Sitting Safely at the Table

Sitting Safely at the Table

See also: Wipe Safety Off The Agenda

Meeting the team of engineersYou’ve probably heard the saying; if an organisation is to take Safety seriously, then Safety needs a ‘seat at the table’. I’ve heard the same said too about HR, about IT and about Finance. Of course the table being referred to is a seat at the decision making table; for example, the Boardroom or the Senior Leadership Team. The argument is that if Safety doesn’t ‘sit at the table’ then an organisation isn’t serious about it. That’s the theory I’ve heard offered by some in Safety, and if I’m honest, I recall saying myself!

The question I now reflect on when I think of this is; if we think safety must ‘sit at the table’, is this really about valuing the safety of people, or, could this mean that we are being seduced into a world of control and power and of wanting to amplify our status in the organisation. A world that on the one hand can seem so attractive, yet at the same time and ironically, so dangerous? What may such power and status amplification do to us? I’ll explore this later in this piece.

First though, thinking about the notion of a ‘seat at the table’ caused me to reflect and consider; do you need to be at the table in order to influence the way that people go about their work, and improve on safety performance in an organisation?

A discussion this week with someone working in Safety supported the position that you do need a ‘seat at the table’. The argument being put forward by this person was that the organisation they work at didn’t take safety seriously because; a) they themselves don’t have a ‘seat at the table’ and b) safety wasn’t a mandatory item on meeting agenda’s. Those two things are a must they argued, otherwise they said, “Safety is just second fiddle”. To be truthful, I was tempted to launch into ‘telling mode’ and suggest to them that these might be good things as that they didn’t then have to get caught up in the politics that goes with ‘sitting at the table’.

But this was not my story, so instead, I engaged in a conversation with the person exploring how they might go about influencing, without a seat at the illustrious table, and what role they could play even though their position in the hierarchy didn’t allow the power and authority they were seeking. It was a good conversation.

I contrast this against another conversation that I had yesterday with a good friend who is currently relieving in a safety role in one of Australia’s largest Tier One companies. This friend was telling me how they have ditched the formalities of their safety observation and conversations Program (i.e. the checklists) and focused instead on the quality of the conversations. Their job as they see it, is to support others in discerning risk for themselves, to encourage thinking and foster a culture where safety is about understanding, not obeying.

I asked my friend what the consequences of ditching the traditional safety processes were, the answer was quite interesting. They shared that there is more talk amongst the people doing the job, the hierarchy are listening more, and the guys in the field are feeling heard.

I suspect that this is the result of my friend being seen as an equal, as a peer and I expect even as a ‘friend’ to those doing the work. They are certainly not seen as the Safety Crusader, nor one of the ‘tossers from the office’, wielding the power passed on from those ‘sitting at the table’. My friend has never met any of those that sit around the table at this organisation, let alone be there themselves. I suspect the only seat that my friend has, is a seat at the table in the lunch room, chatting with the guys doing the work, where amplifying his status is not high on his agenda.

I wonder if, on occasion, we focus too much on our status in organisations, and whether this might lead to what Alain de Botton describes as ‘status anxiety,’ where he suggests:

“That the hunger for status, like all appetites, can have its uses: spurring us to do justice to our talents, encouraging excellence, restraining us from harmful eccentricities and cementing members of a society around a common value system. But like all appetites, its excesses can also kill”.

De Botton (2005, p.xi)

I also wonder what we could learn from Robert Caldini who, in his book Influence, shares his idea of the ‘reciprocal concession rule’ of which he notes (p.36); “Another consequence of the rule, however, is an obligation to make a concession to someone who has made a concession to us.” Reciprocal concession doesn’t sound much like an approach focused on power, control and obedience in achieving outcomes. Perhaps my friend knows a thing or two about reciprocal concession?

Of course the argument that I am putting forward in this piece about not needing a seat at the table in order to influence safety outcomes does not mean that we don’t want, and need, supportive leaders from around the table in order to influence safety in an organisation. Nor am I suggesting that all of those who sit at the table feel the need to augment their status. However, because I’m not stuck in thinking about the world in a binary way, I don’t approach this as an either/or argument. Rather, I see it as a reflection of how we in Safety can go about influencing others through effective conversations, through being seen as equals and supporting understanding in our everyday roles; regardless of whether we sit at the table or not.

How does this play out in your world?

Does Safety really need a seat at the decision making table to make a difference?

Author: Robert Sams

Phone: 0424 037 112



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Rob Sams
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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