‘Whatever it takes’
Just when we were recovering from drug shortcuts by Lance Armstrong, we discover that drug taking is endemic and enculturated in Australian sport. At the same time as an Australian Rules football club is being investigated for doping, the same club launched their new slogan and campaign for the 2013 season, ‘whatever it takes’. The last time I saw this mantra was in a Four Corners Report in 2010 on the tactics undertaken to knife the Prime Minister and put in a new leader in government. Before that, the slogan was popularized by Graham Richardson, former ‘numbers man’ for the Australian Labor Party under the Keating Government.
The slogan, ‘whatever it takes’ however, is more than just words. The idea that words are ‘just semantics’ and have no cultural affect, is naïve in the extreme and flies in the face of all we know in social psychology about the effect of ‘framing’ and ‘priming’. The reality is, when it comes to safety leadership,your words matter. Often the words we use help form cultural identity and drive underlying ideologies, hidden in culture. ‘Whatever it takes’ infers that the ‘end justified the means’, this is the mantra of utilitarianism. In politics it means backroom deals, double cross, double speak, spin and ruthlessness. In sport it means, shortcuts, double speak, deceit and cheating. In production it means shortcuts, expediency, double speak and safety spin. In safety, it means ‘get the job done’, ‘can do’ and ‘turn a blind eye’.
Words, slogans and mantras are all artefacts of culture. Often, what starts as some innocent naïve belief, articulated in a set of words, becomes the underlying unquestioned ideology of an organisation. This is what we call a discourse. The discourse explains how the organisation works, and the meaning behind the words are often forgotten as the full trajectory of the words become more and more evident in time. Gradually, the beliefs and values behind the set of words must be defended as the trajectory of the discourse becomes obvious. This is called the ‘sunk cost effect’. Once ego has been invested (sunk cost) in a discourse and its mantra, it must be defended with all kinds of absurd logic and reasoning. Moreso, in an organisation when the discourse takes on the role of shared unquestioned assumptions. This is how organisations end up taking the word ‘safety’ out of their cultural language and start advertising for ‘zero harm managers’. Such organisations end up talking about ‘zero harm meetings’, ‘zero harm memos’ and ‘zero harm charters’. Organisations who love this language are most often calculative (Hudson) and become deluded to think that the cosmetics of safety are metrics of culture in safety.
The power and dynamics of discourse explain why expressions such as ‘zero harm’ and ‘all accidents are preventable’ are harmful and not neutral. Goal setting and the words used for goal setting do not stand in isolation. All goals compete with other goals, it is not black and white as the naïve logic goes, ‘if you don’t desire zero harm, you must want people dead’. Such binary logic and thinking competes with other goals in learning, culture and anthropology. There are many shades of grey. All this talk about aspirational goals and targets is infused with binary logic that ignores the psychology of goals setting. The psychology of goals informs us that the words we use in our goal setting have a ‘priming effect’. So, the way we talk in goal setting has psychological by-products that contradict the goal itself and its by-products are harmful. The by-products of setting absolutist and perfectionist goals fosters cynicism, skepticism, ‘double speak’ and spin.
One of the most powerful tools for culture change in safety is not a checklist, bureaucracy, systems or technology but the everyday conversations we have at work. The trouble is, there’s not much emphasis on skill development of effective safety conversations in safety leadership in industry. However, it is our conversations and thinking, as we undertake systems, that we share meanings about safety in the words we use. Other expressions such as ‘common sense’, ‘can do’ and ‘get the job done’ also develop the same trajectory as ‘whatever it takes’ in a culture. It ought to be a goal of safety people to try and ‘reframe’ conversations when such language is used. The shaping of language is one of the strategies that ought to be fundamental for safety officers, little hope if your organisation is already baptized in ‘zero harm’.
Meanwhile back at the football club, the 5 metre square poster that was plastered with pride across the outside walls of the clubrooms in Melbourne was rapidly removed today by contractors. The video of the process shows the contractor on a ladder with a gurney blasting off the poster without full PPE. Goodness me, let’s go berserk on the contractor for no helmet and glasses, that’s the way to change culture in safety.