Military Metaphors in Safety
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Weick (1979) tells us that organizing is ‘a consensually validated grammar for reducing equivocality by means of sensible interlocking behaviours’. Wow, what a definition and so much jammed into that definition. What it means is that humans ‘organize’ in order to reduce dissonance in living, we do this as humans to make living ordered and controlled. The reality is that many parts of life are paradoxical and ‘messy’, it isn’t that easy to ‘tidy up’ the many contradictions in life. We know that for every action there seems to be an equal and opposite reaction and that trade off and by-products are a part of life. This is why language in absolutes is rejected by the vast majority of people, knowing that real human life doesn’t match this discourse.
Once we know that life is messy not perfect, we then learn to live by wisdom not the rigidity of rules. We know that rules are important but we also know there are times when its best to think ‘beyond’ the rules. We then make a choice to accept certain trade offs and by-products weighed against the benefits of our action. For example: we know that immunization in childhood can save lives and are prepared to risk the lesser side effects, including death, for the sake of the greater good. Whilst others focus on the low risk and low probabilities of side effects and recommend that people not immunize their children at all (http://www.kidspot.com.au/immunisation-panic-when-parents-chose-fear-over-facts/). Taleb makes the point that the more we organize for harm reduction in organizing the more fragile our organization becomes. Taleb demonstrates that humans actually gain from accepting messiness in living (anti-fragility), and lose from seeking to tidy everything up in tight systems. This is why Taleb praises risk takers .
Many in the safety sector make engineering, science, regulation, systems and law the focus of their view of the safety world, their worldview. This is not ‘wrong’ but there are other equally valid worldviews. There are other disciplines that could inform safety that are by and large ignored. The current approach to safety is far from holistic, just look at the SIA BoK and scan the topics and perspectives and you will see enough evidence of what worldview dominates safety. Look at an SIA conference agenda and see what dominates the discourse. When the worldview doesn’t change, when the discourse remains the same, even though the language is about ‘difference’, nothing is really different.
Humans often seek a range of metaphors to help think and understand the process of organizing and leading. They seek metaphors that endorse their worldview, particularly to reduce their perceived discomfort with messiness. One metaphor that dominates all others in the safety space is the metaphor of the military (See Lean Green Safety Machine). Weick (1979. P. 50) comments that ‘a military metaphor is an ideal self-fulfilling prophecy’. The military is about defence, conflict and war and certainly helps people bring dissonance and messiness into a mindset of order. When we look to military culture and organizing for examples of safety and leadership we seek to extract meaning from a model of organizing that is dedicated to defence, performance and war. Don’t get me wrong, I think we can’t do without the military, but that’s not where I would look for models of safety and/or leading. Hierarchical models of leading don’t suit the notion of voluntary following and ownership and, safety ownership is clearly the desired outcome of the safety fraternity.
I certainly wouldn’t be looking to Colin Powell or a host of military books on leadership to understand the nature of followership. It is fascinating that the military genre dominates leadership literature and that publications on ‘ethics in leadership’ number less than a dozen. It is just as fascinating that publications on ‘followership’ are just as low, so the leadership industry clearly is attracted to the military metaphor, hero leadership and the characteristics of the leader at the expense of priorities on ethics and following. The strange thing is that unethical leading creates non-leadership. Just look at the recent ICAC hearings in NSW, corruption in Commonwealth Parliament (Slipper and Thompson), the Commission into child abuse, Commission into unionism and corruption in Defence and ADFA to see what happens to those who claim their unethical behavior defines leadership.
The main reason Weick rejects the military metaphor is because it is based on authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is not just about autocracy but is opposed to anything that is subjective and ‘tender-minded’. As Weick states: ‘they have an uncritical attitude toward their own group, and they are concerned with knowing the right people rather than with any exchange of affection’. I have certainly experienced this through my counselling work with ex-military suffering PTSD and suicide ideation, so few go to the military for their source of counselling and support despite the enormous amount of effort and money thrown at intra-military psychological services.
Weick (1979, p. 50) states: ‘Whatever its origin, the military metaphor is a bad choice when used alone because it forces people to entertain a very limited set of solutions to solve any problem and a very limited set of ways to organize themselves’. Further: ‘They solve problems by discharging people (honourably or otherwise), tightening controls, introducing discipline, sending for reinforcements, or clarifying responsibilities’. Sound like a zero harm organistion to you? The philosophy of the military is so opposed to doing safety I cannot understand why anyone would look to this metaphor for a model of safety leading.
Weick, K., (1979) The Social psychology of Organizing. McGraw-Hill, New York.