How to Handle Safety System Paradoxes

Just found this hidden gem by Wade Needham here on LinkedIn

How to Handle Safety System Paradoxes

paradoxAs you get promoted it’s easier to take control, to control more of your world they said, well, ‘they’ were wrong. The easy answer to a complex or wicked problem is almost always wrong, if not lacking.

I had a very insightful conversation with a colleague the other day about motivation and the focus of individuals within both a large organisation and within major projects. This touched upon ‘the why’ we do what we do, namely; passion, control, influence and self-awareness.

When we operate within or from a support function we often have less direct control than we would like in order to reshape work as completed to work as imagined in our mind or as per our management system.

One way we circumvent this lack of control (it’s not a loss as we never really had control) is apply a framework or management system which sets out expected norms which either shall be followed or shall not be attempted. Whilst some artefacts are crucial in a group setting to build culture, support functions do find that they can either control or strongly influence the size, shape and prescription level of this management system.

The spectrum available for this choice tends to sit on two polarities, either attempt to control / coerce through prescriptive systems or attempt to influence via less prescriptive systems. One polarity identifies that people are the solution and are there to be leveraged in order to achieve outcomes favourable to both the individual and the organisation, whilst the other, people have a lack of experience and need to be controlled, cajoled and do not have the solution which needs to be prescribed by others whose work-imagined is more valid than those who undertake the task regularly.

It’s normal at this point that I would normally form a position, advocate for that position then issue a call to arms to review your own thoughts, management systems and behaviours. Let’s stay in flux for a while longer.

Both polarities are within themselves are valid methods in which to improve safety outcomes.

It is typically the inherent motivations / worldviews of the individuals who have influence and control over the management system that decides the position in relation to the two polarities, and not the needs of the end users of the system

Key point to remember is when to utilise them, and when to shift away from once they become less effective. It isn’t actually the two positions which are the issue, it is when we become biased or blindly wedded to a position which makes movement from that position inherently hard because we have wrapped our identity in a position rather, than taking a less subjective stance and doing what is best for our end user.

I see this play out most keenly at both ends at the top of both cycles such as;

  • When an organisation sees no further benefit in pursuing a large, unwieldy management system ie safety outcomes have plateaued and innovation is strangled through bureaucracy. Support functions stop removing friction points for the users of the system and focus on the administration of the system, focusing on the ‘what and how’ and not on the ‘why’ the system is there
  • When an organisation sees that a less prescriptive management system is having unintended by-products such as divergent ways of doing work emerge which don’t reflect best practise or is difficult realise economies of scale. Also, if a large growth period has entailed individuals may need further direction if the other artefacts and culture of the business can’t sustain or cope with the new influx of people or people from outside the normal organisation’s environment

At both of these stages when either polarity dominates it tends to draw other individuals into the organisation which like the environment and method in which the organisation is operating. This further compounds the issue as when mounting evidence appears to start the next shift towards the other pole, we have many individuals whose worldview is not aligned to the ‘why’ or purpose of the organisation which is to fulfil their mission and remain a going concern, not wedding to a method of operation.

People and paradoxes, two of my favourite things; followed closely by language and how people make meaning.

So how is the above useful to you, the reader?

I am sure that you will find yourself in an organisation between these poles or at the tipping point away from one pole to the other.

Remember you always have the choice to influence, even if you are without control.

Are you going to plant your flag and advocate your preferred method of operating or will you set your personal feelings aside and assist the swing in the opposite direction? Will you be the enabler to help others move past the current context or will you resist to the organisation’s detriment? I find those individuals who can survey the environment and bring the required skills set to the fore are the ones I most enjoy collaborating with. Those that know the cycles and move early to either re-skill or shift their method of operating.

If you can’t do this I would advocate that instead of actively resisting the change that you become the voice of tempered reason so you can ensure that the swing to the other position is tempered and occurs in a structured and considerate way trying to leave no team members behind.

Why do I advocate to influence rather than control? Largely that we as humans over-estimate the amount we can control in our workplace and underestimate our ability to influence, to our own detriment.

Acting in a controlling manner when influencing is required is one of the quickest ways to alienate your audience and create conflict, sometimes with irreparable damage.

This can occur even when a situation is in your control and you can direct action, especially if the other individual doesn’t recognise your legitimate responsibility or accountability in the area, because let’s face it, we are human and typically dislike being told what to do. We prefer the ability to operate autonomously and seek mastery.

So I would advocate servant leadership and influencing over telling nearly every time; except (cue paradox) in an emergency setting or there is a large skill gap between yourself and another. But only where short-term performance can be traded off against a long term high-performance relationship.

There’s another interesting concept, if you are not wedded to a position (pole) you are more easily able to see both options and choose a point which provides maximum effect for that environment and desired outcome.

So in short, stay fluid, be aware what you can control or influence (including your skill and the  environment you operate in – people matter!), be aware of trade-offs when you operate close to a pole and in effect focus your actions where they will have the greatest effect. This lies somewhere between control and influence & effect and probability, the latter being aware where you can add the most value.

I hope you can see how you can create value through efforts at both ends of the cycle and leave the safety of your preferred pole, and put stock in how you can improve outcomes, not in the complexity of the solution.

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below