How Do You Know If You Are Leading in Risk and Safety?

How Do You Know If You Are Leading in Risk and Safety?

The temptation of moneyThe current marketing at ANU has caught on to the trend in describing one’s self as a ‘thought leader’ (See Youtube Video). You can join a thought leaders group, buy a thought leaders app and even ‘engineer’ a thought leader. Some have caught on to this trend in the safety space and I observe recently some describing themselves as ‘global thought leaders in safety’. When you scratch beneath the surface, it’s just the marketing of more compliance, more behaviourism, more systems and more regulations. It seems that safety is the only religion that elevates the nonsense of gobbledygook on the altar of thinking and then asks people to worship it. If there was ever a time for more discerning in risk it is now. So, how does someone discern if they are leading in safety? Here are a few positive suggestions.

People who are discerning about leading in risk and safety:

1. Know words matter. It is astounding that the power of language, words, discourse, text as symbol (semiology) and symbol as organizational grammar is absent from most definitions of culture. For example: just look at the definition of culture on the Global safety Index . Amongst a range of other key culture indicators, discourse and language is missing. Yet, when we engage with other cultures here or overseas, the first thing that is the give away about cultural difference is language. I don’t know how an index can be either ‘objective’ or ‘comprehensive’ about culture if there is no analysis of discourse (power and ideology distribution) or semiotics? More than this, those who want to lead in safety also need to know how language, words, discourse, text as symbol (semiology) and symbol as organizational grammar (all aspects of communication) ‘frame’ and ‘prime’ the unconscious, and in so doing, the nature of decision making.

2. Know culture. There is so much talk about ‘culture’ and ‘safety culture’ yet so little definition beyond the simplistic about attitude, values, systems and behaviours. There is no conversation about ‘cultural reproduction’ and no discussion about the nature of ‘subcultures’ and the subversion of culture in the safety discourse. The latest body of knowledge by the SIA is a good example of such omissions. Rather, if there is a definition it is framed by the assumptions of ‘safety science’ that presumes measurement and mechanistic worldview. Moreso, there is little discussion of subjectivity and this is exemplified in the way safety views investigation. Most of the methods of investigation into ‘events’ are biased by the assumptions of objectivity, science and ‘technique’. It seems that be an investigator a knowledge of self, subjectivity, bias and culture are not required in order to produce a report.

3. Know absolutes. Those who want to lead in safety know that the language of ‘error’ is both pejorative and frames a discourse of blame. Interesting that the language of ‘error’ is so dominant in the safety space but there is no conversation about fallibility. Safety science unconsciously selects language and discourse that suits its assumptions. It is interesting how safety loves absolutes framed in such silly sayings of denial like ‘safety is a choice’ ( Such silly logic must then determine that unsafety is also a choice, that people chose to be unsafe, therefore all fatalities at work must be suicide. This is the problem with denying fallibility and projecting absolutes on people. This is why zero harm and ‘all accidents are preventable’ are binary nonsense. One can deny randomness, mystery, circumstance, freakishness, chance and misfortune as much as one likes by binary branding such as fatalistic. Then when people die by such randomness (ML370, ML17 or tragically Philip Hughes) the ideology of control and ‘fixes’ has no response other than denial. The ideology of absolutes and perfectionism stifles empathy and identification. The ideology of absolutes doesn’t suffer ‘with’ others because it frames its worldview against circumstance with the mythology of ‘control’.

4. Know binary and wicked problems. Leading-following knows that a binary worldview is a denial of the grey and unknown. There is no in-between just black and white. There is only rational and irrational no non-rational. The binary worldview denies complexity and moreso the reality of ‘wicked problems’ ( This enables safety crusaders to not identify with others but rather marginalize others because the rules are simple and the presumption is that unsafe people, risk takers are both stupid and ignorant moreso, they lack ‘common sense’. The trap of binary thinking in risk and safety is that it promotes rapid judgment, comfortable decision making and dehumanizing others. Mistakes are viewed as negative rather than a positive of fallibility. Reading Hallinan (Why We Make Mistakes) documents the many life saving developments in human knowledge that evolved from mistakes. Carson (Take the Risk) documents the many advances in surgery and medicine that have evolved through death and mistakes.

