Originally posted on October 10, 2020 @ 11:30 AM
People Skills Are Not Soft Skills
When you know language matters you don’t to repeat the common discourse that ‘frames’ the Discourse that hides undisclosed assumptions and ideological agenda. I read an AIHS piece about a a so called ‘safety thought leader’ who referred to the skills of Listening, Helping, Caring and Learning as ‘soft skills’. Anyone who uses the binary nonsense of soft skills vs hard skills can never lead thinking for anyone. (BTW, this language of ‘thought leading’ is nonsense in itself).
People skills are not ‘soft’ skills.
This idea that skills are ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ is just more Discourse from a sector that wishes to frame the agenda of tackling risk towards brutalism. Engineering is good and psychology is bad, more binary nonsense from a sector that loves to claim the word ‘professional’.
I never refer to ‘soft’ skills and always use the language of ‘people’ skills. I never speak about the work of: checklists, bureaucracy, regulation, paperwork and policing as ‘hard’ skills. The metaphors of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ are emotionally loaded semiotics that we don’t need in the risk industry. If you repeat this kind of framing you just perpetuate the myth. All skill development is challenging and no skill should be privileged above another. It’s just as challenging to be a good listener as it is to fill out a spreadsheet.
In the Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR) we know that Framing, Priming, Pitching, Reframing, Anchoring and Mirroring in language matter. One of the first things we learn in SPoR is that discourse (language in use) hides Discourse (ideology in language). The way one ‘frames’ a message shapes the way people think about it. The medium is the message (https://safetyrisk.net/the-medium-is-the-message/ ). I have written about this before:
Language is not neutral and discourse often hides agenda that people don’t often have the skills to discern. These are the skills you don’t read about in the AIHS BoK. This is the language Safety doesn’t talk about (https://safetyrisk.net/listening-learning-helping-and-caring-about-risk/ ).
If you ‘prime’ the conversation as a binary eg. safety 1 or safety 2, you set up a black and white Discourse (power structure) that disables the in-between, the dialectic. If you frame your language in absolutes eg. zero, then you frame the conversation so people can’t talk to you. If you can’t drop the absolute (zero) and move to dialectic then no-one can speak to you and you have nothing to say to them. There is no movement in zero. Zero listens to no-one, helps no-one, cares for no-one and cannot learn. All learning involves movement.
So if you want some vision in the way you tackle risk then learn to drop this silly language of ‘soft n hard’. The safety industry is only going to move forward and become professional when it get’s its Discourse focused on humans not systems, policing and brutalism.
This I can agree with
This was a reply to
“Rob Long says
October 12, 2020 at 6:24 AM
Hi Bob, unfortunately in my experience safety is often the plaything for those in power”
So safety is not a human activity or sociotechnical system?
Rob Long says
Hi Bob, unfortunately in my experience safety is often the plaything for those in power, gets used for all kinds of fake dynamics to get things done. Often CEOs etc hide behind safety and so too government when they want something done, used as a political tool more than ever. It is also unfortunate that the safety curriculum is so dismal that it offers no critical thinking for the sector and makes safety people so easy to manipulate. There is no element of ethics-politics in the curriculum as well as a host of other critical matters. When you churn out checklist thinkers whose most important role is to count LTI rates and police regulation, that’s what you get.
“However, the people (managers, safety “professionals”) who police and apply the rules”
Wynand, therein lies the strawman. Any organization which has ‘safety professionals’ doing the policing is a woefully dysfunctional organization.
I don’t doubt that there’s brutality at play in organizations, but I’d contend that it’s not ‘Safety’ which is being brutal, it is the often dysfunctional organizational leadership using safety as a convenient excuse to exercise their sociopathic brutality.
Take ‘Safety’ out of the equation, and sociopathic brutes will simply find another way to be sociopathic brutes. No doubt, I’m certainly in favour of setting up systems which make it less easy for sociopathic brutes to use safety, my particular area of interest, as a blunt instrument with which they can torment and abuse their subordinates.
For example, in the case of ‘brutal’ consequences being implemented against an employee for a safety infraction, if it’s being left to the ‘safety department’ to enact these consequences, then the leadership is in dereliction of duty because they’re either to gutless to face their employees themselves, and/or because they actively seek to erect a buffer between them and their employees when it comes to being seen as the initiator of said action i.e. ‘well, Dave, I don’t really have a big problem with what you did, but those pesky safety guys say I need to punish you’, because they want to remain the ‘nice guy’.
