When the Target Drives the Method

safety targetWhen the Target Drives the Method

I was in a group at a conference recently where the presenter paraded out statistics on injury rates. We were shown graphs, charts and symbols all paraded in trends and patterns. Then right at the end the presenter said: ‘and this is why we are all motivated for safety’. What an amazing jump in logic, I asked: ‘Can you please explain how this data is motivational? By what mechanism does this motivate someone to be safe?’ He was stunned, he had never been asked the question, it was ‘assumed’ that data was motivational. He couldn’t explain how data motivates so in the lengthy silence I said, ‘the presentation of data de-motivates me to safety’. He then went on with a pre prepared spiel that drifted on to the importance of targets and how targets motivate people to safety. We had a similar debate about the mechanism of how targets motivate and, he hadn’t thought about that either, it was ‘assumed’ that all targets motivate all people to safety. Indeed, whilst being proficient at statistical analysis the presenter knew very little about the dynamics of motivation.

The quest to focus on simplistic and ‘lower order’ measureable targets develops its own dynamic and operates on its own self-referenced assumptions. If one aims for excellence or to be ‘world class’ (higher order goals) that is much different (and more complex) than aiming for a numerical outcome (lower order goal). Simplistic measures whilst easy and convenient have very little ‘significance’. The idea of statistical significance itself is essentially philosophical not objective. Data is not objective but interpreted. A good but difficult read is The Cult of Statistical Significance by Ziliak and McCloskey. Further see: The Cult of Statistical Significance and We Agree That Statistical Significance proves Essentially Nothing: A Rejoinder to Thomas Mayer

This week I read an article from an organization celebrating its safety statistics and then interpreting this data as ‘being world class in safety’. The article assumed that injury statistics are THE measure of being ‘world class in safety’. It was amazing to see all the congratulations from safety people who also believed injury data makes a statement about safety ‘significance’. Since when did low injury data (low order goals) become the measure of being ‘world class’? Since when did taking a focus on short and limited data become ‘significant’? Such data could just as easily be interpreted as luck, regression to the mean, natural progression, response to technology, design, engineering, psychological or cultural change.

Why do we get this constant philosophical interpretation of numerics in safety as a statement of ‘significance’? Graphs, charts and tables don’t tell us about the culture of an organization nor about anything qualitative in safety. The organization paraded in this article could just as easily have a high rate of psychological harm because it maintains a regime of terror in ruling safety. But that doesn’t matter because we don’t count or value psychological harm as ‘significant’. So paper cuts and trips down stairs (because you didn’t hold the hand rail) are more ‘significant’ than mental health, medication dependency, family break down, relationships or mental health, because they can’t be easily seen or counted. Poor sad calculative safety, that uses selective counting and zero mindfulness to determine what it means to be ‘world class’ and ‘significant’. Someone should have told that to BP when they celebrated 7 years of zero on the day they killed 17 people and poured billions of tons of oil into the Mexico Gulf at Horizon One. The cult of data in safety misattributed as ‘significant’, is a delusion that assists organisations to maintain ‘double speak’ in safety.

Target setting is not a neutral process. All targets are ‘framed’ and ‘prime’ within a cultural and organizational context. The by-products of setting targets and goals ought to be considered in how goals and targets are set. The setting of targets involves trade offs and prioritization, for example the organization declares to its employees that slips and trips are more important than mental health. When we set low order goals and targets as paramount in an organization, we prime the organizational discourse and this tells employees unconsciously what the organization values most of all. If we prioritise and ‘police’ petty ‘pissy’ safety, people soon learn that the culture of the organization doesn’t seek higher order values of care, ownership and mutual excellence but rather bottom line numerics.

The strange thing about numeric safety and lower order targets is that this is not how we live real life. Most of the things that are important to us in life are not measureable, nor controllable. Indeed, the joy of life is found in many of the things we can’t control. It is also delusional to think that one can ‘control’ the thinking of another, and remain ethical.

I often find it enjoyable to read facebook entries when people are exhilarated and having the experience of a lifetime, they can neither explain nor measure their joy. They try to explain and share their joy by sending a photo but without empathy I have no idea how they feel, I just know that this relationship is ‘significant’ for them. They certainly can’t quantify it, and if they tried it would lose its significance. There are many ways of ‘knowing’ that defy measurement, yet we know and feel the ‘significance’ of that knowledge even though it is difficult to share.

Setting a goal of being ‘world class’ in safety whilst admirable is a commitment to a higher order goal that is subjective and immeasurable. We continue to devalue such language when we parade injury data as its measure. So, when organisations set low order targets as their high order target it creates a dynamic that tells workers they ‘play games’ with the meaning of safety.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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