Speaking Truth to Power

 

“They tell us to do these things, but they don’t want to know how we get them done.” Others in the focus group nodded in agreement. Myself, I was taken a bit aback by the statement. I was facilitating the focus group with the intention of learning about the organization and how it manages safety. We had been speaking with many of the line employees who expressed varying degrees of frustration with different aspects of the work environment, management, the union, etc. These frustrations were typically specific to a given task, tool or area. For example, concerns about lack of training, not getting appropriate gear for a task, or areas that were particularly dangerous or troublesome. But this statement struck me as a particularly profound summation of the picture that was developing – a gap between the decision-makers and those enacting the decisions.

The managers in the organization above do not wish to put workers in harms way. Instead, a combination of factors, such as flawed mental models about how work is performed and what Diane Vaughan calls “structural secrecy” (i.e., the structures and bureaucracies in organizations that inhibit flows of information), create blindspots at the top of the organization. Managers make locally rational decisions and workers, with all their amazing creative potential, find ways to enact those decisions in a way that satisfies the managers. This does not mean that the workers do exactly the work exactly how the managers wanted it done. The work just gets done. The managers’ beliefs appear to be proven correct and the cycle continues.

In this way, the issue is not so much about managers being immoral or dumb, but about managers being separate from the realities of the work environment and the effects their decisions make on the complex balancing act of getting work done. Essentially, it’s about a lack of good information getting to the decision-makers. The gap between the decision-makers and those enacting decisions creates an environment where it is easy to make mistakes.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what the role of the safety professional is within the Safety Differently space. In an environment where we see local adaptations as a potential source of safety, where people are a solution, what is the role of safety professionals such as myself? There has been much discussion about this topic on this site (I’ve provide some links below to some posts to give you an idea of the different perspectives) as well as in other places but even within the Safety Differently space there is a lot of controversy on this topic (just look at the comments section on some of the previous posts on this topic as evidence of this).

The traditional model of the safety professional, the model in which most of my education, training and experience was situated, is as the technical expert. This involves knowledge of hazards, risks, engineering principles, regulations, standards, etc. The focus of this model is to create a safety professional that is equipped to have the answers to all of the organization’s safety questions.

Although I see the need for such knowledge in an organization, my concern with this model has increasingly been that industry is too varied to make such a model effective. After all, the technical knowledge needed for safety in one environment may be dramatically different (but not always obviously so) than another environment. This model seems to require that we have a level of specialization in the safety profession that would rival or surpass the medical profession, or else would create a safety generalist with such a general level of technical expertise as to be close to useless. After all, the technical expert safety professional is often in the uncomfortable position to be advising workers on how to do tasks that the safety professional has never performed. We still do need technical expertise for safety in our organizations, but I’m not convinced that the safety professional should be the ultimate source of that expertise.

On reflecting on the experience in the focus group and the statement of the employee, it seems to me that one role the safety professional is uniquely situated to play is as a connector between management and the front-line worker. Safety professionals often are positioned in ways that allow them access to most or all levels within the organization. They interact within front line workers and management (although the specific levels of management do vary quite a bit). They have the ability to develop relationships with people at each of these levels.

This puts the safety professional in the unique position to be able to tell the story of work to upper management. In this way I see safety professionals like organizational journalists. The classic conception of the goal of the journalist is to speak truth to power. In the same way, the safety professional speaks the truth of the realities of normal work to those with the most power, i.e., management. The goal is that by presenting these realities to management, by providing managers with better information, that management will be able to make better decisions. The fact of the matter is that, despite what the workers in the focus group believe, the managers in that organization do want to know about the realities workers face. The problem is that they (a) believe that they already know, and (b) do not have sufficient processes in place within the organization that would present information that contradicts that belief. Perhaps we need to orient the safety profession more toward changing this fact.

This model of the safety professional as the connector, communicator and facilitator of information flow has important implications for what safety professionals should be focusing on in organizations. First, the orientation of the safety professional is no longer merely toward technical concerns, but toward facilitating the successful completion of work. The safety professional realizes that she/he is not the expert on that work and therefore focuses on being the vehicle for information flows from the sharp end toward the blunt end. This requires a new set of practices designed to identify the realities and complexities of normal work and to communicate those realities to the blunt end in a way that facilitates collaboration, curiosity and, ultimately, action.

