And the winner is…..does it matter?
Hey, it’s Andrew, and this is Safety on Tap.
Since you’re listening in, you must be a leader wanting to grow yourself and drastically improve health and safety along the way. Welcome to you, you’re in the right place. If this is your first time listening in, thanks for joining us and well done for trying something different to improve! And of course, welcome back to all of you wonderful regular listeners.
To Judge or Not to Judge?
In 2020 the Australian Institute of Health and Safety held the Australian Workplace Health and Safety Awards. Not a new concept, this is the first time this has been attempted in this way by this professional association. You probably have your own versions in your country, maybe industry or even within your own organisation.
No surprises really, there were a bunch of categories including best WHS management system, best health & safety innovation, categories for large and small businesses, and a bunch of individual awards such as Health & Safety Rep of the Year, Health & Safety Professional of the Year, and Young Health & Safety Leader of the Year.
I was asked to be a judge of these awards. I declined. Later on was asked to help present the Young Safety Professional of the Year award, by way of a video interview since the awards were virtually presented, which I did do, which is kind of peripheral to this episode, but if you stick around after the music at the end I share a few reflections on why I said yes to that very intentionally.
I wanted to share with you my intent about these decisions, which is less about me and this story and more about how you can reflect more deeply on why you do or don’t do certain things, and how you can leverage your circle of control to make the world a better place, to actively construct a better future.
Part of this episode draws on the discussion and email with the organisers, explaining my polite decline to be a judge, my reasoning and my not-so-subtle nudging towards something better than average.
Are we in a sprint to the finish line, or something longer?
Many of us will have participated in athletic events, track and field. When I went to school, it was possible to go through an entire education, participating in these events, and never getting a ribbon. These days, everyone gets a ribbon, just for showing up.
I was rather good at running, and I was unusual even into high school where I was quite an all rounder, a good sprinter, middle distance and long distance runner.
100 metres was the sprint distance, a straight run between two white lines. Starting line at one end, finish line at the other, and the winners podium off to the side.
These Awards I mentioned, the website says that they are for recognition of organisations who demonstrate excellence and innovation in the field of work health and safety.
In my email to organisers, I opened with this statement:
“Safety awards are a form of ‘safety work’ which can (and will) take resources away from applicant’s contribution to the actual safety of work. It is a form of social and demonstrated safety. They also reinforce that winners are good application writers, not always the most deserving”.
For those of you who haven’t already, have a listen to Safety on Tap episode 92, called What’s it For? That’s a good basic introduction to these two distinct concepts of safety work, versus the safety of work.
This builds on the core work of Drs. Drew Rae and Dave Provan and their colleagues who have done some superb academic work to point at this elephant in the room of health and safety: things done in the name of safety which have nothing to do with safety.
Speaking of Dave and Drew, their podcast The Safety of Work is all about evidence based practice, and episode 15 specifically talks about the evidence for awards and prizes surrounding health and safety, which has in part informed my thinking on this. They explain how awards can not only be kind of useless, they can have the opposite effect and be dangerous, especially when organisations are the award recipients versus individuals.
My opening remarks in the email to the awards organiser also said:
“Awards do not deliver more value than they cost the people who spend time and money putting applications. Unless you are courageous enough to tip the balance positively”.
Let’s imagine a world where a far more courageous and constructive outcome was possible.
What are we here to do? What are awards really for?
A sprint begins with the starters pistol, and ends at the finish line. Awards are designed kind of like a sprint, except they aren’t. Awards are the podium at the side of the track, the flash of cameras, the medal around the neck, and the beaming faces of friends and family in the stands.
So when do awards begin? When applications open? You see, the very excellence awards recognise didn’t begin then, they began long ago with brave leaders, good plans, and resources for this strategy or that initiative. Awards are a finite game trying to make sense of an infinite game.
There is no doubt awards go to people good at writing applications. That is a given. It is not a criticism of those people. But it is a bias inherent in the process, and it’s kind of hard to avoid, but can be lessened. There is this sprint to the application deadline. It’s a kind of photo finish where the judges deliberate, and then there is the winners podium. And most of the runners in the race watch from the side, as few are given attention and accolades.
