I noticed when they started saying ‘Welcome back Mr Barrett’ when I boarded the plane.  But I really took notice, when they stopped saying it.  This is a podcast about ideas, and stories, and our opportunity to pay more attention to how they affect our work as health and safety professionals. 

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.

Before Covid I travelled a fair bit, and despite proving time and time again how effective virtual coaching and facilitation can be during Covid, once travel restrictions were eased I found myself being asked to come here and go there more than I would like.  Covid saw two automatic extensions of my frequent flyer status, since if you can’t fly you can’t maintain it.  Once travel was permitted again, I found myself dropped from the top tier frequent flyer colour down to the next one.  I’ve always said  that frequent flyer status is not exciting nor something to be coveted, all it indicates is that I spend too much time away from my family. 

Stick with me, for regular listeners you’ll know that my story and metaphor ties into what we do as health and safety professionals, rather than an egotistical rant.  There is something small, something human about stepping onto a plane, and someone looking at the colour at the bottom of the pass, looking you in the eye, and saying welcome back.  They don’t know me, they see data which tells them on this airline, we value loyalty and we welcome people by name. 

Until they didn’t.  It seems that stepping onto a plane, Gold status bumps me down the human respect pecking order, so there is no personal ‘welcome back My Barrett’ anymore.  They changed their idea about what loyalty, status and customer service sounds like.  One tiny change made me notice, and changed the way I feel. 

Infectious Ideas, Genes and Memes

An idea which I was introduced to me early in my career, and which was reinforced a lot, an idea which I came to believe and would re-tell to others was that safety management systems were the solution to health and safety performance.  That idea became so intertwined in my professional identity and practice that it shaped me, and blinded me, and twisted me. 

Another idea which was part of my early professional shaping is the story that ‘part of our job is to protect the Board of Directors’.  That one did a real doozy on me, creating confusion and anger and inconsistency and bad behaviour in the name of a story which I believed at the start because other people handed that idea down to me so became my story.  Except when I decided that it wouldn’t be my story, that I needed a new story to replace it.  Needless to say that one needs an entire lying-on-the-couch podcast session, but ultimately boils down to very important but grammatically minor tweaks I made to the core idea in the story: instead of ‘part of our job is to protect the Board of Directors’, my new story was ‘most of my job is supporting safe and healthy work, which becomes protection for the Board of Directors’.  How did those ideas come to be? In part, they were spread, like a virus, from others to me, and they became infective. 

You may have heard the word genes, spelled g-e-n-e-s, in reference to the unique DNA coding which animals and plants inherit from their parents in the process of reproduction.  Genes contain the information which lead to your height, your eye colour, and many parts of your physical and psychological make-up, including tendency for disease, creativity and intellect. 

In the biological world, something like Covid did not exactly exist until the day that it did.  What happened that day was a combination of mutation of genes within cells, an increasingly hospitable environment for those cells, and then rapid copying or replication of those virus cells and their spread into hospitable environments, namely human beings.  The cells which had evolved reproduced, the ones that didn’t evolve didn’t survive, and that is the basic equation for the explosive spread of that virus, including it’s variants which were just human labels for distinct mutations of the original genetic makeup of the virus. 

The copying, mutation, and selection which ideas in our culture undergo is an analogy to biological genetic evolution through generations over time.  In 1976 Richard Dawkins wrote a book titled the Selfish Gene, in which he expanded on the idea of ‘memes’ as described by numerous other authors, including Huxley as far back as the 1800’s.  A meme was originally meant to signify a cultural idea, a bit like a piece of DNA, which spreads, duplicates and mutates according to cultural pressures, like competition, and favourable or inhospitable environment. 

Survival, Spread, and Virality

An example of this most of us can identify with is how ideas of hatred or violence spread.  These ideas are not new in human history, but definitely evolve over time, which means that there continues to be environments of greater or lesser benefit to the ideas.  We might think that a cultural environment like religion and religious believers is inhospitable to violence or hatred, yet we see institutional religion and believers as promotors and perpetrators of so much hatred and violence in the past.  We might say that developed countries have cultures which are increasingly inhospitable to hatred and violence, yet every single one of them has obsessive sporting sub-cultures based on the idea that my team is the best, which means I hate your team, and the way we prove it is to go to battle with balls, batts and white lines on mowed grass fields. 

Can you see how complicated it gets when we start seeing ideas and how they spread?