The second implication of this model is in relation to the competency needs for safety professionals. Rather than creating safety professionals that have all the answers (an impossible task), perhaps we should be focusing on creating safety professionals that know which questions to ask. This new model requires a professional who can identify and facilitate collaboration and dialogue. It requires the ability to empathize with people at various levels of the organization, so that data is presented in ways that create knowledge and understanding.

These are skills that currently are not taught in any major safety degree programs that I’m aware of and are not listed as required attributes for the many of the safety professional job openings I’ve seen. Yet if we want safety professionals that can fill the gap between decision-makers and front line workers, that can speak truth to power, perhaps we need to be valuing and teaching these skills more often. Perhaps we need to look more for people who are adept at bringing together diverse opinions, rather than merely looking for those who know the regulations. Maybe we need professionals with the ability to ask great questions, rather than those who are really good at providing answers.


Additional Perspectives

13 thoughts on “Speaking Truth to Power”

  1. Thanks Ron

    This is a watershed article and it gets to the uncomfortable point of the purpose and value of a safety professional.
    The article purposely and correctly questions whether the profession has been heading up a blind alley in relation to the dependence on technical knowledge rather than understanding,facilitating and be able to integrate OHS solutions into business operations.

    Regards

    Craig Power

  2. Agree with your points Ron, H&S function should aspire to be curators of content once information is unearthed, to ensure learning occurs & facilitating the transference of information within the organization. This can take on many forms and all revolves around how people operate within social context & systems, how they consume content and which content drives behavior. On the other end of the spectrum we now see positions within companies like chief futurist who attempts to shift an organisations focus into the future about what is possible, I see H&S as sitting between the poles of the past (what has occurred within an organisation & industry) to the future (work that could be completed, what context it would be completed in and how would it be completed), with the present (work being completed now) in between.
    And agree that until this point we have had to look outside the technical & function learning that is currently offered.
    I see the SIA’s role to push the above towards their accredited courses, to not just accredit but to contribute towards their development through forward looking evolution of their requirements to remain accredited. We can’t be afraid to look outside into correlated fields to draw content from such as sociology, psychology, anthropology & broader management.
    The technical content of H&S will always remain, much as first year of an undergraduate course, but we shouldn’t put a glass ceiling on ourselves to the detriment of the survival of the field without first knowing where the hammer is.
    I think your piece describes the hammer Ron and thanks for bringing the hammer to the fore

  3. Agreed, Ron.

    What I find interesting when coming in as an external consultant is that businesses tend to be far more receptive to my challenge than to their internal team. I can ask difficult, introspective questions of leaders without risking my own career (mostly!). So, although you are right about the role requirements, sometimes the reality is that organizational politics interfere and prevent. It takes a skilled and highly credible person to overcome this.
    I find that facilitating a conversation with a leadership team gains significantly more traction than any amount of presentations on risk management. But, as Wade suggests, the underlying technical component still needs to be there. The real challenge is finding people with the communication skills to carry out this role while retaining sufficient technical expertise to understand the practical implications of the decisions made during the conversation.

  4. You basically said everything that I have been experiencing over the last several weeks. I like where your head is at Ron and share some of your same frustrations. I am going to share this with my group; great article!

  5. Thanks Ron, for this refreshing and honest reflection, and resultant questions.

    I think this challenge is one that most in risk and safety face. However I also understand that it’s often easier to go with ‘what we know’, rather than challenge accepted ways toward something different.

    My safety education also focused on law, science and objects; there was very little about understanding people and communication.

    Here’s hoping the likes of yourselves and other contributors to this site continue to ask the questions you raise and challenge the current practices in order to keep the thinking alive.

    Cheers, Rob Sams

  6. Hmm, not sure on this one Ron. It’s a key truth that the efficiency of an organism is dependent upon the richness of the feedback systems that surround it and the more direct these feedback loops are the more efficient the organism becomes. The suggestion that the safety expert is inserted into the feedback system between worker and manager would lead to the managers getting only filtered rather than direct feedback. There’s also the issue about the flow of feedback from the manager to the worker, should the safety expert take on that role as well? Much better for the safety expert to help create stronger and more direct feedback loops so that these loops perform the task of speaking truth to power rather than yet another layer of management.

    1. We are actually in agreement Duncan. The point is not that the safety person sits in every meeting and delivers every message. That would be impossible or prohibitively expensive in many organizations. Rather they should develop structures that enable communication and collaboration. Part of that will involve direct communication, but it must include developing structures and processes as well.

