Where do you stand on the historical nature vs. nurture argument? Do you put more stock in the person, or the situation?
The truth is, it’s rarely ever just the person or just the situation. When we combine these two data points, we always have more information than when we isolate one over the other. Renowned psychologist Kurt Lewin elegantly articulated this with his famous equation:1
B = f (P,E), where B = Behavior, P = Person, and E = Environment
In other words, human behavior is determined by two broad factors: the person and situation they are in. The “Person” variable in this formula includes individual characteristics such as personality traits, which have been shown to predict job performance, safety behaviors and work injuries.2, 3
We also know that human behavior is complex and that external factors exert powerful effects upon it. Many situations have such strong cues that they produce pressure to behave in a certain way. Take driving, for example. How do most people respond to having a police car flash their lights directly behind them while driving? When placed into this condition, the vast majority of people will react in a very predictable way: they will pull their vehicle over.
The Concept of Situational Strength
In these types of situations, there are salient cues, a specific response is expected, and there are strong consequences if we do not comply (e.g., hefty fine and possibly being arrested). As a result, the situation tends to dominate and shape our behavior, suppressing people’s unique characteristics and tendencies.
Enter the concept of “situational strength,” which is based largely upon the work of psychologist Walter Mischel. While he was a strong proponent of personality traits, Mischel believed we could better understand personality by considering how it manifested itself in different situations.4 Through this lens, we can classify situations as “strong” or “weak.” Strong situations have characteristics that highly influence behavior and suppress individual differences. Weak situations have low impact on behavior, allowing for greater variability in how people respond, as shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Characteristics of Strong vs. Weak Situations
So, how can we determine whether a situation is strong or weak? There are four characteristics which determine this. We can refer to them as the “4 Cs of situational strength.”5 The more a situation is characterized by these four aspects, the stronger it will be.
Clarity – The extent to which cues regarding work-related responsibilities or requirements are available and easy to understand.
Consistency – The extent to which cues regarding work-related responsibilities or requirements are compatible with each other.
Constraints – The extent to which an individual's freedom of decision and action is limited by forces outside his or her control.
Consequences – The extent to which decisions or actions have important positive or negative implications for any relevant person or entity.
Based on this model, weak situations tend to lack these elements, providing people the opportunity to exhibit their unique personality, ability, and experience. Certain individuals differentiate themselves and shine in the moment while others are likely to react poorly. This is why an individual’s behavior in “gray area” situations tells us a lot about who they are.
Situational Strength and Personality Traits Interact to Influence Behavior
Figure 1 below shows a simple hypothetical example of two employees who differ in terms of their risk aversion, which is a well-researched personality trait. Employees 1 and 2 will both likely show similar low-risk behavior in strong situations where safety policies are clearly communicated and simple to understand. If we weaken the situation by making these safety policies vague, however, Employee 2 will probably interpret these in a more flexible manner and engage in more risk-tolerant behaviors. If we further weaken the situation by adding inconsistent rule application, we’ll likely see even further differentiation between the two individuals. Published studies on this topic have supported this type of dynamic in various work settings.6, 7 It’s important to note that risk aversion is not necessarily better than risk seeking; there are potential benefits associated with risk-taking behavior, depending on the situation and objective.
Figure 1. Likelihood of At-Risk Behavior Under Varying Situational Strength
The relationship between the employee and the strength of situations they work in provides many opportunities for us to help employees be successful and safe. While employee actions are important, employers must do everything they can do to reduce risks. To do so, it’s important to:
1) Assess each employee’s safety-related traits
2) Learn when and why situational strength varies
3) Understand how each team member is likely to respond in weak safety situations
Table 2 provides information on a few safety examples related to the 4 Cs of situational strength.
Table 2. Weak Safety Situations
Safety leaders can use these concepts in a variety of applications and settings, such as:
- Risk assessment
- Coaching and feedback
- Toolbox talk discussions
- Safety training
Through a better understanding of weak versus strong safety situations and how these interact with individual characteristics, safety leaders can set up employees for safe and successful performance under varying conditions.
- Lewin, K. (1936). Principles of Topological Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 4–7.
- Barrick, M. & Mount, M. (1991). The Big Five personality dimensions and job performance: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 44, 1-26.
- Beus, J., Dhanani, L. & McCord, M. (2015). A meta-analysis of personality and workplace safety: Addressing unanswered questions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100, 481-498.
- Mischel, W. (1977). The interaction of person and situation. In Magnusson, D.; Endler, N.S. (eds.). Personality at the crossroads: Current issues in interactional psychology. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 333–352.
- Meyer, R., Dalal, R. & Hermida, R. (2010). A review and synthesis of situational strength in the organizational sciences. Journal of Management, 36, 121-140.
- Judge, T. & Zapata, C. (2015). The person-situation debate revisited: Effect of situation strength and trait activation on the validity of the Big Five personality traits in predicting job performance. Academy of Management Journal, 58, 1149-1179.
- Lee, S. & Dalal, R. (2016). Climate as situational strength: Safety climate strength as a cross-level moderator of the relationship between conscientiousness and safety behavior. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 25, 120-132.