Do You Have To Be Cruel To Be Kind?

Safety GreatThere are many aphorisms that float about the workplace that are used to suit the hidden agenda of those in power. One such saying is: ‘you have to be cruel to be kind’. This is captured in the sentiments of the song by Nick Lowe ‘Cruel to be Kind’. Of course cruelty is not an indictor of affection.

Often those who want power over us find principles and ideologies that enable the justification of cruelty, often ‘for our own good’. Unfortunately, this conflating of values is common practice in safety that still lacks an effective Ethic of Risk. When the principle of safety is made supreme against the competing values and rights of others, only duty can prevail. Of course competing values are not discussed in the AIHS Bok on Ethics but understanding how values, principles and ideologies compete is essential for enacting a safe workplace.

The vice of cruelty is closely related to other vices of malice, sadism and the abuse of power. Of course, the nature of power is not discussed in the AIHS BoK on Ethics and this enables a deontological ethic of duty to reign supreme in the document. Oh yes, and check your gut! ( )

Unfortunately, the exorcising of power in the workplace in the name of ‘safety’ also competes with what comprises personhood. Without a definition of personhood one cannot exercise an Ethic of Risk. Safety doesn’t take priority over other values that are co-dependent on safety itself such as: belonging, trust, honesty, care, helping and respect. Whenever I hear that nonsense phrase ‘safety is our first priority’ or ‘safety is our number one priority’, I always wonder who and what comes second, third and fourth?

An Ethic of Risk (and safety) ought to consider how one seeks balance in competing values at work and how power is exercised for the good of persons and the community. Unfortunately without an Ethic of Risk we end up justifying the retributive actions necessary for the people who either don’t conform or who we don’t understand. In this way Safety is able to justify suffering and pain to others in the name of good and care. Confirming the believers of cruel to be kind. Any Ethic of Risk ought to include a discussion on personhood, community and competing values so that actions in punishment and reward have context and make sense. Blind duty is dangerous.

One of the most dangerous forms of cruelty is measured out via moralisms. There is nothing quite like someone on a moral cause dehumanizing others in the name of good (and their own power). Moral cause coupled with the ideology of zero couldn’t be worse for ensuring respect for persons and engendering trust at work. Similarly, excessive bureaucracy creates the demise of trust.

Moralism coupled with zero can only ever be superficial and fraudulent. When a number coupled to duty becomes the measure of an Ethic, all fallible humans are in big trouble. Of course, those in power seek forgiveness when they make mistakes. We saw this recently with the behavior of Dominic Cummings ( It seems that suffering and pain are always good for others but double standards should never be applied to me! Anyone operating in safety under the rubric of zero and duty beware, you will be smashed on your first inconsistency or mistake. Zero is a great mantra for revenge too.

A friend was on a job recently where one of the formworkers was kicked off the job for a minor safety infringement indeed, it really had nothing to do with safety. It actually would have been less safe if he had to uses his weakest hand to use the circular saw. Worst still, the safety advisor used the moment to brag about his power and threats to kick anyone else off the job for what he deemed a safety issue.

Up until that time the formworker team were tolerant and understanding of how the safety advisor was doing his job. Following this needless incident all gloves (figuratively) were off. The formworker team decided to work to the safety rules and guess what, the job slowed down by 100%, all of the minor things that were tolerated were now made political reasons for not working. Of course, this began to cost money for every time the formworker team went down tools. Now every minor petty safety need became a production problem for those in power who now looked to the safety guy and began to see a liability. In the end the safety crusader was sacked and things went back to a normal, tolerant, flexible and understanding workplace. The reward for cruelty is rarely forgiveness.

When you play to zero all motivation must disappear for a fallible workforce. When zero is your mantra there can be no tolerance up or down the chain of command. Nothing destroys a cooperative culture more than cynicism, scepticism, contradiction, hypocrisy, coercion and cruelty, these are all evidence of ineffective moralism in the workplace and amplified by zero. Ah, safety first indeed!

An Ethic of Risk is not a simple process, duty without mutuality and personhood is dangerous. Power without understanding is not leadership. You don’t have to be cruel to be kind, you have to be a fallible human to be kind, and kindness can never come through 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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