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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: How systems put us in our place

July 1, 2006
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Paul Greengrass, the English director of the taut, gripping docudrama “United 93” (a real-time reconstruction of the doomed 9/11 flight that crashed in Pennsylvania) made several penetrating observations on the nature of human behavior in an interview in the magazine Film Comment that should give any safety and health professional pause for thought.

In this post-OSHA age of safety, the attention of many safety and health managers has shifted, or certainly expanded, from singular compliance issues (many of which are now under control) to more system-wide organizational safety challenges. Just look at the variety of conferences, workshops, articles and speeches on EHS management systems and culture-building. The film “United 93” vividly recreates how systems can fail, as well as how individuals can overcome those failures.

The film reconstructs with devastating realism, using actual air traffic controllers and military professionals, how highly technical communications systems operated by skilled, experienced personnel can fail in emergencies. But that’s not the point here.

Feeling processed

The most thought-provoking lessons occur on a much more human level. Here’s what I mean: As the actors (big-name Hollywood stars were purposely left out) rehearsed their stunningly realistic creation of the 91 minutes that flight 93 was airborne, they told director Greengrass of an intense, collective feeling of being processed.

You know the feeling. Anyone who has ever flown commercial flights knows the feeling. It goes by different descriptions: Being herded like cattle, treated like a number, squished like sardines in a can. Here’s how director Greengrass explains it: “You get up in the morning, you’re a normal sentient citizen. You walk into an airport and you’re being processed. By the time we sit in our seats, we are subtly conditioned psychologically to do exactly what we’re told… Supremely sophisticated systems, whether they’re aviation or whatever… (require) a high degree of processed obedience from us.”

The hijackers exploited this behavior. Outnumbered roughly ten to one, they took over an entire plane with meager weapons and a fake bomb because passengers had been “processed” into passivity. In our seats, we do as we’re told by flight attendants or pilots. The film goes on to depict how natural human survival impulses and collective resourcefulness can turn passive obedience into a bold insurrection.

Systems need leaders

Let’s put aside our emotions about 9/11 and consider more broadly how systems can strip our identity and shape our behavior. Like a transportation system, the healthcare system also does a pretty good job of making us passive, which is why most patients ask few questions. We wait to see a doc or take a test and feel like we’re part of assembly line medicine. Insurance companies and, increasingly, our educational systems have the same demeaning, demoralizing effect. And our political system has done a good job of alienating us to the point most of us don’t vote in most elections.

Becoming alienated, apathetic, or being processed into passivity can also occur in the workplace, as a consequence of work systems.

And we wonder why it can be difficult to get employees engaged in safety activities…

It’s because systems — especially tightly structured operations in which a few individuals (doctors, pilots, politicians, school principals, plant managers and supervisors, for example) are given a high degree of authority — can strip people of their individuality and initiative. Much depends on how that authority is used. Call it leadership. Is it empathetic? Is there true listening? Or is it cold and distant?

What’s the effect?

If an organization’s operating systems strike employees as remote and uncaring, it’s not surprising to find workplace safety meetings where employees sit on their hands and just nod along, if not doze off. They will comply with the OSHA regs. Follow company procedures. If authorities make a big enough stink about reaching zero accidents, employees will respond accordingly and not report (or hide) injuries if it means winning an incentive contest. They’ll do as they’re told.

But you’ll have trouble getting any safety ideas from them, any meaningful participation in your safety training, audits, hazard identification or incident reporting plans.

Take a look at your organization’s culture. Is it little more than a bricks-and-mortar processing machine?

Talk to your employees. How do they feel they’re being treated? Are their attitudes and actions about safety remote and not engaged?

Consider how your organization’s systems affect your safety program.

Systems are brought to life, for better or worse, by the people leading them. And as “United 93” shows, human behavior is resourceful enough when motivated to overturn system dynamics. If your organization’s systems are quashing initiative, you can do something about it. Not by yourself, mind you, but with a group of like-minded “fellow travelers.”

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