      1. A narrative approach is one way to create stronger and more direct feedback loops. Workers communicate directly with managers through stories. No interpretation nor manipulation occurs. The process is called “disintermediation.” Here is a link to a 1-pager created for the mining industry: http://gswong.com/?wpfb_dl=37

      2. Gentlemen,

        You are both, in my humble opinion, right to a large degree!

        Firstly; thanks for the original article Ron; it is refreshing, stimulating and well written and I fully support its aims and intentions.

        Duncan; with regards to layers of management; I believe that safety people should be fully integrated as a part of the management team and not on a separate authority plateau. They should be acting as the managerial conscience and be in a position of authority within the management team, to drive accountability and effective change within it, but act in a non directive, collaborative and guiding role with the site/front line managerial team which gives them the tools and inspiration to improve and, in return, allows THEM to reap the rewards of improved performance that THEY have brought about.

        I have worked outside of the country in which I was trained (UK) for 30 years in 19 different countries on very major projects and I very rapidly found out that quoting regulation and imposing western “norms” is a very shallow method of working but, unfortunately, it is desirable to management as It does tick the boxes imposed by the insurance company, and often the Client’s, very biased, and often foolish, requirements.

        Over these years I have developed a model that works at all levels which accommodates the delivery of the Client’s requirements but, more importantly for me, delivers meaningful improvement (change) in the front line management’s approach to the handling of their workers and by dong so improves the efficiency of the process. I find increased efficiency is by far the most attractive “win” to offer management, at all levels, to gain their buy-in.

        This model has also assisted many of the indigenous contractors employed on the projects I have worked with to develop their own enduring safety management processes which they use to assist them to win further work. Again win-win!

        Ironically; on my return to my home country and looking to find suitable employment to see me into my retirement years; I find that nothing much has changed whilst I have been away! It seems to me that a safety person in UK appears to be measured on his/her ability to quote regulation verbatim and to be willing and able to create voluminous, and ever more complicated, paper demands not to mention the political correctness which positively discourages “SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER” be that power in the “safety establishment” circles or in the workplace!!.

        1. Tony your experience on your return to the UK identifies the flip-side of needing courage to speak truth to power – those in ‘power’ also need the courage to hear the truth. They are hard to find but they are out there and hopefully as H&S becomes more of a strategic business issue there will be a greater willingness to hear. I suggest you read a recent article in the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine – January 5, 2016. It demonstrates the link between a significant investment in employee safety and health and financial performance in the marketplace. https://www.acoem.org/outperform.aspx

  7. The role that a H&S professional will play depends on the situation. One size does not fit all. In many cases s/he is a Expert, the keeper of best practices and all safety rules. If tasked to complete a project, the role will be that of Achiever to get it done. Competent H&S pros can do this with one hand tied and one eye open. However, when it comes to exploring new ideas or shaking people up to escape old paradigms, you need to open the other eye.

    Opening the other eye means being a Catalyst, a Co-creator, a Synergist. These roles require new skills to handle unknowns, unknowables, unimaginables. It’s not about jumping blindly into the Future; it’s first understanding and making sense of the Present. It’s learning what are the constraints (controlling, governing, enabling) that shape how people behave. The H&S professional who can play these roles is ideally positioned to be the straw that stirs the drink.

    Here is a link to a 1-pager created for leaders in the mining industry http://gswong.com/?wpfb_dl=36

  8. Thanks for your insightful article Ron.

    I’m no health and safety expert and come at this from an organizational culture perspective. I agree with (and encourage) the idea that safety professionals have a unique position and opportunity to speak truth to power. I think there are two hurdles.

    First, it takes courage (and possibly some new skills) to initiate the conversation and as Craig suggests, management frequently has difficulty hearing anything that might reflect negatively on their ability, especially from an internal source. (A survey, or external view, can provide ‘hard’ data about employee perspectives senior management might otherwise dismiss.) So I’d encourage safety professionals to arm themselves with facts they can defend to back up their truth to power conversations.

    Secondly, a generalisation but management have historically regarded those responsible for H&S in their businesses as capable only of non-strategic technical detail, focused on compliance, and as a business cost. There is now plenty of evidence, and a great opportunity, for H&S to become a strategic advantage that, done well, generates employee engagement, productivity, profit, and stakeholder loyalty (as well as better H&S outcomes). I like the idea of organizational journalist but that will need to be tempered with the skills of influence, effective communication, and the ability to link H&S back to the overriding business issues that occupy the minds of management.

    http://healthandsafetytransformation.com/

Leave a Reply