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Recently I had the pleasure to witness a brief presentation by Lieutenant General Robert Mood - fittingly in the historic surroundings of the Oscarsborg fortress in the Oslofjord. What follows are a couple of highlights from his half hour of reflections.

What struck me at first, was the humble attitude of this high-ranking, much decorated and acclaimed person. Especially because I had seen him in the news several times before, where he was not afraid to speak rather clear language about various subjects (notably, he has been awarded the Fritt Ords Pris earlier this year). He started by stating that he couldn’t teach much to others, including us, but he had a lot of experiences to share and it was up to us to draw conclusions and decide if his experiences were relevant for our situation.

He discussed a number of events from his active service in the Middle East and other locations in connection to ethical questions, like if you should return fire (or how much) when you suspect that there are civilians (children) in a building. There are no black and white answers to many of these ethical questions, so it is good to discuss ethical dilemmas before they arise and be prepared to handle them.

Leaders have to provide for that their people are able to solve the tasks that they are assigned to. It shall not fail due to lack of training or equipment. Leaders have also the responsibility to follow-up and take care of their people afterwards (debriefing, etc.).

One of the most important elements of ‘building’ a desired culture is to create a climate where it is allowed to make errors. We all do, and we must learn from them. It is important that leaders stand for their people, also when they make mistakes. Loyalty goes both ways! This is a central theme in culture, but little understood by many top-leaders. One must understand what loyalty goes up from the people to their leaders, and just as well must leaders understand what loyalty they have downwards to the people they are responsible for.

Responsibility cannot be delegated. Authority and resources can be delegated; responsibility stays with you. When soldiers are sent on a mission, they usually get objectives (general and some very concrete) along with a couple of things they shall not do. Micro-management does not work; the details they should be able to figure out themselves.

It was interesting to hear how the military had worked on their values. Not by defining them by the management team (or with some consultants), but by spending over a year and a half speaking to people at the sharp end and hearing what values they thought were important. Eventually this emerged bottom-up as the values for the organisation.

About speaking up freely, Mood gave two good guidelines:

  1. Firstly, you should be free to say what you want about your situation, your experience and your responsibility. But do not step over borders and talk about others.
  2. Secondly, do the ‘VG Test’ (VG is one of the major Norwegian newspapers, and also one of the more ‘populist’) before you speak: What would you say if you see your picture in the newspaper tomorrow and hear you self quoted? Would you think that would be all right? And what would your family (wife, mother, …) think if they saw it.

(A bit of needed context: Mood was speaking about giving opinions and statements to the media. For him it was perfectly okay to describe your horrible circumstances on a mission in Afghanistan, but you shouldn’t step in the shoes of the ministry and say that they made a dumb decision to send soldiers to Afghanistan. As an example, because there are nuances.) 


Also published at Linkedin.

During our recent vacation, we had some nice walks in the Swedish woods. A while ago, I bought my wife a fancy iPod with an included step counter (and all kind of other fancy ‘health’ functions and statistics). She took this device when we went for a walk, just for fun to see how far it would be around the lake and that kind of things.

At one point, my wife mentioned that she recently had seen a news item as well as a scientific article that mentioned research which had ‘shown’ that step counters and similar devices did not work if you wanted to less weight.

The article tells us that “Devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight loss approaches”.

That is interesting, because it sounds really counter-intuitive at first. Besides, has other research not ‘found’ the opposite? But then, this is a rather typical phenomenon that you can find research and sources that shows different results. All the more reason to look critically at the sources and methods to find out what the research or source really is worth.

But that was not what I wanted to discuss at this point. Let us assume that the recent research is right and that these activity-tracking devices indeed do not help as we assume they should do. What the article does not mention is why that would be so. Here is my hypothesis:

I am fairly sure that we are dealing with a typical example of the means becoming the goal. Someone has at some point come with some advisable number of steps that one should go a day in order to stay healthy or lose weight. 10.000 is a typical number - what a coincidence that it would be such a nice round one (one would expect something more differentiated - also TNO makes some critical remarks). But whatever…

Assuming that 10.000 it is, what happens is that many people replace their original goal (getting healthier, losing some weight, getting in better shape) with reaching the numerical goal (go 10.000 steps, that is what the doctor said) without any regard if the real goal is reached. It is a rather typical effect of the System 1 and 2 substitution of a difficult question with a simpler, alike sounding version.

There may also be an adverse effect of bonuses at play, because many people promise themselves some kind motivating incentive (“If I go 10.000 steps today, I can eat a bag of potato chips before the telly tonight”). By that, the positive effect can be ruined by the unintended side-effects of the measure/bonus.

Of course, this is no exclusive thing for weight watchers. In fact, many KPIs have exactly this effect. Numerical goals tend to become an end in themselves, which leads to unwanted effects, like when responsible managers manage quantity, not quality.

When something becomes a numerical target, the target is easily separated from what it intends to achieve. Set a number of near-miss reports and incentivise reporting: you can be rather sure that you get the desired number of reports, not necessarily the quality of reporting or wanted improvement. Hopkins and Maslen say in their book “Risky Rewards” that this is not necessarily dishonest; it is merely the most practical way for busy people to ensure that they meet their targets. But dishonest or not, it undermines the value of the activity entirely.

