Deficit-Surfeit Thinking in Safety –

There is no such thing as objectivity in safety. We all come from a worldview and bias that is especially evident in the language and semiotics we use. For example, the language of ‘performance’ is the language of measurement outcomes. An interest in how people ‘perform’ in tackling risk is of no interest to SPoR. Similarly, how systems ‘perform’ or the resilience of systems is of no interest to SPoR. This is why in SPoR we simply don’t discuss these things. Both a fixation on ‘performance’ and systems distracts us away from a focus on persons.

In SPoR, the purpose of systems is to serve humans, not the other way around.

A focus on performance and measurement drives deficit thinking. Similarly, the language of zero evokes the same trajectory. All language emerges from a worldview and indicates belief. For example, if you view humans as a ‘resource to be harnessed’ then persons will be understood as objects in a system. This is why ‘safety differently’ is not different to traditional safety. It speaks the same language. Similarly, the language of ‘resilience engineering’ places the focus on systems, the same as traditional safety. Resilience Engineering, is just more traditional safety branded differently. If you view zero as a ‘science’ then this is just more traditional safety (

Similarly, only focusing on the positive, when things go right, also falls into the trap of the myths of positivity (;

The challenge shouldn’t be a binary discussion at all. Focusing on either pole of a binary argument simply fosters binary thinking. Oh look, we do safety better because we count lead and lag indicators! The problem is in neither lead or lag indicators but rather the fixation and compulsion to count and the scrutiny of defining what should be counted.

 And in all this counting, focusing on performance and zero, the real outcome is the creation of an unconscious anxiety and fear of harm. Where there is harm, there is poor safety performance.

The British philosopher Alan Watt demonstrated the way in which Eastern philosophy enables a way of understanding life without falling into the pattern of a furtune-misfortune, gain and loss dialectic.

One of Watt’s best books is The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951) (

There are others ways to think about risk other than the binary worldview of traditional safety (including the binary nature of S2 rhetoric).

Eastern philosophies offer a very different worldview than the western worldview that dominates safety (S! or S2). This is evident in how Safety gets so twisted and confused about its propositions about culture (eg. don’t talk about it). Indeed, the rationalist propositional thinking itself is part of the problem. Yes, apparently if you want to know about culture you ask an engineer.

Watt works on trying to step out of the western rationalist mode of thinking. Instead of trying to control being/living and exercising power over life, he suggests we embrace our insecurity and uncertainties. Doing so requires non-propositional-dialectical thinking. Such thinking steps out of propositional thinking to an existentialist dialectic way of experiencing the world. This is also the way Indigenous First Nations peoples understand the world. This is why Indigenous thinking doesn’t seek to control culture by defining it.

The language of zero and performance promote deficit-surfeit thinking and anxiety about uncertainty, insecurity and risk. Counting the number of times one doesn’t achieve zero or under-performs is not a good way to understand how to live with the realities of fallibility and risk (

If you are interested in understanding a more helpful way to tackle risk then contact:

Matthew Thorne
Executive Director
Mobile: 0413 771 723

For the free online SPoR workshop.






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