As I'm finishing up my new case study on the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I am struck by an interesting similarity to another major accident. In February 2001 the USS Greenville, a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine (SSN 772 Los Angeles class), collided with a Japanese fishing boat - the Ehime Maru. On the day of the collision, Commander Scott Waddle hosted sixteen VIPs on board his submarine. On April 20, 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon blowout occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, four VIPs were visiting the rig. Could the VIP visits have had any effect on safety-related behavior?
Perhaps the presence of the VIPs may have affected behavior in several ways. First, it may have distracted senior leaders on both the submarine and the oil drilling rig. After all, the leaders had to spend time escorting the VIPs. They may have otherwise spent that time directly supervising the work of their crews. Second, lower level workers may have been more reticent to raise concerns, express dissent, and ask questions about safety procedures given the presence of the VIPs. After all, they may not have wanted to make their bosses look bad in front of the VIPs, or they may not have wanted to bother the senior leaders. Third, the presence of the VIPs may have created additional stress and anxiety. Perhaps that stress may have affected decision-making.
What's the lesson for business leaders in all fields? Executives have to get out of their offices and make visits in the field. They must connect with front-line employees to see what is actually going on in the organization. However, they must be very careful about diverting attention away from critical tasks or distorting the behavior of their employees. In most cases, the distractions won't be matters of life or death, but they may adversely affect key processes and outcomes.