I’ve got a feeling this isn’t right, but…..

I’ve got a feeling this isn’t right, but…..

Hit your head against brick wall.By Rob Sams

“That’s not an LTI. I’m really concerned about this, and we need to change the report straight away! It’s not good that John had to spend a night in hospital and I know that he is fair dinkum. That’s why we did the right thing and got him to do admin work while he was in there. We want John to stay productive and feel part of the team. That’s good for John, and that’s good for us, everyone wins when we look after our people. So, what I need you to do now is change that report as it is clear that John’s injury is not an LTI.”

A colleague involved in the safety and risk industry shared this story with me last week. This is how the Operations Director in his organisation explained John’s incident to him. Sadly, it is an all too common story, where people involved in safety and risk spend so much of their time debating definitions of injuries rather than focusing on supporting people to learn.

Many people that I talk to in the industry are fed up with the debate about definitions. We see through the spin, and the real message behind these conversations. Yet, most remain in the industry and in their roles, seemingly playing along with the game. I sometimes wonder, why we do this, why stay and do something that clearly frustrates us? It’s a good question that I have been thinking about a lot recently.

This article is not about what’s wrong with the way we measure safety (if you’re interested in this, I recommend you read https://safetyrisk.net/the-tyranny-of-absolutes/). Instead this is a story about how we can deal with things that we don’t feel comfortable with them.

Those in the safety and risk industry facing this situation are experiencing what I refer to as ‘mental gymnastics’. It’s that feeling that so many of us have when debating whether an injury is an LTI, MTI, FAI or whatever other term we use. The frustration may come from the fact that we can often spend more time and energy debating definitions than we do on focusing on injury prevention activities. Have you ever felt like this?

If you have, you probably thought about three courses of action. Firstly, you may have decided that this is just part of the way that your organisation and the industry works, and that while you don’t believe that changing definitions is at all useful, if you don’t focus too much attention on the numbers, and instead turn your focus to people, you can probably learn to live with the short term frustration when these conversations occur.

Alternatively, and most dangerously in my mind, you may stay unhealthily frustrated and even bitter. This is a dangerous position to be in. This is where stress and anxiety can impact on your wellbeing. If you find yourself in this situation, it may be time to ask yourselves some serious questions about how long you can maintain that feeling for. It might also be a good idea to seek counsel from a person you trust to help you through these feelings. You don’t want to be in this situation for too long.

Finally, we may decide that we no longer want to continue with the ‘mental gymnastics’, and make the decision to change. Of course, there will be various stages between these three simplified options, but I’m guessing that most people will understand that one of the key points I am trying to make is that recognising the situation you are in is probably the most important thing.

Of course, this feeling of ‘mental gymnastics’ is not something unique to people in the safety and risk industry. It is something that that I expect people who struggle with addictions such as excessive drinking, smoking or a gambling addiction deal with regularly. It is common occurrence for people with addictions to regularly feel uncomfortable about them, as they know that it is not good for either their health, their family or their bank balance. They may read reports and talk to experts who tell them about the dangers, yet for reasons that those observing find hard to understand, people can find any number of reasons to ‘make sense’ of their addictions and continue it.

I wonder whether this is similar to how people in safety and risk respond when we are uncomfortable with how safety is being managed in our organisation and we stay in roles ‘playing the game’? I’m not suggesting that we have an addiction equivalent of being an alcoholic, but the mental gymnastics that I hear people tell me about, may be similar.

For example, I was talking with a group of colleagues a few weeks ago and we were exploring why we do this. We’d all experienced that feeling of ‘this doesn’t feel right’, and we all, on reflection, realised and understood how we rationalised the feelings, made sense of them, and continued to do what we had always had done. Just like a person with an addiction often says something like “I know smoking is bad for my health, but it’s how I relax”. Could the equivalent in safety and risk be saying “I know that counting LTI’s creates a culture of under reporting, but it’s ok, because at least we have managements attention”.

In the discussion with my colleagues, we also recognised that it is not only definitions of injuries that create this feeling of uncomfortableness. We’d also become frustrated at times with the use of audit reports to measure of safety performance and with the endless use of policies and procedures to control peoples behaviour and support a ‘dumbing down’ of people. I previously wrote about in https://safetyrisk.net/toaster-is-hot/.

So what can we do when we experience ‘mental gymnastics’?

Perhaps the most important thing is to be conscious that you are experiencing these feelings. It’s something we need to struggle with in order to make sense of things in our lives. By understanding and recognising this uncomfortable feeling, we can also be more supportive and compassionate toward people who are going through this themselves. We can look out and listen for signs of people experiencing ‘mental gymnastics’ and help them through it by lending an ear and listening. Instead of focusing on numbers, compliance and process, we can spend more time on understanding people and ‘scaffold’ them as they learn.

Questioning how we feel and what we do is a natural part of our learning and thinking. There is no right or wrong way to respond when we feel this way, we will all make sense of things in our own way and based on our own experiences, beliefs and values. What is important however is to understand that it exists in both our own thinking and for others, and provide a supportive environment where we can deal with the ‘gymnastics’ and make a call about how we feel best to deal with a situation.

For my colleague who heard the story of John from his Operations Director, I suspect he is nearing the stage where he is ready to make a change, to move away from the world of redefining safety statistics, and move instead to a new way of working. I wish him good luck.

Have you experienced ‘mental gymnastics’ recently? How did you handle it?

If you’d like to learn more about how we make decisions and judgements, I recommend a book by Scott Plous, The Psychology of Judgement and Decision Making. It’s a great read – see http://www.amazon.com/Psychology-Judgment-Decision-Making-McGraw-Hill/dp/0070504776

Rob Sams
Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

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