What are Your Secret Messages in Safety?
We say and sign many things in safety often only thinking about their overt meaning. It’s not that often that people consider the unconscious level of their communications and what are the by-products, trade offs and trajectory in messages. If the language of ‘by-products’, ‘trajectory’ and ‘trade off’ were normalized in boardrooms and executive meetings I’m sure we would have a lot less nonsense floating about in the safety industry.
I was on a flight this week going to a remote area of Queensland with a plane load of shirts and bags with target zero this, beyond zero this, mission zero that and destination beyond zero etc and got talking to a project manager sitting beside me about his work etc. What a fascinating conversation. This person didn’t know what I did but just rattled off dozens of ‘work-arounds’ in how people don’t report and get flown home to keep the stats good. He said, ‘the blokes just know’ its all bull$41t but they have mortgages, debts and pressures that mean you ‘zip the lip’ and play the game. Then he told me about the number of zero harm consultants who come in with training programs, red card/green card symbolism and systems of policing to try and get tough on non-compliance. However, the secret systems of the workers are quite clever and subversive and so the game goes on. In the end what is normalized are the by-products of delusion, cynicism, hiding, double speak and ‘safety as nonsense’.
We have known for quite some time that the things we put on walls and symbols have an unconscious influence. For example, a coloured risk matrix (https://safetyrisk.net/calculators-matrices-and-mumbo-jumbo-risk-assessment/) creates a sense of unfounded confidence that a risk is being managed and is accompanied by a range of assumptions that decrease the likelihood of an open conversation. As long as the colour goes from red to green, risk is being managed. The most important thing is not the conversation just the paperwork and the shift in colour. We know through Kahneman, Slovic, Plous, Bargh, Gigerenzer and many others that deficit messaging actually increases risk taking. But what do we see Safety do? The majority of messaging in the industry and reporting is deficit focused. Then we wonder why things don’t improve, ah, we must need a bigger stick the last one was too small. Zero wasn’t printed large enough, there were not enough zero signs.
The idea that signs and symbols have an unseen effect is not new, just have a look at any of these documentaries on the power of propaganda and you will see how secret messaging works.
The Nazis were the first to really perfect propaganda as a science with Dr Goebbels at the helm. It was the work of the Nazis that really triggered the boom in research in Social Psychology. It was the early social psychologists that uncovered the secret tactics (gestures, rituals, motifs, stigma etc) of the Nazis and the mechanism of symbols working on the unconscious. The study of signs and symbols and their unconscious power is called semiotics. The propaganda of zero is one such semiotic. It’s real and secret outcomes of delusion, cynicism, hiding, double speak and ‘safety as nonsense’ were well articulated by the project manager on the plane.
But it need not be this way. There are many powerful messages that organisations could create to move away from safety as a deficit activity immersed in deficit language. I work with organisations who want to change their deficit inductions and deficit messaging so that their systems actually work, rather than creating sub-set secret systems that create problems that remain hidden. It’s not rocket science but you do have to delve deeper than the bloody obvious. There are some very clear and simple things that can be considered in improving messaging in safety which I have discussed previously https://safetyrisk.net/how-to-use-signs-symbols-and-text-effectively-in-communicating-about-risk/. What are your organisations secret messages in safety?