Conforming and Questioning in Safety


imageCass Sunstein’s tidy little book Conformity (2019) raises many issues that people in safety need to think about. The book starts by discussing the many social influences that affect decision making, demonstrating that the simplistic ideas of BBS and zero are nonsense. I have mapped many of these social influences here as a free poster download:

The issue of conformity raises associated questions of obedience, identity, belonging and non-conformity. The foundation of developing safe procedures is based on the idea that it is best to conform. However, in the face of turbulence in organisations and change in the workplace, when is it best to question, challenge and consider NOT conforming? When is it best to adapt, change, flex and create? Weick called this ‘bricolage’ in Managing the Unexpected. Questioning procedures, instructions and orders, demands skills in conversational and Socratic questioning, entertaining doubt and a sense of vision for trajectory and imagination. All of these are not skills encouraged by a culture of compliance ( The tricky part of all of this is knowing when, why and how and being prepared to put one’s values on the line.

Sunstein explains in Chapter Two just how the psychology of compliance works. He also demonstrates how this leads to disaster through what he calls ‘cascades’. The effect of cascades in conformity are much more powerful in large organisations than those that are small and adaptable. Once a bureaucratic juggernaut has been put in place and endorsed by a myth/symbol like zero, it is nearly impossible to not conform. In the same chapter Sunstein discusses ‘How to Break and Make Cascades’.

Unfortunately, when a culture of compliance has been established, questioning is interpreted as defiance and is then politicized ( ). Once defiance has been named and politicized then the person associated is demonized. This is further empowered when the ideology takes on the status of a rite and religious sacred act. In this way, the industry doesn’t have to mature and change. ‘Fortress safety’ is fundamental to the dynamic of association and why the safety associations delight in zero.

I receive mail each week from safety people who either want to leave the industry or have just been sacked because they have questioned something. Often trouble comes when the mythologies of management ( are questioned around attributions of measurement or the meaninglessness of some procedures. Strangely, management seem to expect that safety people should be the most compliant of all employees!

Sunstein also discuses the importance and skills of silence and the perception needed to pick the right fight. Unfortunately, this requires skills in ethical critical thinking, something not taught in the safety curriculum.

Sometimes it’s hard to work out what matters most unless one can see the philosophical and ideological foundations beneath something. For example, tackling zero in a large organization may seem pointless, yet it forms the foundation for many processes of dehumanization that follow. The trouble is, with the global mantra for safety set as zero, any challenge will lead to losing your job. The compliance industry of safety based on zero will never invite debate, questioning or contesting ideas. When the world is interpreted through the religious discourse of zero, any questioning must be demonized.

This is why I have developed a number of free videos, blogs and books to help.

Sometimes the best way to question the ideology of zero is to point people in the direction of these resources and to later hold a reflective conversation. In that way one is not directly put in the firing line and open to the demonization and politicization of the industry.

For helpful blogs just do a search on this site for ‘zero’ and there is an avalanche of help.

Zero, The Maintenance of a Dangerous Idea from Human Dymensions on Vimeo.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

Latest posts by Dr Rob Long (see all)

Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

8 Replies to “Conforming and Questioning in Safety”

    1. The whole language of hierarchy in safety is nonsense. Safety simply doesn’t get it. All values compete in life and all values are situational, including safety. This kind of simplistic stuff just keeps safety more dumb.

    1. The whole language of hierarchy in safety is nonsense. Safety simply doesn’t get it. All values compete in life and all values are situational, including safety. This kind of simplistic stuff just keeps safety more dumb.

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below