It’s no mistake that memes, as cultural ideas akin to biological genes, are often described as ‘viral’ – spreading and evolving rapidly.  The way to spot traits is to look for things common across multiple generations.  My wife and I have blue eyes so my kids will all have blue eyes.  But sporting ability? That’s harder to see, but it’s there if you look.  So let’s think about the virality of ideas in health and safety. 

What are the things which you were introduced to as a young or new health and safety professional which you accepted as they were.  Once of mine was about safety management systems.  What about yours? That compliance is the goal? That everything needs a record? That people do make bad decisions? That complacency is a real, valid, and satisfactory explanation for an incident? That danger pay is an acceptable trade off for high risk working conditions? That Unions truly do want to protect worker safety? Or that Unions weaponise safety? That Regulators should be welcomed to the workplace? Or that Regulators should be quickly shown a fabrication of real work and shown the door?

What about our role? That we are here to protect? Or care? That if we don’t do safety no one else will? That even if we know the training is crappy, we convince people it’s not that bad because we think it’s the right thing to do? That you are a better safety person because of your real world experience? Or you are better because you studied? Or you are better because you had a personal safety or health scare? Or you are a better professional because you had a father or brother or daughter or friend die at work?

Paying Attention to How Ideas Spread

All these things are memes, not cute cat face memes or Chuck Another Shrimp on the Barbie memes, they are the idea threads which replicate, evolve and spread in our culture, the stuff we say and do and read and pay attention to and develop and expect at work and what work expects of us. 

The greatest irony of all about Dawkins concept of the meme, was that it was, in his words, ‘hijacked by the internet’.  Instead of an interesting theory for us to look at culture, it became the label for cheesy, cheap and shallow attention sucking snippets all within the square frame in your social media feed.  This hijacking led to three very interesting things happening which we can learn from. 

First, memes started behaving less like genes when people became intent and deliberate about how they changed them.  Instead of evolutionary selection (which explains why giraffes have long necks) or mutation (such as the cause of Down Syndrome or Cystic Fibrosis), people actively muck around and change ideas.  Think about how many memes you’ve seen based on The Matrix Movie, Game of Thrones, Donald Trump or anything with a cat in it.  

In safety we see how people are deliberately mutating original ideas.  The concept of management commitment enshrined in safety management systems was twisted into a signed policy.  The concept of risk management overemphasised the risk assessment step, at the expense of risk identification and risk control.  Hollnagels original idea of Safety I inside Safety II got turned into Safety I versus Safety II.  Most people don’t even know where the ideas have come from let alone at what point in time someone changed or twisted the original idea. 

The second interesting observation coming from the internet’s hijacking of memes, is that memes result in behaviours in which people are actively trying to make something viral.  In biology this is kind of nonsense, even viruses aren’t deliberately viral in the sense that it’s not like someone or some people designed it to spread, it spread because the environment suited it and there was no downward pressure on its spread.  And the internet is a far less hostile place for ideas to evolve and spread than in the natural environment.  It took 1000 years for humans to figure out that the biggest juiciest seeds are worth saving and breeding to plant as next years crop, instead of wandering around the forest hoping to find enough to eat.  1000 years for the idea of agriculture to evolve.  It has taken around 100 years for the idea that organisations should employ people specifically focussed on safety.  It has taken only a few decades for the idea of safety management systems to become mainstream, and less than that for business leaders to think that Lost Time Injury is a good indicator of safety performance.  The concept of work as imagined and work as done is over 70 years old, but the idea only spread within the last 20, and only two people on the entire planet are responsible for most of that virality. 

This second insight means that the ideas that spread are the ones that win.  Not the best ideas, not even the original ideas. Ideas that spread, win.

Are we infected, infectious, or both?

The concept of ideas as cultural memes gives us an opportunity to do a little reflection on something which is all around us, but not something most of us pay much attention to. 

What kinds of ideas do you believe, spread, or shape without realising it?

Do you take ideas as-is, or do you try to change them as you spread them?

What kinds of ideas do you take as fact, and what ideas have you rejected or changed?

We get frustrated when people in our organisations ‘don’t get it’.  That might be because other ideas are far more viral than the ones you are trying to make extinct. 

This epsiode as been in half-draft for over two years ago (in fact, there are heaps just like that in half-draft).  Thanks to Mick Bates for unknowingly giving me the nudge to finish this podcast when he shared some helpful reflections on how extremist ideas and beliefs come to be. 

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?


Transcript – Ep205: Platinum, Covid, and how ideas spread, with Andrew Barrett

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