The Repression of Uncertainty

I recently republished this on Linkedin Pulse where it inspired some very positive comments, be sure to check out the 20 keys to maturing in safety leadership at the end of the article:

If you are a Parent, a Partner, a Leader or a Safety Person then you have learned, the hard way, that people cannot be controlled, engaged or motivated by “noise” and rules. This is despite your wisdom, position or intimate knowledge of these rules. The answer is not stricter rules, tougher penalties, convoluted systems and more paperwork but rather a “sharing of uncertainty”.   

The Repression of Uncertainty

The belief is that the solution to every safety problem must be a rational systems process, hence the ever growing overload of paperwork in the workspace driving new cultural problems of ‘tick and flick’, overconfidence and ‘dumb down’ thinking.

Bullying boss shouting and pointingThe most common words in safety language are ‘controls’ and ‘compliance’. The mythology is, if there is a hazard we go to a safety professional because they will know what to do about it. This gives the safety person an aura of legitimacy because they have access to a professionalized sense of knowledge that others don’t. This sustains the belief that the safety person knows what to do because they have the power to control things that could cause harm. This often creates a cultural belief that things are not so uncertain after all. If we just know the WHS Act, regulation, standards, policy and procedures, and comply with these things, everything is safer and under control.

The general idea is that people who know what they are doing don’t express their uncertainties. The belief is, this tends to quash confidence, erode trust and sink morale. So we have this idea that safety leadership is all about control, yet this belief ‘blindsides’ safety culture. Safety leaders who embrace uncertainty and engage with error according to Karl E. Weick (managing the Unexpected), become more mindful. Hallinan’s book Why We Make Mistakes is a great start for anyone who wants to be a leader in safety.

Whilst the rhetoric of certainty floods the safety space, the reality is that risk is all about uncertainty and fragility. Somehow we imagine that tightening definition and process on ALARP, Risk Assessment or Due Diligence will make things more certain. Yet the fundamental of what it is to be human is about unpredictability, fallibility and uncertainty. We live life far more by ‘faith’ than we do by certainty.

One of the shocks of parenting is when children grow up and become adolescents, there is nothing quite like a teenager to teach you about uncertainty and control. However this lesson comes slow and hard as parents begin top realize they cannot control others, least of all their own child. Parent experience the pain of ingratitude after making so many sacrifices for their children. Parents experience projected ignorance as their child tells them they are irrelevant and ‘out of touch’. Parents despair as they experience their child’s pain, watching their children learn to mature on their own, sometimes with trial and error experiences that are nearly fatal. Sometimes being a spectator as a parent is a tough gig.

So when it comes to safety, we seem to think that information is education and learning. Safety people seem to prioritize telling over listening – people will somehow be motivated to be safe because we have provided them with information. In reality education is about change and learning, not a ‘data dump’ of ‘safety noise’. Many inductions and safety toolbox messages are about this ‘noise’, so little of what safety does seems to engage the imagination or focus on motivation. You won’t find much about imagination, learning and motivation in safety qualifications. You won’t find these in the topic list on an SIA conference, you are more likely to find heaps on legislation, regulation, harmonization, compliance, controls, guilt and fear.

The key to safety leadership and learning is the sharing of uncertainty, not the delusion of certainty. This is because the desire to learn starts with the confession of what one doesn’t know.

When I run the Human Dymensions MiProfile survey, one of the key aspects of the diagnostic is measuring the capability of respondents to express uncertainty under stress. Overconfidence is a killer in the workplace. It is when humans are under stress that they make decisions using implicit knowledge, heuristics and intuition. I was working with some technicians in gas distribution last week who were in the midst of the NSW bushfires. Whilst the fires were all around them and houses ‘blowing up’, they had to turn the gas off in streets and to individual houses. What is fascinating is that in such a high risk situation there was no time for any paperwork, no SWMS or risk assessments, but decision making putting its trust in conversations, intuition and the unconscious. Remarkably, they made few mistakes and worked seamlessly with firies, police and other emergency services, who all worked on the same implicit methods. What they did most was share and listen to each other’s uncertainties. Any talk of certainty or repression of doubt in a crisis is dangerous. In Beaconsfield, we certainly worked this way, leadership was expressed best when it entertained doubt not when it spurted out the rhetoric of certainty. Funny enough, when the same technicians returned to their routine work after the bushfires they told me they were overburdened with paperwork and the delusion of certainty. Once they had signed the paperwork they continued on making decisions based on experience, heuristics and conversations. Safety leaders would gain a great deal of perspective from reading Cialdini (Influence) and Klein (The Power of Intuition).

So the key to maturing in safety leadership is not the rhetoric of controls but the sharing of uncertainty, this:

1. Helps ease the pain of carrying responsibility for certainty.

2. Diffuses the idea that there is one solution to a problem.

3. Helps leaders understand risk as a ‘wicked’ problem.

4. Drives creative sharing and listening through admission of vulnerability. Acknowledging limitations increases trust, transparency and permissiveness in restructuring the definition of problems.

5. Corrects the delusion of the ‘messiah complex’.

6. Reduces the projection of blame as if only ‘careless idiots’ are the only ones who make mistakes.

7. Corrects the idea that the best thinking is absolute and inflexible.

8. Helps leaders embrace complexity.

9. Creates a culture of mindfulness through the elevation of the importance of unconscious tools used in human decision making.

10. Corrects the delusion that rational decision making only makes a decision based on ALL the facts.

11. Gives value to ‘extra’ rational processes in decision making.

12. Demonstrates that many decisions are ‘faith’ based eg. faith in science, engineering or regulation. When all the time we know that the regulation of humans is unpredictable.

13. Reduces the idea that assertive leadership is the effective leadership.

14. Moves the power-base in decision making from exclusivity to followers and collaboration.

15. Regulates the promotion of nonsense absolute and perfectionist goals eg. zero harm and ‘all accidents are preventable’.

16. Drives higher order thinking about the by-products of goal setting and spin offs in decision making.

17. Makes leaders more future oriented and considerate of the unexpected.

18. Brings into the discourse and debate differing perspectives about risk.

19. Gives value to counterintuitive effects on decision making such as risk homeostasis and ‘sunk cost effect’.

20. Prioritizes the importance of learning in risk management.

In reality, most human decision making comes from the unconscious (Norrtranders). However, because we have succeeded in repressing uncertainty in safety discourse, we have not learned how to acknowledge intuition, heuristics and the unconscious in how we really manage risk. This is why the rationalism of regulators, lawyers and engineers dominate the safety space. The belief is that the solution to every safety problem must be a rational systems process, hence the ever growing overload of paperwork in the workspace driving new cultural problems of ‘tick and flick’, overconfidence and ‘dumb down’ thinking.

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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