I don’t agree.  And here’s why.  We should hear this a lot more in health and safety practice.  The need to say these words, and the way it sounds when we say it, is more important to our effectiveness than you can imagine. 

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.

In year one, my school report said that I participated with vigour in everything, creative and imaginative, but easily distracted.  In year two I was described as enthusiastic, with much to contribute, but restless and tended to distract other students.  In year three, Mrs Noonan lauded my vivid imagination, pleasing progress, but said straight out I was inconsiderate of others.  In year four I managed to earn the teachers label as polite, interested, capable, but lacking concentration and very easily distracted.  For the first time it seems, Miss Newcombe made the connection between my apparent weaknesses and my strengths, recognising my participation in group work and class discussions as extremely good.  And by year 6, poor Miss Rodgers who was one year out of teachers college didn’t know what hit her.  Hard working, creative, and capable she said I was, and then came the shit sandwich of feedback – great participation in discussions, but the enthusiasm leads to rather thoughtless actions, which can be disruptive, and this does hinder Andrew producing work I was capable of. 

The biggest problem with communication is the assumption that it has happened.  And the #1 cause of conflict is when people fail to understand each other.  If I said to you that we don’t have enough disagreement in health and safety, what would you say to me? Does that conjure up all the times that you’ve had to go up against a worker, supervisor, or manager on a hazard or inadequate risk control? Or when you’ve gone head to head with an auditor, client, or inspector? How many times have you had to defend a safety requirement, ‘because, it’s a requirement’? Or the system says? Or infamously, it’s a legal requirement (said with such conviction that it’s become automatic, even though deep down we know that most things labelled as legal requirements are not)?

Ok so we probably have enough disagreements. 

What if I tweaked my statement, and said to you that we don’t have enough good quality disagreements in health and safety? What comes to mind? What does that mean?

A disruptive start

In year 10 I studied Modern History with Mr Martinez and only 7 other kids.  In early high school we had all been forced to have a taste of all the different subjects, but by year 10 we had to select elective subjects, which meant that the kids in the class were more likely to be there by choice, and that should have made the teachers life easier as well.  Mr Martinez was a passionate and rather unassuming guy, and a rowdy class would take over pretty quickly.  In year 10 modern history, one of the things I loved was that we would move the tables around, into a circle, some people sitting on tables, others with the feet up on chairs, some sitting on the window sills, and we would have the most interesting, free-flowing dialogues about whatever we were learning.  It was probably one of my first tastes of what work and learning could be like if the conditions were right and the need for control was loosened by the person in charge. 

Richard and I were arguably two of the smarter kids in the room, which naturally created competition between us.  Truth be told, Richard was a whole lot book smarter than me, but I had a kind of real-life scrappiness which meant we were worth adversaries.  So ironically I probably would have earned the name dick more than he would have, being an actual Richard. 

Richard was from an Italian family, and like lots of post-war immigrant families it seemed that their cultural heritage only got stronger as it passed from generation to generation.  He was all about the virtues of southern Italian food, of football (the round ball kind, don’t ever use the word soccer, it’s like blasphemy), and a deep connection with all things Italian.  In Modern History we spent a few semesters looking at the rise and fall of different kinds of empires, and we were given the latitude to explore much further than the topic or the assignment or the curriculum said.  So it was natural that we talked about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.  I had watched a video on our Microsoft Encarta CD about this, and noticed that there was a time in the middle ages when the Holy Roman Empire was led by a Frankish king Charlemagne, who actually invaded the old Roman Empire to create what they later called the Holy Roman Empire.  So with enough information to be dangerous but far less than being well informed, I walked into a Modern History class one day and made the claim than the Roman Empire really started in Germany, and that the Italians had no claim whatsoever to being the OG Roman Empire.  I was without a doubt trying to deliberately bait Richard into a debate.  It might have gone on for the whole lesson, Richard and I back and forth with the rest of the class listening in, and Mr Martinez holding back, neither directing or intervening in our impromptu debate.  It was crazy, and loud, and fascinating!

Looking back, I really was a shit.  I knew that I wouldn’t ever win the argument I was trying to make because I was factually wrong and deliberately provoking, but I was curious to see how Richard would respond, and to have fun debating a point which I didn’t really believe in.  We learned heaps, we got better at constructing a point of view, we made the topic exciting and interesting, and we tried something that was risky, something we started but didn’t know what direction it would go. 

Fear of Conflict

I was with a health and safety team I coach a little while ago, and my job was to facilitate some critical reflection on the role and effectiveness of the team.  We used a concept from Patrick Lencioni called the 5 dysfunctions of a team to guide our dialogue. 

