclear (where not enough is known). You can think of your intuitive reaction to safety issues as an additional piece of (highly subjective) information that you can consider to make sense of the issues that present themselves and where to focus your attention.

Why Some Managers May Be More Uneasy Than Others

Some managers might be more uneasy than others. Similarly, others might experience unease, but might not refer to it as readily in their work as a source of information. So what are the characteristics of managers that might affect these tendencies?

We have identified five characteristics that are likely to be linked to the managerial experience of unease (see Figure below).

ATC safety

We proposed that vigilance and experience will shape the extent to which managers notice (weak) signals of risks. Further, we identified that safety imagination (also labelled requisite imagination by Westrum, 1991), the managers’ propensity to worry, and their pessimism (which includes a negative outlook as well as a tendency to resist complacency) can affect the level of unease that a manager is likely to experience in response to the risks they perceive.

How to Channel Unease to Support Safety Management

Experiencing unease is only a starting point. The important question is what to do with it. Just being uneasy in itself will not help managers in their management of risks, in fact it might make them less effective. The trick is to transfer it into useful actions that can lead to better risk management.

We found that unease manifests itself in many ways in managers. That included behaviours that the safety literature has identified as having a positive effect on safety. These included:

  • Being inspirational
  • Asking for input from employees
  • Setting clear goals
  • Providing rewards
  • Making safety a priority

However, the most prevalent issue we recognised was the extent to which managers tend to channel their unease into flexible thinking.

Flexible Thinking

Flexible thinking is the tendency to approach safety-related issues from many angles, to think about them critically and to question assumptions. Individuals who are chronically uneasy about safety-related issues are more likely to engage in flexible thinking. Doing so helps them to better solve safety-related problems, and encourage this type of thinking in their colleagues. Flexible thinking can for example entail:

  • Not jumping to conclusions
  • Avoiding standard answers as to why issues occur
  • Exploring new problems with a fresh look, while building on experience
  • Considering all sources of data and information, and identifying whether more data and information is needed
  • Critically examining the issues that are behind the situation
  • Considering each issue on its own, but also the interconnections between issues

How Much Unease is Healthy?

In our reflections about unease, we reasoned that there is likely to be an optimal, or healthy level of unease for each manager.

Too little unease might lead to complacency, so that warning signals are ignored, ambiguities are marginalised, and adverse consequences are not considered.

On the other side of the spectrum, too much unease might lead to the experience of anxiety, affecting decision making, action and over the long run, (mental) health.

The trick will be for each manager to reflect about the ways in which they react to risks, to use this as a source of information and channel it into behaviours as well as information processing strategies that are going to have a positive impact on safety.

So the next time, when that vague sense of unease sneaks up on you, don't dismiss it. Maybe the ways in which it can be put to use described here can help you to harness it so that it can support you in managing the risks in your business.

Image and video credits: Brain via author, Cheese diagram by author, based on Reason, 1997,  Incidents & Accidents diagram by author, video (c) by Daniel Simons (1999), based on research by Simons and Christopher Chabris, posted on YouTube by Daniel Simons

Additional Resources About chronic unease and the research that went into developing the concept About Laura’s work on organisational safety and leadership or to inquire about research collaborations around unease and other safety related topics

This blog post is based on the following research papers: Fruhen, L. S., Flin, R. H., & McLeod, R. (2014). Chronic unease for safety in managers: a conceptualisation. Journal of Risk Research, 17(8), 969-979. Flin, R., & Fruhen, L. (2015). Managing Safety: Ambiguous Information and Chronic Unease. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 23(2), 84-89. Fruhen, L. S., & Flin, R. (2015). ‘Chronic unease’ for safety in senior managers: an interview study of its components, behaviours and consequences. Journal of Risk Research, (ahead-of-print), 1-19.

References Reason, J. (1997). Managing the risks of organizational accidents. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited. Rochlin, G.I. (1993). Defining "high reliability" organizations in practice: A taxonomic prologue. In K.H. Roberts, New Challenges to Understanding Organizations. (pp.11-32). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. Weick, K.E., & Sutcliffe, K.M. (2006). Mindfulness and the quality of organizational attention. Organizational Science, 17, 514-524.


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