The Paradox of “Lifesaving Rules”
Guest Post by Danny Fay
As part of my assignment in Unit 5 of the Diploma in Social Psychology of Risk, I am evaluating the paradox of “Lifesaving Rules” against the five principles of collective mindfulness as developed by Professor Karl Weick.
Collective mindfulness is an acceptance of equivocality; understanding that all possible outcomes cannot be known and that the environment is continually changing. This creates a mindset of active wariness and attentiveness through continual questioning and revision of previously held assumptions, plans, and expectations.
Weick’s philosophy of organising shows how mining industries inadvertently inhibit their capacity to understand and manage risk through tightly coupled systems (rules), based on what is known and not what is imagined or unforeseen. Whereas loosely coupled systems can provide the conditions of adaptability, flexibility and stability.
The ability to manage the unexpected is mindful management; no matter what you do, there is always a trade-off or by-product. Understanding that all possible outcomes cannot be known and that the environment is continually changing creates a mindset of entertaining doubt and attentiveness through continual inquiry.
Mine sites develop precautionary norms that are set out as “Lifesaving Rules”. These culturally accepted principles about the industry and its risks are established as non-negotiable with regards to choosing to follow the rules; breaches often result in a disciplinary outcome. This suggests a belief that organising by creating “Lifesaving Rules” amounts to certainty and order.
As I am learning through Social Psychology of High Reliability Organising there is ambiguity around this certainty creating a paradox. The trade-off for micromanaging through rigid rules and procedures, in order to manage risk, only increases susceptibility to failure and decreases capacity to understand and manage risk.
There is also a discourse in the language of ‘Lifesaving Rules’. This is the hero-myth in traditional leadership and management theory and the delusion of safety, where there is a belief that you can control what is feared. However; in the words of Rob Long, you cannot predict it, cannot control it, and definitely cannot measure it.
Using the 5 principles of Collective Mindfulness developed by Carl Weick I will critique “Lifesaving Rules” and demonstrate how they cannot reduce equivocality or manage risk.
Weick has identified 3 common principals that make up the category of anticipation. Anticipation involves identifying and halting weak signals of failure before they are able to become damaging events.
The First principal Preoccupation with failure is an attitude that allows small failures to be identified and managed before they become larger, damaging failures. These failures are not seen as isolated events, rather as a sign that something may be wrong with the entire system and could result in widespread consequences.
“Lifesaving Rules” discourage reporting near misses, as the outcome is often blame and punishment which restricts learning opportunities. The rules are only focused on catastrophic or fatal risks and preclude small failures.
The capacity to anticipate unexpected problems involves identifying and halting weak signals of failure before they are able to become damaging events. This is not the prevention of the unexpected, but the ability to act immediately in the initial stages of an unexpected occurrence when there is only a hint that something might be wrong.
Creating a culture able to learn from itself, allows small failures to be noticed, as they are a learning opportunity that allows people to make more informed decisions in the future.
The Second principal Reluctance to simplify is to see the world as complex, unstable, unknowable and unpredictable. It takes a complex system to make sense of a complex environment. Organisations that are reluctant to simplify take nothing for granted, question their assumptions, and introduce complexity and create differing worldviews during decision-making events allowing for a richer and more varied picture of the situation, the potential outcomes and consequences.
Following the rules does not consider ongoing mindfulness of the workforce, as they direct workers to follow simple rules for them to be safe.
As sharing of information is by nature social, having conversations before the work starts where scepticism and differing worldviews are encouraged allows for a richer and more varied picture of the situation and potential outcomes.
The Third principal Sensitive to Operations is being attentive to where the work gets done. Face-to face communication between management and operators allows for the rich and timely exchange of key information and also builds the trust that is required to develop a comprehensive ‘big picture’ of the operation.
Lifesaving Rules” do not promote situational awareness as they inhibit people from speaking up and questioning, as well as structurally making it harder to lead with a big fence around them. As an artefact, “Lifesaving Rules” symbolise a lack of sensitivity to operations by being authoritative to follow the rules and not question. Focusing on authoritarian approaches to safety are tools for power and control, which devalues dialogue, trust and respect.
To build trust managers should practice “Humble Inquiry’ to understand the nuances of operations, and help neutralise threats to sensitivity.
Weick has identified 2 common principals that make up the category of containment. Containment focuses on how a damaging event is handled after it has occurred and improvising workarounds to keep functioning.
The Fourth principal Resilience is about bouncing back from unexpected change, absorbing and learning from the changes and moving forward.
The rigidly of “Lifesaving Rules” confines the trajectory and reduces flexibility of the people dealing with an unexpected event. You cannot manage the unexpected through prediction alone and you cannot be resilient in a tightly coupled system based on rules.
Improvisation plays a large role in maintaining an organisations capacity for resilience. When people have an expanded repertoire of highly developed skills and experiences, they are able to recombine them into novel combinations to apply to unexpected events.
The Fifth principal Deference to Expertise is a social rather than individual concept. Experience and hierarchical rank in an organisation does not necessarily equal expertise. In an organisation that defers to expertise, the hierarchy is loosened, allowing employees in the best position to tackle the problem and make the required decision.
Through studying Carl Weick’s book on Managing the Unexpected and seeing (understanding) that expertise is relational, creating “Lifesaving Rules” based on decisions already made, are not relational. They have no respect to diversity or experience of the workforce conducting the work or dealing with a damaging event. This precludes using local expertise to improvise workarounds by deferring to authorities rather than experts.
By reducing the reliance on rigid and static systems and creating a flexible decision structure, lets decision-making migrate to the people who have the most expertise to deal with the problems.
In conclusion, looking through the lens of this research, it is my view that “Lifesaving Rules” cannot manage the unexpected, as it is overly simplistic to believe people will stop doing something life threatening because there is a rule in place. Each new story of a catastrophic or fatal incident on a mine site confirms this view. When organisations fail to practice collective mindfulness, they are unable to understand and manage risk and will be prone to catastrophic unexpected events.