Gandhi did it with walking, and without food. Michael Pollan did it with food, and a book. Al Gore did it with a film. Dave Grohl did it with Youtube in 2020, and Dave Provan did it with words in 2018. Each of them, in defence of something important. And so must you.
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.
The word defence usually conjures up three different things for people. Either, synonyms to do with the armed forces, war, and conflict, OR, playing defence in a sporting sense where there is an attacking side (again, very military-Esque), OR, being or feeling or acting defensively in the face of a personal attack. Like a conflict.
Do any of those resonate with you as a part of your professional practice? Unfortunately, probably.
But that’s not what I’m talking about today.
Today, I want you to begin to think about yourself as a defender. But not any old defender, not like the images we talked about a moment ago. No, You must be in defence, you must be a defender, like these people.
What do all those famous folks I mentioned at the beginning have in common?
What kind of leadership and performance podcast would be completed without some well-placed Gandhi quotes? Nope, that’s not what I’m going for here, so if you’re listening out for the meme, it may not come. Gandhi started life rather well-to-do, and as a professional studied and practiced as a lawyer. But Gandhi’s legal pursuits were not what made him famous, rather it was his paradoxical non-violent resistance leadership that he deployed in both South Africa, and later his homeland of India. Gandhi stood in defence of injustice, of poor treatment of those who were unable or unwilling to defend themselves against the causes and perpetrators of injustice. What I love about Gandhi was not that he was anti-establishment, or anti-government, though both felt the effects that his hunger strikes had when entire populations were inspired to rise up, and in one case to put down their weapons at his behest. Gandhi wasn’t defined by who he was against but what he defended, which was basic rights, dignity, and freedom. As the British began to divide their Indian Empire into Hindu and Muslim countries which today are India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, violence broke out. In defence of peace, Gandhi managed to quell the violence stemming from this religious dislocation, and in the greatest irony, he was shot and killed by a fellow Hindu who believe he was siding with Muslims practically forced to leave Hindu India, when in actual fact he was defending the freedom of those people from such government action, and the violence that ensued. Gandhi stood in defence of many things, like justice, Colonial independence, and religious freedom.
Michael Pollan is both smart, and confusing. He wrote a book called In defense of Food: An Eaters Guide. One of the most common questions he gets asked, is ‘are you a vegetarian’? Not surprising given that one of his most famous quotes about guidance on what we should eat is this: ‘Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants”. Michael Pollan is not vegan, or vegetarian. He says “I enjoy eating meat, meat is nutritious food, and I believe there are ways to eat meat that are in keeping with my environmental and ethical values”. No wonder he confuses people because with a mere 7 words he prevents other people from trying to label him.
Michael wrote this book in defence of food, because of the rise of what he sees as ‘edible foodlike substances’ and an atrocious direction that both health, and nutrition are taking, among humans. He blends new science and old wisdom to make that case that we need to think more and differently about what we eat, and most of all, that we need to defend natural whole food as a critical part of our existence. Michael Pollan stands in defence of food.
Al Gore is pretty super famous, having been both Vice President of the United States AND a prolific and persistent environmentalist. Al Gore stands in defence of the environment. As a young man he remembers deep conversations around his kitchen table as his mother replayed the key arguments laid out by Rachel Carson in her seminal work Silent Spring (which, by the way, as a safety person, you should read or at least know about Silent Spring as it laid the groundwork for much of today’s modern chemical safety approaches). Gore failed to gain the support necessary for the US to ratify the Kyoto Protocal because his elected colleagues believed that it was more important for them to stand in defence of their economy from advantages that may have come from emerging countries than to take leadership as one of the worlds largest economies, largest emitters, and most influential countries. He has started green investment funds, offered innovation prizes worth millions, and even incited civil disobedience.
But you, you’re are most likely to have felt Al Gore, and what he stood in defence of, through his film An Inconvenient Truth. Agree or not with what he says, you can’t dispute that Al Gore stands in defence of the environment.
