Every day the bulk of the human population wakes up and spends a large portion of their waking hours going to work. Some of us are privileged to do work that we want to do, that provides meaning to us. As psychologist Barry Schwartz points out, not everyone is so lucky. In a fairly recent TED talk and subsequent book he offers a blistering critique of how we think about work, particularly in capitalistic societies. Schwartz’s point highlights how in the process of designing work processes to maximize efficiency we may have made assumptions about human nature that are not only false, but may be inherently dehumanizing. We design work that is designed without consideration of meaning with assumption that people will only work for the money and then are surprised when we have uncommitted workforces.
Hinted at in the TED talk and dealt with in more detail in the book, Schwartz makes the point that our theories of people are not value neutral. When we theorize about geological or cosmic forces these forces are not affected. Whether our theories are right or wrong, physics is physics and our abstractions make no change in nature. However, when dealing with living systems, people in particular, when we develop a theory it has the potential to dramatically affect the behavior of that system. In a process that seems similar to the concept of enactment that Weick speaks of, when we tell people how they are it changes how they are. It reminds me of something Erik Hollnagel mentioned to me at a recent conference – in social science when you are trying to understand them, they are also trying to understand you.
Reflecting on Schwartz’s message, I can’t help but think that we in safety have so much to learn here. We design work processes designed to protect workers based on a worldview that we rarely reflect on and in the process we create self-fulfilling prophecies that serve no purpose except to confirm that worldview. For example, when we see people as untrustworthy and as a problem to control, we design systems based on this worldview – rules, procedures, zero tolerance rules, incentive programs, behavior-based safety. Although intended to help workers be “safe”, none of this is designed to help workers do their jobs and often they simply make the work more difficult. As a result we see violations, sneaky behaviors (such as underreporting) and distrust. This confirms our initial suspicions, our theory has been confirmed and therefore the solution is simple – tighter controls. We must protect you, from you, in spite of you. The vicious cycle continues.
However, as damning as the above seems from the outside, we must remember that there is an inherent local rationality to it lest we fall into the trap of blaming safety professionals and managers for blaming workers. Rather, we must understand that the problem is not the people, but the system created based upon our false assumptions. For me, the most important take away from Schwartz’s message is that safety professionals and managers must remember that we are dealing with real people. Fathers. Mothers. Sons. Daughters. All with hopes, dreams, fears. All looking to live a life that means something to them. None wanting to get hurt or to hurt others. All with the ability to anticipate the desires of the organization and adapt accordingly.
As we intervene in our organizations, we must do so with humility. Everything we do will engender a response and those responses will create more responses, reverberating throughout the organization, often in unforeseeable ways. But our worldview, our own theories may blind us to this complexity. Instead, we may see only what we want to see.
The easy answer to this problem is a change in perspective. Unfortunately, this is not as easy as it sounds, because the perspectives we and others have often influence us pre-rationally in ways that we don’t really understand. This means we may not even have the opportunity or ability to completely change our perspective on our own.
Perhaps a better approach is to put ourselves in a position where our perspective can change naturally rather than trying to force the change ourselves. Identify the perspective you’d like to see and get into that environment. I don’t mean this figuratively. I mean literally get into those environments where you can see the perspective you’d like to see.
For example, I was recently speaking with a safety manager at a public works organization and I asked her about some of the keys to the success the organization has had despite significant resource challenges. She pointed to the movement of her department’s office to be in the same location as where her employees dispatched from and having her department’s work hours moved to be same as the workers’ hours. Something she said resonated with me. “We see each other in the parking lot each morning,” she said, “we ask about each others’ kids.” Something as trivial as being forced to work in the same location and time as the ones they were supposed to serve was identified as a key factor in being successful despite an otherwise problematic working environment. And not because the safety people could keep a stern watch on the workers to make sure they followed the rules, but because it helped them develop relationships.
Humans are inherently relational – when put into situations where we must interact with others we naturally develop relationships. Certainly if you know someone on a personal level you are more likely to see their perspective and understand how your actions affect them than if you are dealing with strangers.
Not all of us work in organizations where this is possible though. Sometimes our organizations are too big or too spread out to personally interact with workers. Other options are still available to us. You could regularly have “Days in the Life Of” events where you work side-by-side with workers, or you could conduct “blackout periods” where you shut off distractions and learn about normal work.
Other alternatives methods to put yourself into a situation or environment where you can evolve your perspective may be out there (perhaps you can suggest some!). But if we cannot put ourselves into those environments where our perspectives can shift we must tread carefully and be wary of the assumptions that underpin any interventions we recommend in our organizations. In those situations we maneuver with significant blindspots. Unfortunately, as Schwartz points out, the workers are often the ones who suffer in those situations.