Beware of Hazardous ‘OINTMENT’

Originally posted on June 12, 2016 @ 6:19 AM

Beware of Hazardous ‘OINTMENT’

glass jar with a cover for ointmentsOne thing that I have become deeply aware of over the past few years is the impact that social arrangements have on us, especially in how we make decisions and judgments about risk. Many of our decisions and choices are impacted, often through our unconscious, by a multitude of factors from the world around us.

However, we can easily be seduced into thinking we are ‘in complete control’ of our decisions, but are we? We’d probably like to think that we ‘make a choice’ in every decision we make, but do we? We often believe that we are individuals, and our choices and decisions are ours alone, but are they?

These are some of the questions that occupy my time in thinking about decision making in risk.

Our social arrangements and the impact of the environment we live in are so powerful, and critical, in our decision making, it can often be challenging to; first, recognise what arrangements are impacting on us, and secondly, to make sense of them. I suspect that many of us blissfully go about our lives without being very aware of the impact that organisations and cultures (i.e. social arrangements) may be having on how we think and make decisions.

I imagine many organisations similarly struggle to both understand, and deal with, the same challenges. So why is this?

Perhaps it is because understanding the impact of social arrangements in relation to risk is complex and often not clear cut, nor binary. Additionally, an understanding of social psychological factors is vital, and such factors are not part of the risk and safety curriculum.

This makes for a mix that it is not often seen, nor it seems desired, in many organisations. These factors are ‘grey’, ‘messy’ and often may seem contradictory. They require profound thinking to understand. It’s much easier to stick with an approach based on telling, policing and controlling.

Organisations who are not mindful of the critical nature of social arrangements, will often, through the way that they organise their social arrangements, invite, and encourage, a culture of ‘non-thinking’ through an obedience to rule approach. It is the desire to rid the organisation of ambiguity and uncertainty that makes this approach so appealing, and seductive. However, what impact may this have in organisations, and on people working in them?

I’ve witnessed many examples of ‘organising’ that is done in a way that seems to have as its goal to reduce, or even to eliminate, ‘thinking’ done by those people at the coalface in organisations. It seems that some organisations are willing to trade-off their employees being active in their thinking, for a focus on efficiency and progress. This is the way some organisations deal with the messiness that comes from bringing people together in a social setting and having to deal with risk (uncertainty). So what might this look like?

One way you might like to think of this is ‘OINTMENT’ which stands for:

Organisationally Induced Non-thinking That Minimises Emergent and Nuanced Thinking.

OINTMENT occurs when ‘organising’ is constructed to specifically contain creativity, innovation, new ideas and individuality; time and again done in the name of efficiency and ‘technique’. Organisations who talk predominately of; predetermined plans, of targets and of perfection, aren’t particularly interested in the ideas and ‘thinking’ of those who do the work (although, you do have to be careful not to be fooled by some of their corporate jargon that might make you think they are…).

No, these organisations want the focus of their people to simply work to the plan, to follow the process, to achieve the targets and importantly to do so with minimal, or preferably no, error. So what might you hear people say in organisations where OINTMENT is evident?

I’m reminded of a time when working for a large international FMCG organisation and a discussion I had with a senior operational manager who said to me;

“Rob, I get all this stuff about the legal requirements for consultation (this point alone tells us so much!) and getting ideas from people, it really does sound good in theory. But, the reality is that we don’t want people to think too much here. We are a production plant, it’s the machines that do most of the work, they are critical, people are just here to monitor them and take note of when the machines need attention.”

This was in an organisation that mass produced items and the manager went on to say, “it’s not like we in production can do too much with people’s ideas anyway, the products must look the same every time. We should leave the thinking and creativity to the guys in R&D”.

This manager wasn’t interested in people thinking, let alone allow for ideas to ‘emerge’ when the plans hadn’t allowed for them, or when something unexpected occurred. The process was the process, people just needed to follow it. The process expects things to happen as planned.

Furthermore, the manager was not at all concerned with the idea that to better understand people and risk, often requires ‘nuanced’ thinking to understand the often subtle differences between people. It’s far easier instead to impart standardised rules and processes.

I was prompted of this again more recently when working with a national team. There had recently been an organisational restructure and a new Director had been appointed. They were presenting to the group during the session I was running.

Predictably, the presentation was through PowerPoint, included oodles of graphs and charts, all of which plotted the organisations progress for the next five years. Imagine that, this organisation was able to not only able to predict the future, but predict it five years out!

You should have heard the language used, it was offensive, and I don’t mean swearing. It was all about set plans, expectations (of people), standards and urgent priorities. When it did come time for the Director to ask questions, irritatingly, it was as simple as “so is everyone on board with that?”. I was so pleased that I could walk away and have very little to do with that organisation again (there was nothing in the five-year plan for training, coaching and supporting people in better understanding risk). When you have such a plan to achieve, the organisation isn’t terribly interested in people’s ideas or feedback, the job is; deliver the plan.

So why is OINTMENT so prevalent?

‘OINTMENT’ is a long standing industrial and societal dilemma that can be attributed to, among other causes; social and cultural reproduction. It is particularly prevalent in organisations where the focus is on continual process improvement and efficiency. OINTMENT can be very addictive.

So how can we in risk and safety begin to better understand the impact that social arrangements are having in our organisations? How can we reduce the impact of OINTMENT?

Perhaps a deeper reflection of how we go about organising our social arrangements would be a helpful starting point? While I understand manufacturing is about standardization and mass production, if we are going to involve people in the process, we need to find ways to encourage thinking, not stamp it out.

Asking good and open questions (humble inquiry) is the key here, not the typical controlling ways and policing often seen in risk and safety. That simple further induces the non-thinking.

I expect that many in risk and safety will suggest that they, and their organisations, may do this already. However, I wonder if our focus is too much on ‘humble inquiry’ as a ‘method’ and ‘technique’, rather than recognise that ‘meeting’ others, requires us to drop our agenda, to ditch the ‘I’, and focus on ‘we’ (I-thou).

Further, if we are interested in the motivation of others, we ought to focus on ‘truth’, ‘value’ and ‘control’ (Higgins, 2014), all of which require people to be free, and encouraged to, think for themselves, rather than blindly obey process.

If you work in risk and safety and feel like a duck out of water in understanding people, it’s no surprise. I know that my training and education in ‘Safety’, taught me very little about people and decision making. And there was certainly no understanding, or learning, about ‘meeting’.

Instead, there was plenty about science, process and ‘things’. The social arrangements within ‘Safety’ impact on the industry, and in a way create their own version of OINTMENT.

Is your organisation or industry susceptible to Hazardous OINTMENT?


Author: Robert Sams

Phone: 0424 037 112



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