Reflection Makes Sense

Reflection Makes Sense

surrealistic picture of an apple reflecting in the mirrorOrganisations, despite their apparent preoccupation with facts, numbers, objectivity, concreteness, and accountability, are in fact saturated with subjectivity, abstraction, guesses, making do, invention and arbitrariness… just like the rest of us. (Weick 1969, p. 5)

These are the words of Karl Weick who helps us understand that all organisations and people have to deal with, and make sense of risk, ambiguity and subjectivity. This is despite a desire and longing for certainty, clarity and objectivity. Weick’s work on ‘sensemaking’ is particularly important for those in risk and safety.

People like to hear and see things in black and white. Making sense of numbers and facts can be easier than feelings, imagination and possibilities. With black and white there is often less thinking to do and we can get onto things without the bother of analysing and critical thinking. However, when we begin to understand that the world is rarely black and white, that grey and messy is real and present, we can begin to think about how we deal with, make sense of, and tackle risk.

In risk and safety, dealing with grey and messy is something we often try to avoid. Our attention is usually focused on ‘control’ in order to achieve black and white, either through planning, acting or reacting.

Planning often takes place through risk assessment, safety management plans, and standard operating procedures; all done in an attempt to control how work is done. Acting is ‘doing’ the things that we plan. Reacting can take place through investigations, audits and ‘Safety Alerts’ after an incident.

This got me to thinking about the constant challenge we face of balancing planning, acting and reacting, and how we rarely allow ourselves time to reflect. Let’s first consider how this often plays out in risk and safety.

The seduction in risk and safety (and in life) is to spend most of our time planning, acting/doing, some time reacting and very little time, if any at all, on reflecting. Many people I observe and talk to in risk and safety are ‘Action Jackson’ types, busy being busy, going from one situation to another ensuring that there is a plan, action or reaction to every possible situation. The demands on the modern day risk and safety professional can make us feel like a ping bong ball at times (Piggy in the Middle Story) and reflection can seem like a luxury. So why is this?

Being in risk and safety can be hard and tiring work. When I reflect on my career, I see a person who often only got attention when something went wrong, I became ‘Mr Fixit’. There hardly seemed time, nor did I really value reflection. Planning, acting and reacting were the order of the day.

I look back now though and realise that you can’t plan for uncertainty and that acting and reacting whilst important, don’t provide space for reflection and I realise that this key if you want to make sense of the grey and messy that is risk. Weick sums this up well when he asks:

How can I know what we did until I see what we produced? (Weick 1995, p. 30)

In Weick’s model of ‘sensemaking’ he outlines seven key factors to how we make sense of things. One of those is ‘retrospection’ which is when we look back and think through what has happened, and reflect.

So perhaps one of the critical challenges facing the modern day risk and safety professional is not trying to understand the latest laws, not searching for the latest engineering controls, not searching for the latest technological solution to make our systems easier, it’s to find the time to ‘sense-make’ by reflecting.

So how can we put this into practice? Here are some practical tips to make reflection part of the way you do things:

· Keep a journal – take time out to regularly consider the day or the week that has passed and write things down. Think about the good, the bad and the things that you have learnt. Then take time to read through and consider what you have learnt.

· Take a walk – the combination of moving and fresh air can help us clear our mind of ‘busyness’ and allow us to reflect and make sense of things.

· Don’t try too hard – if we try to force reflection, it may not happen. Further, a lot of reflection can happen in our non-conscious mind, so the key is clearing your mind to allowing critical thinking. Often you may not be conscious of your reflection and learning, however if you create the space, it will happen.

· Talk to others – form a Thinking Group, they are a great way to get away from the being ‘Action Jackson’ to share stories, ideas and thinking with others, this can help our own, and others reflection and learning.

· Seek out a coach or someone who you can talk to. This person is not there to solve your problems or ‘fix you’, their role is to listen,] and help you think through your thoughts. This person need not be a risk and safety expert, the skills you want in a coach are effective listening.

So how do you take time to reflect and make sense of things in your world?


Author: Robert Sams

Phone: 0424 037 112



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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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