The human side of risk management
4 Dec 2018
Dr. Robert Long has advised the corporate sector for many years about how risk is viewed in the workplace. He sees risk as essential to learning, warning that risk aversion habits may be a pathway to anti-learning.
Most people working in the risk and safety industry come from an engineering or mechanical background. To some extent, this makes Dr Robert Long an outsider. He holds a masters in education, bachelor in theology, masters in occupational health, PhD in social politics, and diplomas in ministry, teaching and training.
This educational background, along with his professional experience, which includes authoring seven books on risk and safety, consulting to blue chip companies, and being ordained clergy, has informed his ideas for transforming the risk and safety industry.
Overhauling the education system
One of Dr Long’s main concerns is how people in the industry are educated.
“If you look at risk and safety now,” he says, “it’s very much data driven, object driven, hazard driven, numerically driven. People’s time is given over to accounting and reporting. The human side of the equation is nearly completely missing. You can do a risk and safety degree and do so little study on human beings – it’s quite astounding. If you were doing a degree in nursing or social work or education,” he says, “you would study ethics. If you study risk management and safety, you won’t.”
Dr Long sees that as an issue for the industry into the future. He believes the curriculum needs a radical overhaul. “Part of the solution,” he says, “is to be more trans-disciplinary.” He wants to see sociology, psychology, all the humanities, become part of risk and safety degrees and diplomas. “It should be far more human and broad and social, but it’s not.
“A person from an education or social work or a human services background would come into the risk and safety industry and wonder if they hadn’t gone to Mars. It’s so foreign to those disciplines. The humanities view,” he says, “is more focused on how humans make decisions, and how to work within the realities of human fallibility.”
The language of ‘zero’
Another key concern for Dr Long is the language used by the industry.
At the World Congress on Safety & Health at Work, which last took place in Singapore in 2017, delegates were introduced to the global Vision Zero campaign. Its website states:
The campaign promotes a comprehensive prevention strategy and safe future for all without fatal or serious work accidents, occupational diseases and traffic accidents.
Vision Zero is a theme shared by multiple health and safety initiatives around the world, some with encouraging results. However, Dr Long believes their language is problematic.
“It’s a language and ideology that has this quest for the total eradication of all harm,” he says. “The language of zero harm is the language of perfectionism. We want workplaces where human beings don’t make mistakes and don’t get injured. I understand that but the problem is there are trade-offs and by-products that go with that language.
“It’s leading the risk and safety industry deeper into an object-centred, compliance-centred culture. And it’s led to this problem the industry has with objectifying humans and not accepting the realities of fallibility.”
Utopian quests rarely succeed in Dr Long’s view. “It’s one thing to say, wouldn’t it be great to be in heaven. It would be another thing to say, let’s turn earth into heaven. We’ve really got an industry now that’s preoccupied with utopianism in its language,” he says, “and it’s actually not smart language. It’s driving a culture that is getting the opposite of what it wants.
“The more they objectify, the more they go down the pathways of compliance and absolutes, the more they turn into an ideology of absolutes, which works against any form of compassion or humanising of people.”
What we learn from risk
According to Dr Long, if we live in a world where all workplaces are certain, where there are no longer any risks, human beings would be more fragile, less creative, less innovative, less adaptable and less flexible. “Take away risk,” he says, “and you also take away all the positives that come from it.
“If you look at the big picture, you know risk is essential to learning, and you know the suppression of risk dumbs down a human. We mostly learn through risk and trial and error.
“Look at the way we helicopter parent our children now, everyone’s recognising we’ve simply created new trade-offs and by-products for kids. For example, the less kids ride bikes on the streets, the less they play in the schoolyard, the more they sit in front of their iPads. We’ve got less risk but now we’ve got greater obesity. We actually create new fragilities. So, if you go down the pathway of risk aversion, you go down the pathway of anti-learning.”
There is no suggestion from Dr Long that risks should be ignored. But he says workplaces holding the view that all risks are bad are being extreme. What’s needed, in his opinion, is more balance.
“There’s a position in the middle that says, look, I don’t want anyone to get hurt but if we wrap everyone up in cottonwool that’s not going to help us either.
“Most of our innovation, most of our agility, most of our flexibility and adaptability as human beings comes from taking risks and maturing through taking those risks.
“Ideologies are absorbed culturally,” he says. “If you keep talking risk aversion to everyone, you’ll end up with a business that won’t take risks. If Richard Branson had been risk-averse he’d be broke. Most of the industries that are innovative or creative or adaptable have become so through risk.”
It’s his belief that risk-averse societies create an imbalance where people who take risks and don’t succeed get punished. “If I make a mistake I tell you what I want, I want some understanding and compassion. I don’t want a flogging because I made a mistake. That kind of society, or workplace, isn’t something that attracts me.”
Dr Long lived through the Canberra bushfires of 2003, where lives were lost and over 500 properties destroyed or damaged. When the fires were raging, and in the days that followed, he says, there simply weren’t enough resources to deal with the disaster.
“Neighbours chipped in with neighbours, friends helped out friends. Most of what they did, from a risk and safety point of view, was probably illegal. But do you let someone who has suffered keep suffering because there’s risk involved? This is where compassion has to come in and sit within the middle.”
So, if some within industry and government bodies have been slow to adopt Dr Long’s ideas for reform, where does his considerable support come from? He says he’s embraced by organisations with a genuine desire, or need, for change.
“I spend most of my time consulting to organisations that are stuck in a mechanistic worldview. They’re falling apart because they can’t consult, they can’t empathise, they can’t engage with people because they lack the skills required to organise.”
But he believes the greatest appreciation of his approach comes from religious organisations. “Because Catholics and other faith groups understand the fundamental contradiction between compliance and fallibility. They acknowledge the reality of human fallibility.
“One of the beauties about our fallibility,” he says, “is that there’s strength in it. It’s not a weakness. It’s remarkably creative to be fallible. The things we do and learn and enjoy in life through this fallibility are just remarkable. It makes life so fantastic.”
About Dr Robert Long
Dr Robert Long is an international presenter, author and educator. He is the global founder of The Social Psychology of Risk, and Director of the Centre for Leadership, Learning and Risk. He has been consulting to industry for 15 years in culture, risk and learning.