So, you can manage what you measure, but very often it does not help you one tiny bit when you forget the real objectives that are behind that number and do not pay attention to unintended side-effects from your metrics and bonuses.


Also published on Linkedin.

This time I would like to look at a rather difficult subject. A subject that I don’t really know what to do with and I have no immediate solution for. At least we can start by being aware of it, reflect a bit and maybe discuss. Who knows where it goes…

A Critical Comment? Thank You!

I am pleased that quite many readers of my book get in touch or drop a line. Some just to tell that they enjoy it or to say that they are happy to see that they are not alone in their thoughts. Some also take the time to discuss some subjects a bit more in-depth, or make the effort to comment critically on specific elements.

One of those is Iván Ciudad-Valls whom I have to thank as the main inspiration for this posting. He pointed me towards some things that I knew about, but had not considered while writing the following on page 44 of Safety Myth 101:

"As far as I know, nobody ever comes to work with the objective to do a bad job; getting up in the morning with a thought of "today I'm going to have me a nice little accident".

As Iván rightly points out the statement is too absolute. There I fell in my own trap. I did not follow my own rule: Do Not Use Absolutes (after all, many places in the book I argue against absolutes) and there you go. Of course I could try to talk me out of it (I did say "as far as I know") or some other excuse, but firstly, I am here to learn, so no excuses. Trial and error are often beneficial. Secondly, I do know actually that not everyone works to do a good job. Some do only a good enough job, or do just enough in order to stay under of off the radar. Dilbert’s Wally is a classic example of this attitude.

But things can be even worse. I cannot recall a Dilbert episode where Wally actually set out to create a proper accident (but do correct me if you know of one). We can assume that disengaged employees still are motivated enough to not have an accident. Even actively disengaged people like Wally probably want to get home in one piece after work…

A Wanted Accident

Iván, however, directed my attention towards some accidents in Spain where some cases have been of workers who themselves create ‘an accident’ to collect insurance - even going as far as amputating limbs. This may sound like the plot of a cheap crime drama or a run-of-the-mill episode of CSI with a semi-socially engaged tinge. Alas this is also the dramatic reality, and I have heard about similar events from other countries.

A news article that Iván forwarded (in Spanish, sorry) tells the story of a Slovak worker. He cut his own leg to collect 200.000 euros insurance, simulating a workplace accident. He was finally arrested by the police.

What has this to do with safety, some Safety Professionals may think. Wilful acts like these are of little interest for our profession. If someone is willing to hurt themselves, they will surely find a way. You cannot prevent them, and if the police gets them - good! 

I might have said the same a few years ago, but firstly I do think that employers and Safety Professionals do have a role and responsibility in these cases also. Secondly, the harm will not be restricted to the poor people who create this ‘accident’. Also colleagues who witness the event or injury will be affected and maybe traumatized. There is a clear responsibility in that. Thirdly, these cases of self-harm, difficult and dramatic as they may be can also teach us about what drives people and rationality.

Rational? This? Que?

People are often puzzled about the things others do. Things that are clearly illogical to them - like cutting off a limb. What many forget or are not aware of, however, is that the assumption that behaviour and logic/ratio are always connected is false. Also it is little understood that full rationality is merely an illusion. It has been written before, by me and others, and let’s just do it again because not everyone has understood the message yet: people act out of their local rationality, not out of some form of clinical logic.

In general, people do not break rules because they are stupid, or because they are bad people. Safety rules get broken, people do things and people do not pay attention because it makes sense to them at the time. Not because they are idiots or evil, but because of conflicting goals, because of circumstances, because they do not have all the information, because they get an overload of information, etc. 

Sadly this includes also the poor people who set out to harm themselves. In their local rationality this is the best way to provide for their families or whatever goal they strive for. For them it makes actually sense to sacrifice a limb or their health for money. Of course the problems that these people experience, and the things leading up to such a dramatic decision are much more complex than I can describe here or that I have competence of to discuss.

What To Do?

What can we do about these things as Safety Professionals? I seriously wonder. As I said in the start of this article, we can begin by acknowledging that these things can happen. Secondly, I suspect that some sectors and worker groups will be more susceptible than others, and if you notice something the very least would be that you have to raise the issue. Thirdly, if it were an ‘ordinary’ accident we were discussing here, we would probably look at opportunities to change the situation in order to change the local rationality. The same we could try in possible cases of self-harm of course.

There are definitely factors that are likely to be valid predictors for behaviour like this. I don’t know if there has been any research, but I would assume that cultural factors, people being underpaid or working under very bad circumstances are relevant.

I saw an example as a headline of a Norwegian newspaper earlier this week. The OHS Authority (Arbeidstilsynet) had found a case where eight foreign construction workers were forced to use the floor of a cellar as toilet. Under circumstances like these, who knows what people can be driven to...


Also published on Linkedin.