Coping With Paradox and Ambiguity in Safety

safety firstOne of the temptations of working in safety is to portray a ‘wicked problem’ as black and white, simple and easy ( ). A wicked problem is any problem that cannot be ‘fixed’ or ‘solved’ and the more one attempts to do so, the more ‘wicked’ the problem becomes. Wicked problems extend way beyond any concept of complexity. Wicked problems cannot be ‘solved’ they can only be ‘tackled’ ( and even then with a transdisciplinary approach.

Paradox and ambiguity are uncomfortable, uncertainty creates anxiety. However, no matter how much we wish to eliminate such anxiety states such as fallibility are eternal ( ). The flip side of fallibility is learning, the flip side of learning is risk, try to suppress fallibility or risk and this will have an effect on learning. It’s a paradox. So, living with uncertainty, ambiguity and fallibility is the human condition. If someone tells you they can predict the future or some other such delusion ask them to define what it is to be human.

One of the by-products of fallibility and ambiguity is the tolerance-intolerance dialectic. Knowing when to be tolerant and when to be intolerant is developed through experience, maturity, compassion and wisdom. Such is the life of any parent. A wise parent learns quickly that many things in life are grey, many things are uncertain and decision making is rarely black and white. Even then an unwise decision can be costly with terrible relationship outcomes. Of course, tolerance requires the wisdom of forgiveness, humility and love, qualities essential to any relationship between fallible people.

Unfortunately, Intolerance and tolerance can be attenuated or amplified by the same context, often fostered by hidden assumptions, beliefs and prejudices (

The symbol for intolerance is zero.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

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

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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.

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