Double Speak in Managing Risk and Safety

Originally posted on February 15, 2013 @ 3:04 PM

Enthusiasm, Motivation and Double Speak in Managing Risk and Safety

I have a close friend who recently became a safety systems manager for a tier one construction company.  He had just obtained his qualifications and was bright eyed, bushy tailed and enthusiastic about making a difference.  He entered the profession because of his own near death experiences on building and construction sites.  Once he had a pallet of bricks fall a few metres from him, dropped from a crane on a semi-high rise building site.  On another occasion he was ordered by his manager into an asbestos pit and he complied without any protection, intimidated by power relations by the bullying foreman.  Several of his friends are permanently injured from construction accidents and he has been on two construction sites where people have been killed.

It is hard to measure the disappointment of my friend when he started his first job in safety.  He had heard many inspiring words from senior managers about ‘safety first’ and passionate talks from executives about the right for everyone to go home safe.  He currently works for a company who just killed someone and their safety slogan is: ‘Think Zero Harm Every Day’.

When he started his first job wanting to make a difference he discovered instantly that the real manifesto was: ‘Just get the job done!’

The company he works for used to be one of the shining lights in safety.  They were innovative, creative and imaginative in how they responded to issues.  Imagination is one of the core skills required to manage the unexpected.

The climate in the company he works for was once quite attractive, and as it grew, hosts of new people rushed in the culture and ethos changed.  The importance placed on imagination and innovation began to dwindle, the energy declined and people who started with the company began to leave.  What they had been attracted to was no longer there.  This is how the institutionalization of the charisma works (see Figure 1).

The idea of the institutionalization of the charisma was developed by the famous sociologist Max Weber in 1922.  Don’t let the big words scare you, what it means is that as institutions grow charismatic power changes.  The cycle is explained graphically in Figure 1. This leads to boom and bust cycles in organisations and has a huge impact for the management of risk.

My friend Judith A. Erickson’s PhD research tells us that the greatest asset for safety in organisations is corporate culture.  You can find Judith’s research here:

Quoting from Erickson’s research:

‘The Effect of Corporate Culture on Injury and Illness Rates Within the Organization,’ showed that those elements most predictive of high safety performance include a positive management commitment to safety and to employees, open communication, encouragement of employee innovation and suggestions, and management feedback to employees, among other elements (Erickson, 1994, 1997, 1999).

CEOs and leaders who can’t find time to get away from the email and out of their offices and meetings to have safety conversations with workers simply cannot pick up the cultural pulse of the organization.

Yes, training is important, as are legislation, regulation and observation.  However, we need to also focus on the unconscious and subconscious values and implicit knowledge which frame corporate culture.

Workers know whether words, mottos, slogans and announcements really mean anything.  This is the foundation of ‘double speak’.  The real manifesto often stands in contradiction to the slogans. This drives a culture of cynicism, negativity and skepticism.  Hence the decline of the charisma.  ‘Double speak’ is the real destroyer and demotivator for the management of risk at work.

Figure 1. The Institutionalisation of the Charisma


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