Acknowledge Trade-offs to Make Better Inquiries

Acknowledge Trade-offs to Make Better Inquiries

I’ve just arrived home from the Society of Australasian Social Psychologists (SASP) 2016 Conference, where I had the privilege of both listening to and then reflecting on some great presentations. I also presented a short paper myself. If you’re interested in reading my paper, you can access it here.

It struck me as I sat listening to the many presentations over three days that, not surprisingly, some interested me more than others. There were academics and students at all levels presenting their thoughts and research on a broad range of social psychological topics. There are some that I’ve decided to follow up in more detail than others. In doing so, I know that this means that I might be missing out on some useful information, but the fact is that I cannot follow through on everything, as much as I do love to read and learn!

When we choose a certain path to follow through on such inquiries, we must accept that we are trading-off one or more methods of inquiry. What do I mean by this?

In this piece, I thought it would be useful to explore this idea of trading-off when making inquiries, by considering a model outlined by Karl Weick in his book The Social Psychology of Organising.

In a section titled Acknowledge Tradeoffs (1979, p. 25), Weick provides a useful discussion on the topic in the context of making inquiries in relation to theories of social behaviour. Weick notes in relation to Thorngate’s (1976) postulate of commensurate complexity; “This postulate states that it is impossible for a theory of social behaviour to be simultaneously general, accurate and simple”.

If you have not read Weick, you may by this point, be confused and wondering what I am on about, please let me explain.

To begin, Weick’s explains that such ‘inquiries’ may be either general, accurate or simple.

General inquiries lead us to have perhaps a common, rather than deep understanding of the topic of the inquiry. This may mean that we read a few articles, maybe a book or talk with a subject matter expert in seeking to understand a particular topic.

Secondly, Weick suggests we may seek an accurate understanding. It may be useful to think of this in a philosophical way, as a search for the ‘truth’. This is bound to require extensive inquiries in many different directions and through many different sources. It may be an ‘up and down’ journey as one path may lead to another as the truth is chased down.

The third line of inquiry that Weick suggests is simple. That is, we may accept something on face value without delving too deeply at all. This might be accepting new information such as a newspaper article or media report, and not much else. We really have no deep interest in the topic which in turn causes us to make no further inquires.

Of course, like all things in life, making inquiries is not such a simple process, there will be many variations of each of the three models. That is, we may make a decision that is somewhere between general and accurate, or likewise between accurate and simple. In the book Weick uses a clock face as a way to visually depict this, I’ve attempted to reproduce this below.


If you consider the clock metaphor, you may think of decisions made at 2 o’clock as being somewhere between general and accurate, and likewise decisions at six o’clock as somewhere between accurate and simple.

So what has this got to do with risk and safety.

We often hear criticism of ‘dumb-down’ thinking in risk and safety and I agree that there is a tendency to ‘dumb-things down’ in the industry. It seems that our approach is often somewhere closer to simple and general, rather than accurate in the context as described by Weick. We see this play out when we hear; ‘safety is just common sense’.

I know, retrospectively, that as I sat through the Conference last week that I made (mostly unconscious) decisions to follow information through in all of the ways described by Weick. I am limited by time and I have a thirst to continue to learn, so I know that I cannot follow all information through in an accurate way, there will be some inquiries made that are simple and general, and that’s ok.

It would be silly of us to think that we can make good inquiries without ‘trading-off’ one or more of the other methods and as Weick notes; “if you try to secure any two of the virtues of generality, accuracy and simplicity, you automatically sacrifice the third”.

If we are to move away from ‘dumb-down thinking’ in risk and safety, I wonder if considering Weick’s model might be a useful way for us to move out of this mode of inquiring?

Author: Robert Sams

Phone: 0424 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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