The Priming of ‘Can Do’ and the Language of Influence

Originally posted on September 30, 2012 @ 6:43 AM

The Priming of ‘Can Do’ and the Language of Influence

You should also read the whole series by Rob: CLICK HERE. I highly recommend you check out Rob’s book “RISK MAKES SENSE

To some it may seem anti-Australian to criticize populist language such as ‘can-do’. Such language recently helped get Campbell Newman get elected in Queensland. (CanDo? Campbell Newman’s Bid for Queensland However, this is the whole issue with the priming and framing of language. The use of language is not neutral and has a trajectory that is often hidden. What often starts out in some seemingly innocent manner can often have disastrous consequences when the implications of the values behind the language are finally played out. Whilst the language of ‘can do’ may be popular it has a deadly trajectory.

On 29 November 2006, an Australian Army Black Hawk helicopter (Number 221) from 171 Aviation Squadron crashed while operating with HMAS Kanimbla in international waters south-west of Suva, Fiji. At the time, HMAS Kanimbla was deployed to ensure the safety of Australians in Fiji if required. The Black Hawk was carrying four crew and six soldiers from the Special Air Service Regiment when it crashed and sank. The pilot, Captain Mark Bingley, was killed and one of the passengers, Special Air Service Trooper Joshua Porter, was initially missing and presumed dead. Seven other personnel were injured in the incident.

The 2007 inquiry into the fatal Blackhawk disaster named ‘can-do’ culture as a major cause of the crash. (

So if ‘can-do’ is so good, why would the court of inquiry into the Blackhawk disaster see the idea of ‘can-do’ as bad?

The problem with ‘can-do’ is that it becomes blind to ‘can’t do’. The language of ‘can-do promotes a – do anything at all costs attitude. ‘Can-do’ promotes shortcut taking and views anything that blocks its objective as an embuggerance. ‘Can-do’ can’t say ‘can’t-do’.

Just like Campbell Newman, Kate Carnell once Chief Minister of the ACT, was also attracted to the label of ‘can do’ ( Carnell presided over the tender for the Canberra Hospital implosion that resulted in a fatality. Carnell’s government was severely criticized over the disaster because of its ‘can-do’ attitude. The disastrous explosion (meant to be an implosion) occurred on 13 July 1997. The Coroner found the Carnell Government had a ‘cavalier attitude’ and that the tender process was influenced by ‘can-do’ shortcutting on process. The successful tenderer had little experience and expertise in implosions but when driven by ‘can-do’, all that matters is ‘get the job done’. The coroner stated that due process was ‘sacrificed in the interests of speed and expediency’.

The language of ‘can-do’ and ‘get the job done’ is viewed by some as good for the workplace. Nothing could be worse. The nonsense language of ‘can-do’, ‘get the job done’, ‘zero harm’ and ‘common sense’ should be not spoken at work.

Those interested in safety leadership and culture should be wise in the use of language. They should understand how language ‘primes’ listeners’ and chose language and discourse that has a trajectory that is consistent with safe expectations. Absolutist and perfectionist language such as ‘zero harm’ language drives skepticism, denial, anxiety, under reporting and ‘double speak’. ’Can-do’ language drives disregard for process. “Common sense’ language devalues knowledge, expertise and training. “Get the job done’ language drives a mindset fixed on the outcome at any cost.

The trajectories of simplistic language ‘primes’ the worst in organisational culture. Is it no wonder that the state of ‘Can-do Campbell’ that loves ‘zero harm’  has the second highest record of workplace fatalities in Australia.

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