There are some dangerous mantras in safety none more so than ‘if it feels wrong don’t do it’. Mantras are a form of language like slogans that tend to influence as accepted ‘common’ rules. All language and symbols have a powerful effect and ought not be underestimated. As Jung once stated: ‘everything has significance’.
Those who live by another mantra ‘it’s just semantics’ have no idea of the powerful way semiotics affects the unconscious. When I get confronted by the semantics argument I often ask if the person holding this view has a loved one and then ask if they would mind me calling their loved one an insulting name. All of a sudden objections are raised to words like ‘pig’, ‘slut’, ‘bitch’ and ‘dog’ strange, it’s only semantics. Oh, so words do matter. There you go, there’s another popular micro-rule mantra ‘sticks and stones can break your bones but words don’t bother me’. Not true
The idea that we ‘feel’ risk is clear but are our feelings reliable? It’s like the sad old mantra of ‘common sense’, speaking such language deludes people into thinking there is some magical naturally acquired knowledge that keeps people safe. (Further, a great read by Watts, Everything is Obvious, How Common Sense fails’). Similarly, the kinesthetic view of safety states that natural instincts are good and reliable. Strange then, the Bradley Curve from DuPont proposes that natural instincts are the worst for safety (http://www.dupont.com/products-and-services/consulting-services-process-technologies/brands/sustainable-solutions/sub-brands/operational-risk-management/uses-and-applications/bradley-curve.html). No wonder safety is so confused. DuPont propose in some Augustinian way (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_sin) that natural human instincts are the foundation for unsafety. It’s like original sin to the safety world and the binary opposite is zero. Strange that the safety world just allows this Augustinian assumption in the Bradley Curve to stand without criticism.
The idea that one has a ‘feeling’ about risk stands in stark contrast to most orthodox safety. Orthodox safety is fixated in rationalist, behaviourist and mechanistic measureable outputs. Yet the ‘common sense’ school and kinesthetic school of thought argue that risk and safety can be ‘sensed’ and addressed by feeling. Kinesthetics is about the unconscious sensing of things through bodily movement. So, when all the bureaucracy, systems and mechanistic facets of safety weigh us down, we can always go to ‘if it feels wrong don’t do it’, a kinesthetic version of ‘tick and flick’.
The trouble is our emotions and feelings are not reliable, our perception of risk is unreliable. Slovic notes: ‘ It is ‘when intense emotions are engaged that people tend to focus on the adverse outcome, not on its likelihood’. Persons react conservatively and display status quo bias or loss aversion because they anticipate a loss of what they now have, they can become genuinely afraid, in a way that exceeds their feelings of pleasurable anticipation when they look forward to some supplement to what they now have. (Slovic, The Feeling of Risk, p. 189). In other words, priming a feeling of loss actually increases risk taking. This is what deficit language like zero does, constantly priming a culture to fixate on loss. As Slovic notes, the constant priming by deficit thinking contaminates many associated senses of judgment and decision making (p. 65).
So, where does that leave us? In a binary trap between kinesthetic safety and systems safety? No, there is a lot of grey between black and white. There is no need to be trapped at either end of polarities. We don’t need the language of either binary proposals. Whilst there is merit in some aspects of both poles there is also much value in all that is between, the non-rational approaches to risk and safety. This is the problem with the trajectory of binary opposition, it forces a mindset of extremes and entrapment. A balanced approach to safety is much more helpful.
What is that balance?
- Systems and kinesthetics are neither good nor bad, both have weaknesses and blindsides. The language of moderation and balance is much more helpful in safety.
- Setting language by absolutes at either pole is a recipe for entrapment, there are always exceptions to rules, trade-offs to decisions and by-products in tackling risk.
- An holistic approach to risk needs to include a broad spectrum of input from a range of disciplines including social psychology.
- Getting stuck in traditional engineering, regulatory and mechanistic views of safety creates a blinkered worldview that closes out all human options in managing risk.
- Leading in safety requires a sense of reciprocation with following rather than the constant top down, dumb down, patronizing model. The reciprocation model of leading is the approach of Following-Leading in Risk (http://www.humandymensions.com/about-us/following-leading-in-risk)
- Motivation too as also goal setting is not helped by the binary view, the balance is neither intrinsic nor extrinsic in nature but rather better served by a focus on control effectiveness, truth effectiveness and value effectiveness.
- The excesses of numeric on safety is oppressive and panders to more extremism. A greater focus on resilience is where the balance is found, the key to what Weick says is how to best manage the unexpected.
- Binary polarities tend to play to fear and reactionary thinking and this is detected in semiotics (symbols and text) that in turn affects the unconscious in decision making.
- Good safety listens more and talks less, ‘telling culture’ doesn’t work. Much more emphasis should be placed upon communication and collaborating diversity as outlined in HB 327.
- The key to balance in safety is making learning the litmus test for action. If the mantra, language or discourse is anti-learning or anti-human in trajectory then it needs to be rejected and replaced with humanizing approaches to tackling safety.