Some more recent Defenders (and why Ph.D.’s are worth listening to)
Stick with me, let’s bring this home, we are gaining momentum.
Through this pandemic, we’ve come to realist just how much some people in our society put at risk for the rest of us. Our healthcare workers, without a doubt. As school starts back in Australia as I write this, another enormously important group in our society come into focus, as we make tough decisions and manage the anxiety of kids back at school with a rampant pandemic, and the teachers and staff who need to be exposed as a result of their work. In 2020 Dave Grohl, lead singer of the Foo Fighters and who came to fame as one member of the band Nirvana published a kind of strange but wonderful video on Youtube. It’s just him talking, a white screen is what you see. It’s called In Defense of Our Teachers. In this 9 minute reflection, Grohl reflects on his own difficult schooling and contrasts that with the endless efforts of his school-teacher mom. Moved by the predicament he felt about teachers being exposed to Covid without adequate protections, love for his Mom, and strange gratitude he had for his teachers who put up with him as a troublesome kid, he describes a beautiful range of the issues, the complex logistics, the trade-offs. He ends his reflection with these words: “Teachers want to teach, not die and we should support and protect them like the national treasures that they are, for without them, where would we be“. Dave Grohl, maybe to his surprise, in 2020 stood in defense of teachers.
You know my friend and colleague Dave Provan? You’ve probably heard him on this podcast before a few times in fact and may know about our collaboration which you can check out for free at safetyclutter.com. Dave Provan completed a marathon Ph.D. on the role of the safety professional in 2018. Dave did this whilst he was working as a senior health and safety leader. In many countries, when you complete a doctoral degree, you are creating new knowledge not just studying someone else’s knowledge. Your doctorate culminates in a thesis, always written, but depending on the field it may also include a creative piece, performance, or even invention. In Australia, your thesis is submitted to a number of esteemed academics in your field, who are unknown to you at the time, and they conduct a blind peer review to decide if you have ‘earned’ your doctorate degree. In other countries like the UK and in Europe it goes a step further, called a Viva. And in the US, it’s called a doctoral defense.
The idea here is simple. If you think you’ve come up with something new, something valuable, and something important enough to share with the world, you’re gonna need to defend it. This is not like proving something absolutely, sometimes all we produce are theories or ideas. To earn a doctorate, you need to stand in defence of your new knowledge and allow your peers to probe, challenge, critique, and maybe even disassemble your claims. The form of the defense is different as I mentioned, but I love the idea that we can trust the title of Ph.D. because someone had to withstand an examination by some of the smartest folks around, being defended by the creator, by the doctoral candidate. Dave Provan has a Ph.D., so stood in defence of his thesis. But more than that, Dave continues to stand in defence of the more fundamental ideas and concepts underpinning his Ph.D. thesis.
And now, now to your defence.
What do you defend? What can you defend?
If you live in a country with some kind of accreditation or certification scheme for health and safety professionals, you will probably have come across the tension that exists between people with education and people with experience, between those who have letters after their name and those who do not.
Maybe you’ve heard about these new views of safety, things like Safety II or safety differently, or HOP, and the criticisms of more prevalent contemporary approaches to safety. And conversely, the criticism of these new ideas and approaches.
You might think that the reason for this entrenched kind of dialogue if there is any at all, comes from people standing in defence of something.
That’s half right. But it’s missing another half.
And the other half is why we have difficulty moving forward together as a profession, and it is also the explanation of when you fail to enable change, get resources or influence the decisions of decision-makers.
The paradox of defence: standing and failing, and not needing to defend at all
Standing in defence is defined by what you defend when you think about defence as a thing, something you do. But defence is also a verb, a doing word, and the act of defence, the act of standing in defence of something involves the logic, the argumentation, the evidence, the rationale, the appeal, the passion, and the courage which enables that defence to withstand whatever it faces.
Here’s the simplest example most of you will have some experience of.
You have an idea. A suggestion. A plan or an initiative. You can’t ever make genuine change happen on your own, so you need to enlist others, decision-makers, senior leaders, and influential stakeholders.
