Big Assumptions


Does this sound familiar? 

“I can’t understand why our employees keep fighting our fatigue management initiatives.  We provide them with all the science showing how much safer our operations will be and the personal benefits they will experience, like being healthier, happier and more productive. They say they understand and are committed to supporting our initiatives, but their behaviour does not change.”

Big assumptions Diagram

Getting people to buy into your fatigue management programs, plans and systems is one of the most difficult challenges you will experience as a Fatigue Manager.  One of the reasons is because it requires people to change behaviours that have deep roots in their Big Assumptions.  These assumptions are beliefs about themselves and the world around them.  For example, a big assumption that is often shared amongst shift-workers is “If I buy into my Fatigue Manager’s plans, I will lose a lot of money because I won’t be able to work overtime.” 

Assumptions are not illogical. They are often logically validated repeatedly. For example, shift-workers can be paid 1.5 times their rate for regular overtime work and even two times their rate for overtime at night. Shift-work alone can make you feel fatigued at times.  Add in regular overtime or overtime at night and ask any shift-worker about fatigue. With an almost 100% guarantee, the shift-worker will admit to being fatigued during overtime. But if you pay the shift-worker extra for the overtime hours over and over again, fatigue gets tightly linked to a financial reward. It then makes perfect sense to assume that removing fatigue will also remove the money. 

Big assumptions result in competing commitments that direct shift-worker behaviour.  For example, with the assumption about buying into a Fatigue Manager’s plans resulting in a financial loss, the shift-worker may knowingly (or without awareness) commit to maintaining a dysfunctional relationship with the Fatigue Manager. This could result in overt behaviours such as challenging the manager on every statement made even if they are not related to fatigue management or covert behaviours like sharing rumours about the Fatigue Manager with colleagues.

As a Fatigue Manager encountering difficulties getting people to buy into your programs, plans and systems or if you are seeing overt or covert behaviours that are incompatible with your shift-workers’ stated commitment to support you, try to better understand the big assumptions and competing commitments at play[1].  Understanding these factors may provide some insight about where you can intervene to move your initiatives forward.


[1] For a helpful process to follow when exploring big assumptions and competing commitments, see:  Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. (2001). The real reason people won’t change.  Harvard Business Review, November, 85-92.