Safety Professionals–The Piggy in The Middle?

Anyone for a game of Piggy in the Middle….?

Republished by request – Check out the new book by Rob Sams

Piggy in The middlePiggy in the Middle, do you remember playing that game when you were a kid? You know, the one where you stand in the middle of a group of friends who continually throw a ball to one another over your head. They’d tease you, make you think you might have a chance, entice you to come closer to them. Then…. WHAM! They’d throw the ball just before you got it. Do you remember the frustration?

I wonder whether being a safety professional in today’s environment is any different?

This prompts me to think of a company I know who implemented a goal to reduce LTI’s by 50%. Their safety record at this plant was the worst in the company internationally, something had to be done to reduce incidents, they had to stop hurting people. We’ve all seen and heard that before right!

No, this is not a story about redefining LTI’s or changing the goal posts, or masking LTI’s with clever suitable duties, this company had already done that! This company knew what the problem was, people at their plant all took drugs and were alcoholics. They thought, this one’s easy, lets implement a policy where everyone who has an injury has to be drug and alcohol tested, yep everyone.

I was working with that organisation for a while, consulting. I raised my concerns about the potential impact that the LTI reduction target might have, but the Manager I was working with was adamant that this was the right approach.

In the short time that I was consulting with them, about 6 months, they changed Managing Directors. The new MD called me in one day and said, “I don’t really know what you’ve done, but whatever it is, I need you to keep it up, our LTI’s have stopped since you’ve come on board. How about you draw up a new contract and we’ll get it signed”. I told him about the practice that had been introduced, I raised my concerns. This was the last conversation, and the last meeting I had with the company. I couldn’t help the new MD see what by-product the LTI goal had on the organisation. They had two problems, there were a lot of people there who took drugs and alcohol, and they were having a lot of incidents, both of those problems went away with the threat of testing for drugs and alcohol. Oh by the way, were they interested in random drug and alcohol testing, or even better an education and support program as a prevention strategy? No, of course not, that would cost too much. Easy to bury your head in the sand and pretend everything is ok.

This was a classic example of the organisation exerting power over their employees through a by-product of a goal. The effect of which was to disempower them, and stop them reporting incidents.

This story is not about this organisation, it’s about demonstrating the by-products of goals, and how the safety profession needs to be attuned to this. It was a tough one for the safety professional in that organisation to deal with this. They “Sat in the Middle” by being part of a management team, they didn’t agree with the decision made by management, but they were seen to be part of the decision and they weren’t able to convince the rest of their colleagues. They had other pressures too, competing goals, they were paid a bonus based on LTI rates, they received a call from the International Director of Safety congratulating them on their significantly improved performance, there was a promise of an overseas trip to “come and tell us about your journey” if the performance continued. How about those for some competing goals?

They eventually chose to “Sit on the Fence” and just let the new policy be introduced. Over time, they came to justify the decision by saying to themselves, “well I’m out on the shop floor every day, if someone has an injury, they will tell me, it’s ok, I know they like me and I have a good relationship with the guys”. They were the person who drove the person to the doctor for the drug and alcohol test, did they seriously think that they would tell them about an incident?

The challenges of dealing with competing goals and their many hidden by-products is often a daily battle for the modern day safety professional. The Piggy in the Middle if you will. Understanding the hidden impact of goal setting is something that safety professionals should be alert to, and understand. If you are not attuned to the impacts of goals in your organisation, how can you effectively manage risk?

The role of the safety professional in today’s world seems to be changing. When I look at some of the many e-mails I get each week which alerting me to safety related roles being advertised (see example – I see tasks like ‘transformation’ and ‘driving ongoing change and performance excellence to the community and economy’. It’s a changed world from when I started out in the profession (19 years ago). Back then it was all about technical safety, Standards, risk assessment and engineering.

Today, it’s not uncommon for the safety professional to have a ‘seat at the table’ (sit on the management team) in an organisation and it seems we are becoming less technical and more part of the overall businesses management. But are we really part of the team, do we really sit at the table or is this just a way that organisations attempt to demonstrate they are serious about safety? It does make me think about where safety really is positioned in a business and that one of the challenges for the modern day safety professional is “Sitting in the Middle, Without Sitting on the Fence”.

Picture this, you have just landed the job in the advertisement noted above, you’re now the Safety Risk Manager. You’re in the role, day one, the challenges are all ahead of you. Let’s have a look at just one of those challenges – “ensure corporate goals and objectives are achieved”. First things first, you have to ask yourself, “are you aligned to the goals and objectives, do you believe in them, are they achievable?” How can you be fair dinkum in working on these goals if they don’t align to your own values and beliefs, that’s one hell of a mental juggling act you they don’t.

Second, I wonder if you would take take time out (Take 5 perhaps….) and consider the impact that the goals may have on an organisation, not just their direct impact, saving dollars, increasing revenue, increased market share etc…. but the hidden by-products that come with all goals. All goals have by-products, least of which is an attempt to create control. Goals are developed in order for organisations to measure performance, whether that be productivity, cost, waste or sales. These goals are designed to gain control over whatever it is being measured. We’ve probably all heard that classic saying “rather than measure what we value, we tend to value what we measure”. We also know from our studies in social psychology that most human behaviour is generated in the unconscious, not mind the conscious. Goals and their hidden by-products impact our behaviour as they affect our unconscious mind. This is turn has the affect of controlling our behaviour. Control equals power and power, through the control exerted by management, leads to disempowerment of people at the front line of an organisation.

So I wonder if the safety professional should be part of a management team, part of creating control? I wonder what effect this in itself may have on how the safety professional goes about their job. I have come to learn, through some hard lessons over time, that being a safety professional is not about controlling, it is not about telling or instructing, it is often about humbly asking, and more importantly listening. Supporting people by helping them discover what hazards and risks they may be faced with. Let people make decisions, let them make mistakes, let them learn! There are times though where we shouldn’t “Sit on the Fence”, we must influence organizational leaders who play an important part in organizational culture. Safety can be a tough profession sometimes, but I do wonder if sometimes we make it tougher for ourselves by Sitting in the Fence, when we should be Sitting in the Middle?

I never did like being the Piggy in the Middle, maybe I should think about another game, Stuck in the Mud perhaps?

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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