Disrupting the Methodology in Safety?
There seems a real focus at the moment on finding better and ‘different’ ways (or methods) to ‘do’ Safety; both in organisations and for those working in the field. There is a lot of good discussion happening and in particular, it is positive to note that much more attention seems to be focused on a greater understanding of people and why we do what we do. Disruption is the buzz word, and in this piece I ponder what it is that we should really be disrupting.
To begin, I do consider a greater focus on understanding people as a step in a better direction (rather than a direction of fear, blame and punitive measures), however, it is also a path that we need to tread down carefully and cautiously.
So why do I suggest care and caution; surely any different ‘method’ we develop that focuses more on people is good (and better), right?
While it is hard to argue with this on face value, the question that comes to mind as I reflect on this, is of what a search for a new and/or different ‘method’ will achieve, without a corresponding challenge and disruption of the predominant ‘methodologies’ (worldviews) that seem to dominate in Safety?
Do we need to be cautious not to get trapped in the especially seductive appeal of new techniques, tools and gizmos (all ‘methods’) and instead, really challenge ourselves to ‘disrupt’ and question the predominantly ‘engineering’ and ‘fixing focused’ methodologies that seem to lead our current approach to Safety?
This is the question that I would like to explore here and I will do this through a story about a recent experience.
The story that comes to mind was a recent discussion with a friend about the idea of ‘Humble Inquiry’ as proposed by Edgar Schein’s informative and influential book of the same name.
I know that there are many who work in Safety that also promote Schien’s work and I recommend it as essential reading for all who work in the field. For those not familiar with Schein’s work, before we venture further, let’s consider a basic understanding what humble inquiry is. Schein describes it as:
“Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person” (p.2)
On a first read and in taking a simple understanding of this definition, humble inquiry may sound quite straightforward. That is, Schein is simply encouraging us to ask more ‘open questions’ and importantly listening more with the aim of building relationships with others.
It could be this simple if we were to take such concepts and consider them from the worldview of engineering and fixing that may be tempted to view humble inquiry as a ‘method’. However, I don’t believe this is what Schein is channelling us towards. Humble inquiry is about an underlying ‘methodology’ of aspiring to understand and accept people; along with their ideas, their fallibilities and their failings.
So while I have no doubt that simply listening more and telling less would have a significant impact in Safety, we need to be cautious not to see ‘humble inquiry’ just as a ‘method’ (i.e. as a thing we do).
Worldviews focused mainly on engineering and fixing can easily be tempted down this path as they seek ‘methods’ as solutions to problems. Whereas a worldview that accepts the complex nature of humans as ‘beings’ that are fallible, mortal and imperfect, may still struggle with the complex nature of humans, however will be more at ease with people ‘being’ and ‘living’ rather than trying to protect them from all that life may throw their way. So what are some other challenges in viewing ‘humble inquiry’ through the worldview of engineering and as a method?
When our methodology is anchored to an ‘engineering’ view of the world we would seek to ‘systematize’ humble inquiry; turning it into a process, seeking to make it a fail proof method and results focused. Inevitably we would be unable to resist the need to count and measure it. That’s what an ‘engineering’ dominated worldview does to ideas; just look at ‘Take 5’, ‘Toolbox Talks’ and ‘Safety Observations’ – all well-established ‘methods’ that have lost their way because they have become more about ‘things we do’ rather than a ‘way of being’. So why is this so hard to do?
It is not easy in our modern world to make our ‘reason for being’ about ‘others’ and it can be a challenge to be humble. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that an engineering worldview is so attractive and prominent? It’s easier.
After all, it is much easier to see others as problems to be fixed; fixing makes us feel good. ‘Meeting people’ on the other hand means that we have to live with the uncomfortable feeling that others may be living in pain and hurting and there is nothing we can do about it. That doesn’t feel good. If you consider humble inquiry as a method to fix problems in others, then it is likely that your view of the world is what I described above as ‘engineering’.
If this is the predominant worldview in Safety, is our current ‘disruption’ going to take us anywhere ‘different’? Are we really about disrupting, or is Safety simply seeking out new methods within an existing methodology?
So let’s explore this idea further and consider what Schein himself suggests is one of the main problems in being humbler in our relationships with others when he concludes that; “The main problem – a culture that values task accomplishment more than relationship building” (p.55). He further suggests that:
“The U.S culture is individualistic, competitive, optimistic and pragmatic. We believe that the basic unit of society is the individual, whose rights are to be protected at all costs.” (p.55)
I feel this is particularly poignant in Safety, and especially for those (like me in the past) prone to the ‘crusading’ approach. As we seek to move away from crusading (fixing) do we need to be cautious and careful not to turn ‘humble inquiry’ into an alternative method to replace our former policing ways? It would still be a method.
So how may you recognise when your practice of ‘humble inquiry’ may be coming from a worldview of engineering and fixing, rather than of genuine desire for ‘meeting’ others?
A good way to explain this is to recall a recent conversation I had with a friend who has read Humble Inquiry and is keen on embracing it into their ‘way of being’. During the conversation, which was about a challenging person and situation involving someone addicted to drugs who was not attending work regularly, my friend relayed to me:
“I tried Humble Inquiry, but it just wasn’t working so in the end I just had to tell them what to do. They just weren’t getting it, sometimes you have to revert to telling.”
There is no doubt that there is some truth in what my friend suggests. There are definitely times where ‘telling’ (rather than asking), seem appropriate. There are also times where being humble and asking open questions can be frustrating for those seeking answers and ideas, I understand and experience this regularly. However, I also believe that humble inquiry requires a nuanced approach, rather than a fixed formulae or set of instructions that tells us when asking is the preference over telling. Perhaps understanding this has a lot to do with our worldview?
I imagine this is one of the reasons Schein describes humble inquiry as: ‘the gentle art of asking instead of telling’.
So how may we recognise when humble inquiry becomes more of a ‘methodology’ about understanding people than a method that is bonded to an engineering worldview? These questions might be helpful:
- Would we feel more vulnerable in having to accept that we may not have a ‘fix’ for problems; as much as this may trouble us and make us feel uncomfortable?
- Would we also think more about humility and consider our status in relationships, which as Schein (p.10) notes; “in the most general sense, refers to granting someone else a higher status than one claims for oneself”?
- Would we see ourselves reflecting more on our relationships and conversations with others?
These are the types of questions I would like to see us ‘disrupting’ about in Safety.
Before I finish, I must acknowledge that in the past my worldview and approach to Safety was grounded in control and fixing. It was only after many years of anxiety, with a wrestling match going on in my mind, did I see what this was doing to people. I’d like to think that my current worldview and practice is now more balanced and humanising.
Finally, I want to be clear about my view on engineering, and in particular about people who are Engineers. My intention is not to criticise it as a field, nor to personally offend those who work in it. We need, and I value the role that engineering plays in our world. I love to fly for example, and am fascinated by the engineering aspects simply in how a plane gets off the ground. It’s just that I recognise that an engineering methodology when trying to understanding people will lead to people being objectified and less human, and that is worth disrupting in my view.
So how do you view the idea of disruption and doing things differently in Safety?