Levels of Reliability & Decision Making

31 Oct

I’ve recently been researching the way people look at their colleagues at work; inevitably they start seperating them into two broad camps- those who they trust and those who they don’t trust. Based on the data I was getting I decided to examine how these feelings of trust could be linked to Weick and Sutcliffe’s (2005) work on High Reliability Organizing (HRO) and Sense Making.

According to Wieck et al (ibid) there are 5 traits an organization demonstrates which makes them High Reliability-

  • A focus on failure; they have a strong appreciation of what could go wrong
  • A reluctance to simply explanations; they don’t just use a convenient label or process, they explore alternatives
  • Sensitive to operational matters; if the plan needs to be adapted they will adapt it
  • A commitment to resilience; there are contingencies, escape routes in place, so errors can be recovered from
  • Defer to experts; an appreciation that expertise is disseminated around an organization not just through a hierarchy

In my previous article I discussed how there is a sweet spot between trust and doubt which provides a critical edge to decision making; a stronger appreciation what you know, what you don’t know, and how you can take measures to manage the uncertainty of not knowing. This sweet spot led me to think of trust as a spectrum, and I’ve placed a picture of the spectrum, in its ideal sweet spot, below



The spectrum is dominated by trust, which enables action with appropriate feelings of control to take place, but also contains a degree of doubt, which enables caution and so the ability to recover from interruptions (Weick, 2009). This level of trust lends itself to higher reliability action, as it increases the critical element of sense making. This is very important when looking to improve decision making as it is the sense making process\ stage which produces the decision when a person is faced with a situation, particularly novel situations. I separate sense making and decision making like this

Sense making is how you interpret a situation

Decision making is the choice you make based on that interpretation

Therefore, improving the sense making process is crucial to improving decision making. It follows that sense making produces (or not) higher reliability decisions. If this is a ladder an organization is looking to climb (toward higher reliability) then a simple focus on trust can nudge the organization up a rung on the ladder. A reason I suggest trust is that without it the cognitive load on people increases massively (I’ve recently come across this with research I carried out with construction site managers). These cognitively loaded people are constantly chasing up requests to check if they are being actioned whilst being distracted from other tasks, which ultimately reduces organizational reliability. A method of reducing this cognitive load, and developing healthier levels of trust, is to ensure the people you communicate with share your sense making. If they do not share sense making (or put another way, the reasoning behind your choices) then subsequent decisions will drift significantly away from expectations. This (sharing sense making) can be achieved by adapting the public sense making script developed by Weick (2009) and used extensively by Klein (2007) in a variety of organisations. This is the script-

This is what I think we face

This is what I think we should do about it

This is the reason why

This is what to look out for; because if these things change we face a different situation

Now talk to me; in other words, what do you think could go wrong with my plan?

The above script is a simple method to ensure people get on the right page. When this sense making is shared then trust increases, cognitive load reduces and finally, reliability climbs further up the ladder.


Weick, K.E. (2009) Making Sense of the Organisation: The Impermanent Organization. Volume Two. Wiley

Weick, K.E. & Sutcliffe, K.M. & Obtsfeld, D. (2005) Organizing and the Process of Sense Making. Organization Science. No.4, July-August, pp.409-421

Klien, G.E. (2007) The Power of Intuition. Currency Books

Previous article https://echobreaker.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/how-trust-influences-decision-making/ 


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