5. Know relationships. Leading in risk and safety knows all about following. The idea that the nature of leading resides in the characteristics and qualities of the leader and leader as hero is fundamentally flawed. The key to leading is not about what happens ‘in’ the leader but what happens ‘between’ the leading and following. This is why I write about ‘Following-Leading’ in Risk, the power of that hyphen that joins the two is critical. Without voluntary following, there is no leading. Without ethical leading, there will be no genuine following. This is why the military metaphor is not suitable for leading in safety, it is a metaphor for attacking people through efficient systems of organizing. There can be no separation of values in the efficiency of organizing (internally) from the fundamental purpose of why this organizing is efficient. Leading in risk and safety must be ‘other’ oriented not ‘self’ oriented. Riggio or Kellerman on Followership are a helpful read.

6. Know snake oil. If leading is about communicating vision, inspiring and motivating then leading must be able to discern what is ‘helpful’ and what is ‘snake oil’. Anything that promises ‘total’ anything, or ‘world class’ or anything that seems to good to be true is, too good to be true. Anything preaching the end of injuries, no more mistakes, no error, accuracy in measurement, zero or absolutes is snake oil. Preaching perfection in an imperfect world is nonsense seduction for gullible non-leaders. Those who want to lead in safety know they are immersed in a complex activity, there are no simple ‘fixes’, no easy pathways and no absolute controls. The pathway to wisdom is paved by learning and discerning in risk, not by risk avoidance.

7. Know goals and motivation. Leading in safety understands that all goals compete, for every decision there is a trade off and a by-product. Isn’t it amusing to see ‘experts’ in safety parading the decline in physical injuries over time yet make no mention of the equally increasing incline of mental health harm over time. When goals are shaped by behaviourist and mechanistic assumptions harm in non measurable ways are conveniently ignored. Goals not only compete but are also structured on a lower and higher framework. Low order goals (those that safety love) are measurable, higher order goals (those that safety avoid) are immeasurable. Leading in safety requires better knowledge of the Psychology of Goals (Moscowitz) and motivation (Higgins – Beyond Pleasure and Pain). The idea that motivation is just about the sum of positive and negative inputs and outputs is a behaviourist seduction but does not explain a holistic sense of motivation, humans are not objects or ‘factors’ in a system.

8. Know decision making. Understanding how social arrangements affect decisions is critical for leading in safety. The idea that decisions and judgments are both controlled, rational and conscious only serves to assist the delusion in safety that it is a choice. The study of the social psychology of risk demonstrates just how much human decision making is affected by many things beyond control. Experiments with People by Abelson, Frey and Gregg is a good place to start for an understanding of how humans make decisions. The perpetuation of objectivity and behaviourist views of decision making simply drive safety people away from empathy with others and endorses marginalization and superiority in decision making.

9. Know self. The key to leading is not ‘technique’. The pathway of ethical leading starts by knowing self. The many inquiries at present into corruption in high places (parliament, military, church, politics, sport) all indicate a belief in the myth of leadership technique rather than an understanding of self and ethics. The extraction of knowledge of self and ethics from leadership sanctions the exploitation of others, manipulation of others and the objectification of others. The social psychology of risk offers safety people insight into a better understanding of self and things that transcend the illusion of control. Once we better understand our own biases, fallibility and weakness then we can better identify with followers and followers can better identify with those leading.

10. The Known Unknowns. It was tempting to make a list of 10 and in a sense suggest symbolically some identification with the Ten Commandments and completeness. Leading however is not about ‘completeness’ but about continuous uplifting learning and development. The ideology of ‘having arrived’ or making perfect decisions is alien to the human condition. Leading in risk is all about acceptance of uncertainty and living by faith. In a way, risk and safety is a faith-based process. There are things we know and many things we do not know, how can we manage the unexpected? Or as Weick says, ‘how do I know what I believe until I see what I do?’

So, whilst the ‘how to’ books talk about the ‘technique’ of leadership and provide a checklist of characteristics, there are no complete checklists. Whilst checklists are helpful, they tend not to help the evolutionary learning process or the challenge of continuous improvement and learning. So the 10 suggestions are not intended as a ‘checklist’ but rather some thoughts and suggestion on self assessment in leading in risk and safety.

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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