‘Tis the season to be decorating the workplace with safety slogans so I thought I should republish this classic:
Sayings, Slogans, Aphorisms and the Discourse of Simple
One of the most annoying things about social media, especially Linkedin (as its intention is to be professional), is the constant flooding of the airwaves with the quest to be simple. The most recent was this:
Whilst I understand the quest to keep life simple, the denial of complexity creates a range of by-products and trade offs that have a troubling trajectory. The worst aspect of this constant repetition of pithy meaninglessness is it often comes from people who claim to be in leadership or in coaching. Why this constant quest to regurgitate that life is simple, when it isn’t. Whilst we don’t have to parade complexity about like a float at a Mardi Gras, why is it so difficult to remain silent on sloganeering? Why most we talk zero? Just take it out of your language. Why talk about ‘common sense’? Just don’t talk about it.
So, what’s the by-product of cheap sloganeering?
The first by-product of sloganeering on simple is that denial isn’t healthy? If things were just simple, why do we have to lecture people on it? If it really was simple, this poster would be meaningless. The reason why the poster for simple is regurgitated is because it isn’t, that’s why it is posted, perhaps out of frustration by the person putting it out there. In a society plagued by broken relationships, a mental health epidemic, chronic anxiety and depression, substance abuse (medicated and recreational) and intractable social problems it must be delightful to tell everyone else that things are just simple. Really? You are overweight, just diet. You are addicted to gambling, just stop. You don’t like something? Say it. Now there’s a recipe for losing your job in a hurry.
The second by-product of sloganeering is that it tends to be binary, it leaves no opportunity for grey and in-between. You want people harmed? Well zero? Support the Gaza action by Israel? Well, you are an anti-semite. The trouble is in risk and safety binary is dangerous, forcing people into absolutes and driving cultures of intolerance. For example, it is crazy to think one can drive a culture of zero in an organisation and then expect a complementary culture of confession to emerge. Absolutes drive denial and the quest for perfection promotes silence. When ‘all accidents are preventable’ and you have one, the first human recourse is non-reporting.
The third by-product of sloganeering is what it does to the disadvantaged. It is relatively easy for the wealthy to hide addictions and dependencies in denial that they are addicted and dependent. However, the poor or financially challenged don’t have such luxury. We saw this week the political disaster of a treasurer who was out of touch with people struggling on low incomes. His sweeping generalization (the quest for simple) was easy but a total denial of complexity and earned him the isolation of the country as a whole. Three word slogans are cheap but not reality in governance or policy.
When we circulate pithy slogans, who are these slogans alienating? It may be fine for a person up the top of management with the cushion of high income to say ‘things are simple’ when the workers know that it isn’t. My MiProfile survey shows that 65% of workers don’t believe in zero. So everytime the managers regurgitates it there is more ‘double speak’ and cynicism, key drivers of sub-cultural risk schizophrenia. The workers know that the zero absolute is nonsense, and furthermore that it doesn’t apply to management. The mistakes and errors of management are often forgiven, the mistakes of workers (‘who chose to be unsafe’) are punished.
The fourth by-product of sloganeering is the smugness it creates for the speaker. ‘It’s simple for me, why are you finding life hard?’ I just pick up the phone and call, why don’t you? I just tell people what I think, why don’t you? If I don’t like something, I just say it, why don’t you? I’m perfect, why aren’t you? Sloganeering is alienating and diminishes empathy. When we throw around binary slogans people know you don’t understand life. When you throw around slogans people know not to talk to you or confess to you, we don’t admit weakness, vulnerability and fallibility to those who don’t identify with the struggles and suffering of life.
The fifth by-product of sloganeering is the promotion of slogan discourse. So, using a slogan to project and attribute life as simple is in itself simple. It is the promotion of simple by being simple. This is why cheap mantras like common sense don’t make sense. If risk and safety were common sense, how come the Act and Regulation are so big? Why have we got all these standards and paperwork if risk and safety is just simple, you chose to be unsafe? Isn’t it about time we learnt to be silent on slogans in the risk and safety space and developed greater empathy between workers and management about the realities of risk?