Dan O’Brien was as close as you’ll ever get to a sure bet for winning a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics. At the 1991 World Championships, he’d posted the top score in five of the ten events comprising the men’s decathlon. In contrast, none of the 26 world-class athletes competing against him won more than a single event. Sportswear giant Reebok’s confidence in Dan was so high that they spent over $25 million on an advertising campaign following his path to Olympic glory. Imagine everyone’s surprise when Dan didn’t make the US Olympic Team!
During the Olympic Team trials, Dan was winning by a comfortable margin heading into the pole vault. A successful vault at the initial height of 14’ 5 1/4” would have landed him in second place overall with two events remaining. Not a bad place to be, considering the top three finishers would make the team. Surprisingly, Dan waited until the bar reached 15’ 9” before making his first attempt. That’s the height he routinely opened at. Heck, he’d even cleared 16’ 1” during warm-ups earlier that day.
You’ve probably already guessed what happened. Dan missed all three attempts at 15’ 9” and finished in 11th place overall. He later said, “If I had to do it again, I would still come in at 15’ 9”, just like I do every day in practice. I believe that’s a safe height for me. I believe I can go out and make it every day. Except today.”
The Psychology Dictionary defines overconfidence as an unsupported belief or unrealistically good presumption that a favored result will arise. The ‘unrealistically good presumption’ part of the definition applies well in this case, especially given what was at stake. While overconfidence cost Dan his dream of a gold medal in Barcelona, he’d later win it all at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Unfortunately, people don’t always get a second chance when overconfidence comes into play. Case in point: The 2010 International Conference on Fatality and Serious Injury Elimination concluded that overconfidence was a factor in approximately 75% of the nearly 400 fatalities reviewed. It’s truly a killer.
So how can we guard against it? Well, understanding that overconfidence stems from success is a big first step. When we complete a task multiple times, and it goes well each time, it’s human nature to let our guard down and begin approaching that task like it’s not so risky after all. Any praise we receive from supervisors and peers in response to our success can hasten the onset of overconfidence. Remember, success doesn’t change the degree of risk inherent to the task…it only changes our perception of it.
Another way to reduce overconfidence involves learning about cases where it resulted in serious injuries or fatalities. Invariably, the individuals involved were highly skilled, very experienced, and wanted to go home to their families in one piece. You know…people just like us! Once we realize they didn’t think it could happen to them, we’ll stop denying it can happen to us.
During task preparation, we should always ask “What’s the worst thing that could happen during this task?”. The answer can be alarming enough to get our attention, even if the probability of it occurring appears low. If we also take the time to consider the vast number of things that must go right in order to complete the task incident-free, it might just make us concerned enough to keep our guard up.
Keep on the lookout for indications of overconfidence! When you hear someone (or yourself!) say things like “I’ve got this!”, “I’ve done this a hundred times!”, or “I could do this in my sleep!”, it’s time to stop and reassess the situation before someone gets hurt. Overconfidence tends to shroud our ability to recognize when we’ve transitioned to a more vulnerable mental state or physical condition. As the owner of Compass Performance Improvement LLC, I’ve partnered for several years with Fisher Improvement Technologies (FIT) to develop Cause Analysis approaches that integrate solid methodologies with the practical application of HOP principles. We’d love to help if your organization wants to reduce incident probability and consequences. Please visit www.improvewithfit.com to learn more about the products and services FIT offers, including how to enroll in our upcoming Cause Analysis Workshops. You can also contact me directly via LinkedIn or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.