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November 2015

Normalizing Bad Behavior – Part III

In parts I and II of this post I introduce the concept of normalizing deviant behavior and why we rationalize the decision the deviate from established norms and standards. In this last installment of my post on behavior, I want to briefly discuss what safety researchers refer as the “The Drift into Failure”.

I don’t want my readers to misunderstand. Sometimes a set of circumstances requires that decisions be made that carry greater risk. When an organization looks at something that requires taking action that carries increased risk, and that risk is calculated, then both the decision and the ethics of it are sound.

But that is not the case here. Too many times deviations from a standard occur because something changed and time constraints become severe. So shortcuts are taken, and the rationalization is shared by multiple people. Over time, as the shortcut becomes the norm, it too is subject to modification in the same manner and for the same reasons discussed. Eventually deviant behavior can become the norm; to the point where a gross deviation from the norm becomes acceptable.

It is at this point that the Drift into Failure is firmly established. The tragedy may take months or even years to unfold, or the next decision, the next action could trigger the tragedy or disaster.

At this point unethical decisions have piled up one on top of the other, and there are so many they no longer appear to be unethical. It is important not to lose sight of this basic idea. Because at any point someone could stand up, say “stop”, and recommend that the very process by which the standard was created be re-examined to determine what changes could be made so that taking shortcuts would no longer be necessary.

It takes courage to say this process is wrong and dangerous and needs to stop. People up and down the chain are invested in the new normal, and the person saying “stop” does so at great risk – even to the point of losing his or her job. All too often no one has the courage and the drift into failure is not stopped.

Do I exaggerate? Let’s take a look at the last 30 years. The most casual research will show what the drift into failure can lead to:


The Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia

The Bhopal India Cyanide Cloud

The Costa Concordia

The EPA mismanagement of toxic site cleanups in Georgia and Colorado

Food for Thought: “Rationalization is a process of not perceiving reality, but of attempting to make reality fit one’s emotions.” (Ayn Rand)