Whether it’s one conversation or an in-depth business case, you are standing in defence of your idea.
And it gets shut down. Ignored. Watered-down. It meets resistance, objections, competing priorities, or downright opposition.
Your idea, your business case fails. You fail to make the case. You fail to defend your idea sufficiently.
Because there are an enormous amount of things standing in the way of change. Not least of which is the status quo, that all-powerful force with enormous energy applied to keeping things exactly the way they are.
But then again, there is a HEAP of really questionable things we do in the name of safety that require no defence at all, that barely raise an eyebrow or sideways glance from the people we are asking to engage in it.
And this is our biggest failure yet.
Some specific things we should be able to defend
I speak with a lot of health and safety professionals, I work with lots of leaders and teams to help them improve their practice, and I speak with an even greater wider circle of people in the Safety on Tap Community, whether that’s people I’m supporting to implement better learning practices, through my research, or listeners to the podcast, like you.
Most of us would fail to stand in defence, to mount a successful defence, for most things we do in the name of safety.
Why do we do investigations?
Why do we have safety work procedures/instructions/method statements?
Why do we coerce leaders to have conversations with the frontline? Why do we impose that on the frontline?
Why do we use statistics? Why do we use numbers?
Why do we spend an inordinate amount of time on the small percentage of things that go wrong?
Why do we continue to go through the motions of shitty committee meetings even we think are a waste of time?
Why do we train people? Why do we assess people? Why do we get signatures from people?
How do we think incidents are caused? How do we show that our processes make sense in light of that incident causation belief?
Most of us, qualified or not, certified or not, would struggle to stand in defence of so many things that we do. And yet so much of it is unquestioned because we use the excuse that it’s a legal requirement (even when it’s not), or someone else is doing it, or everyone is doing it, or this leading industry is doing it, or I did it in the last place I worked. None of those excuses come close to a genuine defence of what we do and why we do it.
Believe me, this makes me uncomfortable. As a safety professional, I have never had a sufficient incident causation explanation that ties in with any safety process.
And yet there are other things I am very successful at defending, using a combination of knowledge, experience, theory, and practice: why certain practices inhibit performance-enhancing learning, and why others enable it. Why certain behaviours of safety professionals lead to the increasing influence and others make their life a living hell.
I stand in defence of these things because I’ve done the work, I’ve had the debates in my own head and with other actual people.
So when people say to me, ‘where’s the evidence for these learning practices you are teaching us?’. My answer is in two parts: first, the evidence. Second, I ask, where’s the evidence for all the other things you are doing right now?
We work in an evidence-poor profession. But to stand in defence of something is not to say you are right, nor to say you have all the answers. It’s to make a compelling enough case to say ‘we should do this, over that’. And in the process of your defence, the stakeholders you engage with will learn more, and your defence will be strengthened or defeated. Either way, you get a better outcome when you are stand prepared to defend every single aspect of your professional practice.
Where does that leave us? No, I’m not saying go get qualified, but it might be the knowledge you seek. No, I’m not saying you need to have all the answers, but you might engage your team or some colleagues from other organisations to collectively and collaboratively reflect on what you want to defend, and each person can take the lead on that defence for the rest to challenge and strengthen.
You must actively stand in defence of your work because the alternatives are that either you won’t get very far, or that we will, and we have fallen for anything.
Thanks so much for listening. 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?
Before you go, keep listening for a few words about the work which makes this podcast free for you. Seeya!
You’ve probably heard me talk about learning teams, and might be wondering what’s that all about. Learning teams are an increasingly popular practical activity to help your organisation to learn better, in order to improve performance.
It’s not an investigation, it is not a risk assessment, and its not a committee meeting – but a learning team approach can help to learn from the past, to anticipate the future, and to engage effectively with people all over your organisation or supply chain.
There’s not one way to do learning teams but some critical principles which will enable you to facilitate better learning whatever your situation.
I’ve created a few short videos which explain What is a learning team? If you’re interested visit safetyontap.com/what