“In these awards, the attention and accolades includes nicely produced videos talking for a few minutes about the focus of their award application. In my email I said “most awards begin with applications and the end result is an awards ceremony and a nice paperweight as a memory. One pop of the firecracker, everyone feels good then goes home, job done”.
The sprint is over.
I think learning and improvement are core parts of our professional success in health and safety. And a professional association generally has in their charter some kind of upholding of professional standard, which must include learning and development.
It is this missed opportunity which was the central reason for declining to be an awards judge. It takes a lot of courage but not a huge amount of resources or brainpower to supercharge awards for health and safety.
And this is my call to action. This is not just for a professional association awards, though I hope the organisers and the Board members are listening. This applies to you, and your organisation, and how you can intentionally and productively leverage the opportunity to fuel performance with better learning.
When we mistake the finish for the half way point
The straight 100m track is actually part of a much larger track. After the 100m finish line the track curves into the full oblong track, curving again back to the straight to the full 400m standard athletics track.
I liked 800m races, twice around the track, and was good at them. As a spectator, the first 400m of an 800m race isn’t that interesting. The first 100m are positively boring compared to a sprint over the same distance. Because of the differing diameters of each individual track, each runner begins staggered from each other. Its quite difficult to even work out who is winning in the first lap. One 400m lap sees you back down the straight, and you cross that finish line once as you move into your second lap. That’s where the race changes. Either the field starts to spread out, with clear leaders and clear laggards, or the group tightens up for a close second half. After the first lap, the runner needs to make some decisions about their race, make some changes, and dig deeper for a strong finish, even a sprint finish.
Crossing that half way point, the sprint finish line, doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it is. There are no awards for who is leading at that point, because the race isn’t finished.
What if awards were more like an 800m, rather than a 100m sprint? What if the awards were the middle point, instead of the end point?
Inspiration from Australian of the Year Awards
In Australia, we have awards every year which recognise people to amazing things across all walks of life from the arts to civil service to research and more. The pinnacle is Australian of the Year. This is an 800m award, not a 100m sprint. The Australian of the Year awardee is already in their first lap, and on Australia Day they pass that half way line.
Australian of the Year recognises that the award need not merely look backwards to tell a story of your past, but can create a better future by supercharging your impact. In the year following the award, the Australian of the Year basically goes on the road – a tiring, demanding schedule of speaking, teaching, media, collaborating, lobbying and extending their impact, all in the interest of what they won the award for in the first place. The awards pays it forward.
Here’s a future I’m excited to think about, from my email to the award organisers:
“If awards are designed to collect, disseminate and stimulate learning in the professional community through applicants as ‘case studies’, then you are tapping into massive potential. But doing this means you must design and execute the awards differently to everyone else doing awards.
“Extending the impact of an award worthy innovation/insight/program etc can and should be the primary objective of awards which seek to influence the safety of work.
Here’s what I can imagine:
– all applications which go beyond stage 1 are made public, including contact details (with the consent of applicants), so anyone can learn from these and contact applicants to enquire about their award-worthy success.
– The category winner will get the full media and comms treatment, including mainstream news articles, media releases, articles throughout the year in the OHS Professional Magazine, support to academically publish their work, a Safety at Work Blog exclusive interview, social media promotion, communication through relevant industry and employer groups, a free dedicated webinar on their award winning success, and follow up webinar later in the year to update on their progress, and an invitation to the following years awards to present the same category. None of the above is particularly hard or costly to do, and fits lots of existing channels.
– All finalists should get less, but still substantial promotion. Articles, social media, and (I think the real core of the promotion should be) webinars. Each finalist, delivering a webinar to communicate insights and education based on the evidence used in their award-worthy application.
– All of this pre and post-award commitment should be a condition of progressing to the next stage – applicants need to realise that the impact will not come from the award but from all the activities the organisers enable for them.d: “Blinkin…what are you doing up there?!
– If you get the clever marketing people to set this up, they can track the spread and impact of these ideas and stories – you can even follow up people who attended the webinars 12 months later to find and celebrate others who improved/implemented what they learned because of the award winner sharing their success.sing, I guess no ones coming”
“What I am suggesting is somewhat more difficult, timely and more costly than the awards that everyone else puts on. The question is, what’s the potential return on an approach like this, versus the return from a one-pop-firecracker approach like everyone else does.