Now, in the case of ‘leadership’ who are less gutless, but often blind to their own hypocrisy, and who will ‘brutalize’ personnel after infractions committed due to undue performance expectations from the very same ‘leaders’, or who will ‘brutalize’ personnel who aren’t willing to cut corners despite undue performance expectations, then it’s still an issue of ‘leaders’ being the ‘brutes’
I get that ‘Safety’ is your area of interest, but I think that organizational dysfunction goes way deeper than ‘Safety’, and is more to do with the fact that greedy, sociopathic brutes actually like having other greedy, sociopathic brutes in their ranks, and probably hand-pick them, because at the end of the day they get stuff done, and those at the top of such dysfunctional organizations, of which there are many, are willing to turn a blind eye to ‘brutality’ as long as the money keeps rolling in. Shining the spotlight on ‘Safety’ as the culprit may actually enable those heading dysfunctional organizations, because it grants these despots some misguided sense of plausible deniability.
I’m not a ‘Zero’ proponent, I’m not a believer in BBS being any kind of panacea, but I’ve encountered enough organizational dysfunction to be in a position to contend that it’s roots lie not in the ‘safety department’ but in the executive ranks, and it filters down from there.
Dysfunctional organizations will have dysfunctional safety departments, whether these organizations are state owned or privately owned.
The following report from the Right Reverend James Jones entitled The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power describes the brutal treatment experienced by many bereaved families:
Rob Long says
So true Wynand. Unfortunately people think that if you are critical of Safety you are critical of them and yet don’t understand that archetypes have a life of their own, their own power and own life. In a similar we talk about Markets or the Economy and so, Safety has it’s own life that is way beyond the sum of its parts. I think Brutalism is the ideal descriptor for this archetype and I get stories posted to me each week by people who have been brutalised and safety was the chief weapon of destruction, usually hiding behind the veil of zero or BBS or both. What an illness to inflict harm and mental health issues on someone in the name of injury rates.
Take your pick from these transcripts pertaining to the Queensland parliamentary inquiry into the resurgence of coal workers pneumoconiosis:
However the testimonies from Greg Dalliston, Steve Mellor, Mrs Kim Smyth and Percy Verrall at the Brisbane public hearing on 15/03/2017 provide sufficient evidence:
There are many more especially covering the exploitation of vulnerable migrants across the agricultural and horticultural sectors:
My free ebook also provides ample evidence:
Rob Long says
Bob, I think the term brutal is spot on for the industry. It is interesting that in the AIHS BoK on Ethics p9 and p14 the industry is described as ‘unscrupulous and Machiavellian’ but I think brutalism is a much less harsh expression.
In my experience I have often been at the counselling end of things as people have been brutally smashed by this industry, and this has nothing to do with SPoR or how I define brutal.
In the zero survey I set up 6 months ago one of the questions was about safety and bullying and with 1000+ respondents from the safety industry the results sit at 82% yes.
None of this is a comment about individuals but rather the training, curriculum, culture and systems of safety are set up for this.
Whilst you are right about corporate speak and conduct I am never surprised to see safety being used as the weapon to destroy someone or some thing.
I agree that the brutalism comes from the company, since the culture cannot be separated between “safety” and “anything else”. Safety is part of the company speak and execution, and therefore informs the company culture. What I experienced, however, is that companies give free reign to their safety departments to bring in rules and policies that are brutal when executed as written, and then upper management support such brutal execution. Terms like “Zero tolerance” are applied to mistakes in a binary manner that provides an irrefutable (if untrue) explanation. Employees are kept in fear of accidental transgressions by being policed by all (in BBS systems). Disciplinary actions are based almost exclusively in safety “transgressions”, even if the transgressions are the result of excessive and draconian rules and policies. Procedures are written for even the most trivial tasks, and are expected to be followed to the letter, even though they are too rigid to apply to the situation at hand. I can go on for hours with more examples. However, the people (managers, safety “professionals”) who police and apply the rules seldom, if ever, are in a position where they have to adhere to these rules – they are always written for someone else. And those who dare to question the rules are the ones who get the axe when an opportunity arises. How can a culture where fear is the norm (created and sustained by safety policies and rules) be called anything but brutal? (None of the examples are hypothetical – they all come from personal experience).
Wynand, I’ve encountered extreme organization dysfunction myself. Here’s my personal experience. This was by far the worst example of a dysfunctional organization, and is not exemplary of my overall industry experience, but it helped me realize that dysfunctional leadership often manages to convince people that it is not the problem, and successfully shifts the blame elsewhere, and safety is an all too common scapegoat.
