How Do We Know?

How Do We Know?Depositphotos_10843497_s-2015

We cannot know about things we do not have a belief in. It makes no sense to say, “I know the earth is spherical, but I don’t believe it”. Yet it is important to note that believing something does not guarantee that the belief is right.

(Dew and Foreman 2014)

This quote from How Do We Know caused me to reflect about how we understand ‘knowledge’ in risk and safety. I wondered how some people working in our industry may respond to Dew and Foreman’s notion that “beliefs act as a first step” toward ‘knowledge’, and importantly whether our industry is mature enough to contemplate the thought that some part of ‘knowing’ is based on the subjective notion of ‘beliefs’.

I can sense by now that the Safety Crusaders reading this are thinking, “That is just ridiculous, knowledge is simply about competency and assessment, either people know stuff or they don’t, it’s got nothing to do with wishy washy beliefs. That’s just not the way things are done in risk and safety.” They may also be asking; “how can you measure beliefs?” This is probably because they adopt the approach of ‘what you can’t measure you can’t manage’. If you don’t pass the test, you don’t ‘know’, so therefore you just have to keep doing the test until you pass. That’s how we know that you know!

I’m guessing that if you have reached this point in the article that either you have some real interest in learning more about ‘how do we know’, or perhaps you are in such a state of ‘dissonance’ that you feel the need to read more just so you can disagree even further.

So what of this idea that belief may act as a first step toward knowledge?

I wonder if one idea we can take from this is that in order to ‘know’ something that it has to be grounded in an idea or concept that we believe to be plausible and real. Think about this in risk and safety. If we consider ‘knowledge’ of hazards, are we best to hear about the dangers and potential for harm and injury from someone during a 2 hour induction in a classroom or, are we more likely to be able to ‘imagine’ and create belief, if we are able to touch, feel, smell, experience and ask questions for ourselves?

How often do we take this approach in safety though? Are we really interested in others’ beliefs, and in creativity and imagination, or is our focus too consumed with making sure ‘they’ are told what ‘we’ need them to know?

Secondly, I wonder if ‘belief’ could also be associated with our ‘worldview’? That is, could our ‘knowing’ be influenced by how we view the world and could it be that our lens for learning and ‘knowing’ is affected by this?

For example, in risk and safety, if our worldview is about control, systems, obedience and rule, do we really think that this is going to be shared by people doing the work? What do you think their beliefs may be? Could they differ from ours? Could this create problems in learning and sharing knowledge?

Having a worldview that is built on these things is unlikely to generate belief for workers in anything other than fear and anxiety. Will they really ‘know’ anything other than how to avoid being punished (or caught)?

What is your worldview? How do you think this impacts both on yours and others ‘knowing’ and learning?

Lets explore further how ‘knowledge’, ‘beliefs’ and ‘worldview’ may play out in the context of risk and safety.

Take for example a story shared by some friends who in the construction industry. They told me how in their organisation, any contractor that comes onto one of their sites, is first required to complete an online induction that takes around 90 minutes. This qualifies them to come on site only to hear exactly the same information again, this time from the team on site. This action is repeated at every new site they perform work at for this organisation.

The people attending the inductions are mostly experienced trades people. The have spent years in the industry and typically go from site to site, and from construction company to construction company and hear the same message over and over. Messages like ‘safety glasses and hard hats are mandatory here’, and how the organisations want them to ‘go home in the same condition as they came’ and the old favorite; ‘safety is our first priority’. Blah, blah blah!

Some within the same group of friends conceded that they didn’t ‘believe’ in the need to wear safety glasses at all times either, however, blanket rules make everyone’s job easier and safer.

Yet despite this belief about glasses not being required, the policing of safety glasses is one of the key (and easiest) tasks that these guys do. I understand this, it’s much easier than engaging in conversation with the aim of understanding others beliefs (especially if they are different from ours). That would require a worldview where the focus is on understanding, on inquiring and on love for others; not on control, obedience and rule.

Imagine for a moment if the construction workers were to learn that the people policing the rules didn’t think that the rule made sense anyway. Surely this would only serve to reinforce their belief that rules are rules, and they will be enforced (whether they make sense or not). What beliefs are we creating in our people when we make and enforce rules just to make our job easier?

What do we want the guys doing the work to believe; that rules are there for your safety and must be followed just because they are a rule, or that safety glasses, if worn for certain tasks, may prevent you from being injured?

Of course, beliefs are just the starting point in acquiring knowledge, we also need to understand how we justify our beliefs, about how we work out what is true. Then there is the importance of understanding that learning and ‘knowing’ are communal activities. I’ll explore these topics further in future blogs.

For now though, are we prepared to take the time and energy required to build relationships so that we may better understand what others believe? Or, will we stick with the easier path and continue policing, even if it is policing something that you don’t believe?

Are we in risk and safety ready to deal with such an ambiguous idea that beliefs are an important part of what it means to ‘know’?

As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments.

Author: Robert Sams    Phone: +61 424 037 112



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Rob Sams
Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

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