“The best bit is that you can and should tell everyone the story behind why you are doing this differently, why you are seeking to extend impact rather than just a feel good exercise.
If you can make the above happen, I would love to contribute as a judge because I will be proud to be associated with the awards. If now is not the right time or the appetite is not there, I wish you well but will decline the invitation.”
A vision for awards which make a big positive impact
I have no control over any of this. But my sphere of influence is reasonable in the context, much like your sphere of influence is much larger than your sphere of control (and larger than you realise too). What we say NO to creates a force for change in the world. But more than a no, a generous no invites the others to see what you can see, to imagine beyond what is immediately in front of us, or what we have done in our past.
The evidence suggests this sort of thing is either distracting or dangerous. But I think that as professionals, and a professional body, our job is not to merely make people feel good about things they’ve done in the past, which they would have done irrespective of the presence of awards. Past guest, Futurist Dave Wild, on episode 66, tells us that the easiest way to predict the future is to create it ourselves. Formal awards and recognition programs effectively do nothing to construct that future.
The second 400m of the 800m race are the most interesting. A stadium full of supporters are watching, curious, and want to get something from the race. How many people could we teach, support, encourage, stimulate, if the 12 months after an award were spent enabling those things to happen?
We can supercharge a learning and development, a learning and performance improvement outcome by refocussing on our core reason for being, by being open to think a little differently, and by being courageous to try being more than average.
That’s an award program I would be proud to be involved with.
Thanks so much for listening. Grab a transcript for this episode over at safetyontap.com/ep148, and have a poke around at other episodes, many of which have bonus handwritten reflections of mine, transcripts, and more goodies.
Until next time, what’s the one thing you’ll do to take positive, effective or rewarding action, to grow yourself, and drastically improve health and safety along the way? Seeya!
I mentioned that I said no to judging, but yes to a mini interview as part of the award ceremony for the 2020 Young Health and Safety Leader of the Year, Louise Howard, who unsurprisingly is a previous guest of the podcast on episode 72. I will link to that award ceremony interview with Louise in the show notes over at safetyontap.com/ep148
Why would I say no to judging and yes to that? Well hopefully you’ve absorbed why I said no to judging.
I said a very intentional yes to the interview with Louise for a few reasons.
First, awards for individuals are very different to awards for organisations. Listen to the Safety of Work Podcast episode 15.
An award for an organisation can be counter productive, and backfire on you and your leaders attention, commitment and resources. An award for individuals doesn’t suffer from this same thing – people are inherently motivated by the work they do independent of external recognition or motivation.
Second, I am an avid supporter of the emerging leaders within our profession, for they are the future. I have been passionately involved in the Young Safety Professionals network in Australia, and was vehemently committed to the change from Young Leaders to Emerging leaders, recognising that the pathways for entry into this profession are not early career and linear, so our language needed to be more inclusive, reflective of the greater diversity that we bring.
Emerging leaders like Louise are a big part of that tension, and that future. We need to do more to have emerging leaders emerge in more places, in more ways, with louder voices and greater influence. Me supporting this specific award is motivated by that potential.
Third, gosh this is getting longer than I thought it would be. On that note – I like the idea that we can invite people into our heads, behind the external façade and to see the messy, colourful inner workings. Well that’s what it feels like for me, the invitation for you to see that messy interior is always there. This bit might seem indulgent, on the contrary I’m hoping it will give you permission to feel a little more at ease with your own inner workings. Or maybe it will light a fire in you to let more of that out into the world.
Anyway I digress. Third.
Fourth. Louise, specifically, is already an exemplar of someone who is doing the kind of teaching, sharing, and extension I talked about. Louise is super generous with her time and insights, and I know that is who she is, so I was comfortable that my hope for these awards is already being borne out through someone like Louise. And yet that impact could be even greater if there were just a little more structure, commitment, direction and resources from the award organisers to extend Louise’s impact.
That’s it! It’s rather messy inside my head. But it’s always open if you want to peek in. Seeya!
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