We are in the business of change. But we aren’t always great at it. This is a podcast about babies and blindness, carrots and elephants, and the necessary tension between where we want to go, and where we are right now.
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.
I don’t think we will ever be able to rest on our laurels, even if we become the most influential and effective safety professionals in history. Even if all the hazards are identified, all the controls are known and in place, I think two things will always be true. The first truth is that the only thing that stays the same is change – change in operations, change in people, change in resourcing, change in the work environment or industry context. The second truth, or maybe I should say what I believe to be true, comes from the High Reliability Organising research. Even when everything seems great, our ongoing job is to create and maintain a sense of unease about things, which keeps us tuned into and anticipating change and what needs to change.
I gave up the clever but trite phrase ‘my job is to make myself redundant’ many years ago for this reason. I will make the argument that not only is the job never finished, that we need to earn our place in our organisation using this very logic.
And until that time, it can feel really, really frustrating.
Most of us have a pretty good idea of what a good future looks like through the lens of health and safety. That idea, that picture in our heads, our description of an imaginary place and time and way of being nearer to the horizon than it is to where we are right now, is important.
John Godfrey Saxe wrote a poem in 1872 based on a Hindu Fable, called the Blind Men and the Elephant. It goes like this:
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me!—but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried: “Ho!—what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘t is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘T’is clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
There is a certain age of a child before which you can show them a trick, and they will think it is genuinely magical. After that age however, the magic disappears because they suddenly know how it works without you explaining it to them.
The way it works is like this. Imagine you show a 3 month old a big box immediately in front of them. And you have a carrot on a string. You dangle the carrot to the left of the box, and the kid can see the carrot. You move the carrot towards their right, passing behind the box in front of them. You pause while the carrot is obstructed by the box. And you move again, so the carrot can now be seen on the right hand side of the box. Suddenly the kid erupts with a smile and laughter, clapping their hands, as if you made the carrot disappear and then reappear. What has just happened was described by psychologist Jean Piaget as object permanence. The thing is, if you show the same trick to a 9 month old, they will simply lean over and look around the box to see that the carrot is still there, exactly as they expected.
Object permanence refers to a cognitive developmental stage in children where they come to understand that things exist in the world even though the object is out of their immediate perception, when they can’t see or hear it.
Before object permanence develops, a child who drops their toy from their cot won’t look for it, because it has effectively disappeared. That also goes some way to explaining why they get upset when that happens, or their parent is away from them, because you have effectively disappeared.
Once object permanence has developed, a kid knows that things exist beyond their immediate perception, which is why your carrot and box trick used to be magic but isn’t any more.
So do we have a stupid kid before about 4 months or age? Did Saxe’s poem describe stupid blind Indian men? Should we get frustrated with the kid, or criticise the blind men?
Seriously, are we talking about dumb kids and stupid disabled Indian men? I suspect that my provocation to you triggered a defence mechanism, your brain started to argue with me, to defend them, which is good.
I left out one part of Saxe’s poem, the stanza at the very end he titled the Moral. It goes like this:
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
I believe that our job is to always see and point to a place and point in time in the future which is different than our current reality. Whether that is a better future of more effective risk controls or greater capability, or maybe it is a future in which you predict things are going to get worse, because of changes happening inside and outside the organisation. Our job is to look ahead, to have clarity of that view, and to paint a clear enough picture of that for our stakeholders to get interested about how that future will or won’t come about.
But you can’t stand off in the metaphorical distance from your stakeholders sitting in the present, waving your hands like a mad person yelling ‘it’s better out here, come on you buggers, things would be better if only you joined me in creating this future’. That’s what a lot of us do, me included. Unsurprisingly, it makes us look like mad people standing off in the distance separate from the people we are trying to help in the present.
We must meet people where they are at. None of us in our right mind would call that baby who thinks the carrot disappeared stupid. And I’m sure more than a few of you started thinking about how you could get those men from Indostan together to try and appreciate each others point of view (notice how we could have also said ‘for them to see the others point of view?).
As professionals we absolutely should see things others can’t. That doesn’t mean they are blind. It means that we need to meet them where they are at, and with patience, empathy, and persistence help them see what they can’t right now.
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 – EP209: Meet them where they are at with Andrew Barrett
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