Lencioni labels one of these dysfunctions of a team as the Fear of Conflict.  And this is where most people get confused.  He describes what he means by this, saying that productive conflict builds trust (the absence of which is the foundational dysfunction in his model), but fear of conflict wastes energy by maintaining a nice but fake kind of harmony and obscures relevant information from the people who need to hear it. 

I think he could have chosen his language better, especially given how aligned the work on psychological safety is with lack of interpersonal trust.  I prefer the language I learned from John Macdonald in episode 106.  John explains that the word conflict comes from the word conflictus, originally referring to the clashing of swords.  Conflict is fundamentally a battle, of aggression and violence, you against me, from which there will be a winner and a looser.  The reason why we fear conflict is because our lizard brain tell us that serious conflict might end up in our death.  For most of us these days that is nonsense but our fear of conflict is still very real.  Instead of conflict, John Macdonald suggests we try out the word dispute.  The word dispute comes from disputare, dis meaning apart and putare meaning to reckon or work out.  So if a conflict is inherently negative and rightly to be feared, a dispute is merely a difference of understanding which is in the process of being worked out.  The word dispute inherently recognises a difference, not a judgement about right or wrong, winner or looser.  Dispute also inherently commits the people involved to understand each other and to work it out together.   And interestingly, people can be in a dispute involving disagreement, they do not need to agree on everything, and can still come to resolve an understanding between each other.

My experience would suggest that health and safety people find themselves in conflict, or create conflict more than is necessary of helpful for anyone. If the mode of operating is that you know the answer, you claim to be correct and you tell people what the problem is and what needs to happen, you’re inviting conflict. 

So let’s turn that idea inwards, internally within ourselves as individual practitioners, and within our functional teams.

Radical Candour: from conflict to dispute to disagreement

Back to this health and safety team I mentioned earlier, when we were talking about the 5 dysfunctions of a team. As leaders and professionals, we wrestled with the benefits and challenges of disputing or disagreeing more, and better.  We need to work out ways to get valuable input to things we want to create or change.  We often request feedback and get little or nothing back, and mistakenly believe that endorses or validates the thing we are working on.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  In this team, members of the team often won’t provide feedback about the very health and safety processes that they will be implementing and assuring.  This creates an uncomfortable situation for a team.  If everyone agrees, or no one disagrees, then all of them are arguably redundant in the process of change.  Part of our job is to deliberately and persistently seek our disputes and disagreements, and by doing so engage in the process of resolving an understanding amongst the people involved.  This is hard work, it feels scary, but it’s the only way that we can hand-on-heart say that we consulted, and that we have a process or a control measure which we are as confident as possible will do what we think it will do to make health and safety better. 

Kim Scott wrote a book called Radical Candour, and you don’t need to read the book to get the gist of her message.  She talks about this fear we have communicating differences of opinion or understanding directly and the problems that result when we don’t.  She has a four quadrant model like a Johari window.  On the vertical axis the top end is care, and the bottom end is negative, rude and harmful intent.  The horizontal axis is how much we say, the left end being noting, silence, and the right end is where we challenge directly. So bottom left is challenge directly without care, which Scott labels as Obnoxious Aggression, or front stabbing.  Bottom left is communicating without care but staying silent, or Manipulative Insincerity.  We watch people walk into problems we can forsee.  That is Manipulative Insincerity.  Moving to the top left, staying silent but with care is called Ruinous Empathy.  This directly challenges the old saying, if you don’t have something nice to say don’t say anything.  We get confused by this, thinking that direct feedback isn’t nice, so we say nothing.  In Lencioni’s language, he’d say this is trying to keep things in harmony.  That leaves the top right, challenge directly with care: that is radical candour. 

More and more health and safety practitioners are talking about safety clutter, and very few are actually doing anything substantive about it.  One of the reasons why it’s difficult to tackle safety clutter is that we are not in the habit and the practice of disagreeing with each other.  The most resistance to decluttering comes from us, from health and safety people, not the people doing the work or even management.  I’ve scratched my head about this for years, and worked with lots of clients in coaching who are wrestling with this challenge.  Many of us are missing the skill and the practice, or at least are pretty rusty, at disagreeing with each other.  We need to disagree more, and we need to disagree better. 

Disagree better

I was labelled disruptive at school because I sought out conflict, and I often did it without much care for others.  I am not suggesting that you should be like Andrew Barrett in primary school or in Year 10 Modern History.  You shouldn’t.  What I have learned is that disagreeing leads to enormous gains in terms of learning, of personal growth, and in stronger relationships.  It helps us build the muscle of critically evaluating our world and defending what we put into the world.  We can make things better by making better things.   We need to disagree more and to disagree better. 

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 – Ep211: Disagree better, with Andrew Barrett

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