As an already experienced HSE Advisor, I once went to work at a land-rig in the Middle East, and upon arrival, the HSE superintendent for the group to which my rig belonged quite proudly told me how lucky I was that he’d just managed to gain authorization for the rig-site HSE personnel (my position) to issue written warnings for safety infractions. I told him I would not issue any warnings to any personnel, and would leave that to the people who wrote their performance appraisals or who provided them with their daily work instructions, and supervised their tasks. Further discussions with this guy revealed that he was incredibly frustrated with the overall unwillingness of personnel to comply with basic reasonable safety requirements, coupled with a general unwillingness of site supervisors to monitor and enforce compliance. I am not talking stupid, nonsense requirements etc, but stuff which was genuinely of value in preventing easily avoidable injury and illness. He was simply frustrated with a lack of action from those who were meant to be showing their guys the right way. This superintendent of mine was certainly on his way toward becoming a brute himself if he was not careful, but I saw him more as a symptom of a deeper dysfunction. And it sure was deep.
A few days later, while I was still receiving a handover and orientation from the guy who was to be my back-to-back, we had a visit from the operations manager. During a meeting with rig-site supervision, the operations manager threatened the job of my back-to-back due to poor quality of written risk assessments for various tasks conducted during the days leading up to his visit. He did not threaten the job of those who wrote them (and who had received documented training in doing so), nor did he threaten the job of the supervisors of the jobs for which these risk assessments were written, and who were required to review, approve and sign these documents. My colleague and I had already pointed out the need to improve on these risk assessments, based on requirements specified in the management system. No, the safety guys’ (me included) jobs were at risk due to the disregard and poor effort of people who do not even report to them. I challenged the operations manager on this, and he was rather taken aback by my openness and began to back-pedal, saying that we have to be the ‘gate-keeper’, and other misinformed, patronizing euphemisms by which he revealed his character. I told him that we can only advise, and that responsibility lies more squarely with those who are required to write and sign/approve such documents. He disagreed, and stood by his threat.
At a nearby rig in our group, during the night, a senior drilling supervisor instructed the forklift operator to lift something out of the cellar (the pre-excavated pit through which the land-rig drills its hole), and the forklift tipped over due to being overloaded. No injuries. During the morning call, the operations manager instructed all rig-site site safety personnel to listen up to what he was about to say, and he informed us that the safety person at that rig was fired due to this incident. The problem with this is that the incident happened while the safety person was fast asleep, off-duty. The senior supervisor and the forklift operator, none of whom take orders or instruction from the rig-site safety person, kept their jobs. The operations manager stated that he chose to make an example of the safety person for reasons along the lines of reminding us ‘safety people’ to watch the personnel more carefully (while we are asleep?)
We were Permit To Work Coordinators at the site, a common duty for HSE people in the drilling industry, especially at jack-up or land-rigs. The rig-site manager once entered the safety office in a little tirade, ranting about how a whole pile of permits were not properly signed off after the jobs were closed, throwing a whole pile of permits across our desk. A review of the permits revealed that it was he himself who had not signed many of them off. He was that out of touch with the system for which he was the ultimate authority and signatory, that he somehow felt we were to blame for him not doing his job. After pointing this out to him, we were angrily reminded to remind him more frequently. The pile of permits with which he entered our office, and which he threw across our desk, was the pile of permits we would leave next to his computer keyboard every day, once they had been returned by the supervisors responsible for overseeing the tasks covered by the permits, after completion of the task. If such a senior supervisor/manager requires such frequent reminding of something so simple, they are beyond unfit for a leadership position.
I could go on and on about this particular organization, and other places I’ve worked at, but my experience tells me that it’s not ‘safety’ which is the ‘brute’, but ‘safety’ is simply a weapon of choice for ‘brutes’ who don’t really care about the safety and well-being of workers, at least not nearly as much as they do about performance. These ‘brutes’ see ‘safety’ as something which is separate from, and outside of production / performance. They fail to internalize the simple idea that safety is inextricable from performance as a measure of success i.e. if you produce an end product, or deliver a service, but you hurt people along the way, then you were not as successful as if you produced a product, or delivered a service without hurting anybody.
As I’ve said in other posts, sociopathic brutes will always find a way to be sociopathic brutes, and I’m all for having safety systems in place which are not so open to abuse by such brutes. But safety itself is not the brute.
Is that Gordian Fulde in the photo?
Brutalism? I’d respectfully like to hear an example of how the ‘safety industry’ exercises ‘brutalism’.
The word ‘brutalism’ itself evokes a lot of negative images, so perhaps the SPoR definition is somewhat different to what I’m familiar with.
Also, while the ‘safety industry’, or at least certain people within it, may have enthusiastically adopted this terminology of ‘soft skills’ etc, it’s abundantly clear they didn’t invent it, and have borrowed it from the general pop-psychology / ‘management-speak’ lexicon so popular among ‘leadership consultants’ etc.
I appreciate that this is a warning against going down that path, but it certainly appears like the ‘safety industry’ is copping the blame for it, and the ‘brutal’ outcomes, when the largely dysfunctional tripe this article is justifiably criticizing is much more prevalent in corporate environments where the ‘safety industry’ doesn’t have such a large presence, if any at all.