By What Method?
When one looks at the many promises made in the safety industry and all the propaganda about zero, injury reduction etc. there are three questions one must ask:
1. By what method? And,
2. What is the trajectory?
3. What are the trade-offs and by-products?
Every theory and school of thought (https://safetyrisk.net/a-great-comparison-of-risk-and-safety-schools-of-thought/) including the Social Psychology of Risk is underpinned by a methodology. A methodology is an ethic and philosophy that drives method. Each school of thought has its own values, beliefs and understanding of personhood embedded in their worldview that is often not disclosed. So, a consultant or CEO might make claims to be able to improve culture, bring down injury rates or teleport in time but one should always ask: by what method, what is the trajectory and what are the trade-offs and by-products?
If a method dehumanises people or turns people into objects then the methodology should be rejected. This is despite the ‘spin’ that accompanies the sales pitch.
Every methodology holds assumptions about: ethics, anthropology, education, politics, meaning, economics, psychology, sociology, justice, policy, power and personhood. These are always spun in the language of what is ‘good’. I have just finished watching the series on Netflix ‘Hitler’s Circle of Evil’. One thing we learn from the history of the Nazis is that their ideology was always expressed in honourable ways for the ‘good’ of the collective. Few in the inner circle ever expressed methodology in their diaries for overt evil. The language was always what was good for the collective.
We learned this week that Hans Asperger was actively involved in euthanasia of children who were not deemed perfect (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-20/hans-asperger-a-nazi-collaborator-finds-study-on-autism-clinic/9679448 ). This was never declared as an act of evil but rather the natural consequence of an ideology of measurement and eugenics. The same methodology is present in some parts of the safety industry (https://safetyrisk.net/safety-eugenics-and-the-engineering-of-risk-aversion/). Eugenics is always expressed in ways that cost the lives or livelihood of individuals for the good of the collective. Whilst one wouldn’t condone the actions of Hans Asperger it is understandable through a range of very powerful social influences (https://safetyrisk.net/mapping-social-influence-strategies/) that Asperger was a product of his time and place. Social Psychology teaches us that we too would have complied with the Nazis had we been there ourselves (https://www.amazon.com/Experiments-People-Revelations-Social-Psychology/dp/0805828974 ). After all, the goal of safety is compliance. The last thing Safety wants is a maverick and so Safety through compliance justifies all methods. Social Psychology teaches us that most people in the face of Nazi power were simply compliant (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-heroes-and-villains/201701/kurt-lewin-the-refugee-who-founded-social-psychology ).
It is important to understand that one can have an admirable goal such as the reduction of harm but then chose a dehumanising method to achieve that goal. This is how safety comes up with grand schemes to over-ride the rights of others (https://safetyrisk.net/safety-gives-me-the-right-over-other-rights/) justified by the ‘crusade’ of safety (https://safetyrisk.net/are-you-a-safety-crusader-or-a-safety-leader/). When Safety becomes an absolute methodology then crusading becomes the method. It doesn’t matter whether the promises are for utopia or zero, if the method is: oppressive, dehumanising, violates human dignity, invasive or mechanistic, then it must be rejected. An evil method never justifies a good methodology.
Some of the biggest promises that abound in the safety industry regard culture. This is why Safety adores simplistic definitions of culture as is demonstrated in the SIA Body of Knowledge. When culture is defined as either: behaviours (what we do around here), systems or leadership, it is not likely that anything will change in time. Understanding the complexity of culture is essential. Culture is not about some binary notion of behaviours that can be changed by behaviourist inputs and outputs. Systems make up such a small understanding of culture that any tweaking of systems is like shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s like suggesting that resilience can be ‘engineered’, what binary simplistic nonsense. When one embraces any attempt to enact something in or on culture one is tackling a ‘wicked problem’ (http://www.peterwagner.com.au/wp-content/uploads/Safety-A-Wicked-Problem2.pdf ).
Changing culture is like trying to change clouds. This is why my definition of culture is semiotic not systemic or behaviourist (https://vimeo.com/118458068).
One can’t change culture with some expectation of mutual goodwill. One cannot change safety within a culture by publishing data or by lecturing about what is good. Even if one manages to shift systems and affect some change in behaviours without tackling a host of semiotic issues in the collective unconscious it is not likely that there will be culture change. If the method is not comprehensive it is not likely that what is promised will have any longitudinal effect.
I am about to travel to Europe where the leaders in a huge organization want to better understand culture and the nature of risk. They have tried everything over the past 10 years to affect change and it simply hasn’t worked. So remarkably they realized that maybe the problem is not their methodology but their method. They realized that the problem was not the problem but their definition of the problem itself. We will be spending three days together in a workshop in understanding culture as a wicked problem (http://cognexus.org/wpf/wickedproblems.pdf) and then strategically thinking about ‘reframing’ and ‘tackling’ the problem. This is where the practical tools in the Social Psychology of Risk are helpful. Not in ‘fixing’ or ‘controlling’, but in understanding new ways of influence and ‘tackling’ issues of culture.
I am also about to start work with a huge construction company in Australia that has just dropped the language of ‘zero’ from their discourse but don’t know what to do next. What a wonderful starting point for culture change, there are good news stories after all. Language is the bedrock of culture and is the starting point in many cases towards culture change. These two companies will be joining other exemplar organisations that are implementing the principles and practical tools in the Social Psychology of Risk and realizing and enacting the challenges of tackling culture change.
If you want to know about these companies and organisations you can write to me and I can refer you to them (firstname.lastname@example.org). One such company wrote the forewords to my sixth book: Tackling Risk, A Field Guide to Risk and Learning (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/tackling-risk/ ).