January 11, 2023

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Why don’t we just choose less risky people?

Simon Robinson, Director at Operability Ltd suggests risk-profiling is flawed while an approach to context could be more effective in risk judgement.

This question often comes up in workshops when we talk about risk and people. We see an increasing number of organisations offering risk profiling tests, attempting to predict how risk-tolerant or risk-averse a person is. It seems like an attractive idea for high-hazard industries, to only select people who are risk-averse. But does it make sense?

Risk-profiling has the appearance of a silver bullet, but there are a number of issues to consider:

  • Risk judgement is more influenced by situation than personality;
  • Tests struggle to account for the situations that affect risk judgement;
  • Tests may not be reliable enough;
  • Attaching labels to people can be counterproductive;
  • We benefit from having a diversity of risk appetite.

Correct situation

Risk judgement is specific to the context or situation we are in. Let’s say we have a mountaineer, rock climber or a skydiver taking the test. A test might suggest they are “risk tolerant” or even “risk seeking”, but how they behave in the workplace will be independent of what they are doing for sport. In fact, people in this “risk seeking” category may bring finely-honed risk management skills back to the workplace; they are planning and executing in a controlled manner to manage risk, exactly the sort of systematic approach that hazardous operations require.

All situations

When people are under pressure, time constraints or no-win situations, it can change a person’s perception of risk in unpredictable ways that tests cannot detect. How we judge risk is learnt over time from the situations we find ourselves in real work. Imagine a technician tries to operate a manual valve with a jammed gearbox. It’s a well-known issue round the site, that has been raised it a number of times. Techs have been told there’s no money and the plant will shut unless production is kept up. If the tech decides to unbolt the gearbox and operate the valve with a wrench to keep production going, this risk judgement is not a personality trait but based on previous experiences and the options available to them.


Risk trait selection uses a variety of psychometric testing – those tests that tell you what your personality type is, or who your ideal partner would be.  These tests can seem remarkably accurate when we read the personality description they generate.

Psychometric testing for personality traits can be validated by research and is widely used in many fields.  The most established psychometric tests are based on literally millions of datapoints going back generations. Unfortunately, even tests backed with this level of validation can have weaknesses – they may be established against a narrow demographic, such as only western populations.

However, risk tolerance testing does not have a high level of validation. There isn’t the quantity of data in a variety of circumstances to make them reliable.  What data there is may have been gathered in very different risk situations – such as in a financial risk judgement context, rather than a high hazard operation context. Some testing has only been validated against students. Reliability is patchy – one person can get different results from different tests, and a single person can get different results from the same test taken at a different time when they change job role, accompanied by a shift in challenges from the job.

Credit: lorenzo rossi / Alamy Stock Photo

Do labels work?

Personality testing produces convincing labels for people. Someone may be labelled as an introvert or an extravert, or may be classified as risk-averse or risk-tolerant. However, when we apply labels to people we can get unpredictable and unintended consequences.

A label may amplify the behaviours of the individual according to the description, to the point where it becomes a problem. If a test tells someone that a strength is “attention to detail”, they may start maximising that strength, redoubling efforts to micromanage, at the cost of stepping back and looking at the big picture. Equally, it could cause a person to swing too far to the opposite label. Imagine you are a control-room operator who prides themselves on decisively reacting to plant fluctuations to keep a plant safe. Being labelled as a ‘risk-taker’ could drive you to swing towards “risk averse”, reluctant to take any decision or action until you have concrete data of what’s happening. Self-doubt might freeze you as the plant spins out of control.

Most importantly, a team leader may attribute blame according to a person’s label. If we attribute an incident or situation to the actions of a “known risk-taker”, we stop looking at the conditions that led people to do what made sense to them in the moment. We fail to fix the conditions that set people up for failure.

A healthy risk appetite

Even if we could pigeonhole people as ‘risk avoiding’, would we want everything that could go with that? Would such people want the responsibility of safely managing hazardous plant? Do we imagine leaders and managers who take on huge levels of accountability are ‘low risk’ people? Would ‘low risk’ people take the risk of speaking up when something is wrong? It would be a backward step if we did not have courageous, accountable people willing to speak up when there are problems. Acting in the face of these social risks is an essential protection in high hazard operations.

A person’s reading of a risk situation is a normal human variability like any other, influenced by external factors. We can support people to be successful by helping them to understand risk and rehearse how they handle risk decisions and dilemmas.


In summary, risk judgement is more influenced by context than personality. Psychometric risk profiles don’t yet look reliable, and even if they were reliable they would introduce unhelpful labelling which takes our focus away from context. As with most human endeavours, we benefit from diversity of attitudes and approaches to risk. Just now, drawing from a proscribed set of personality traits doesn’t seem like a reliable way to manage risk in high-hazard industries.

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Nigel Evelyn-dupree
Nigel Evelyn-dupree
1 year ago

Well that’s not gonna leave too many DSE operators as, 58% carrying-on regardless of presenteeism, eye-strain, binocular vision stress, screen fatigue or Computer Vision Syndrome, vision-loss or other MSD’s – MSK’s without making “Reasonable Ergonomic Adjustments and Accommodations” never no mind 1993 DSE Regs, 1998 PUWER Act, HSE Better Display Screen RR 561 2007, 2016 WHO ICD-10, 2018 ISO 45001 and/or Accessibility Regulations whatever!? Curios, you can only qualify for FREE PPE screen glasses post diagnosis of vision-loss with myopia or asthenopia as an “occupational health injury in the workplace” – Bizarre https://www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrpdf/rr561.pdf Product Safety of display screens and/or “screen… Read more »

1 year ago

As someone trained in the use of psychometrics I couldn’t agree more … using them to screen out ‘risky people’ utterly fraught. That’s what training, assessment centres and on the job assessments etc are for. Just one question based entirely on the ‘big 5’ personality traits and not risk perception/ appetitie though (though of course there’s an interlink and overlap): you’re on a flight with your family. Do you want the pilot and key ground crew to be conscientious, detial aware, through, focused and calm by nature – OR slapdash, easily distracted and prone to excitiable over-reaction? Just asking …