Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

In Defense Of Not-invented-Here Thinking


fa·nat·ic noun

  1. a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.

A couple of weeks ago a post I wrote found its way onto a LinkedIn Group discussion thread. The group in question is devoted to behaviour-based safety zealots who apparently enjoy telling each other how slick they are and how one methodology should be used at the exclusion of all others (or at least as the primary methodology)
This got me thinking about blind devotion to a methodology. And then I read an article that was yet another  criticism of Heinrich’s pyramid of risk. And then I read another article that defended Heinrich and asked if his critics might be too harsh in their comments.

And then it hit me,  the realization that growing  fanaticism, zealotry, and extremism is imperiling worker safety and enough’s enough. Here’s the bad news.  Working as a safety professional is hard.  There is no area of expertise that will make a one a safety superman, no single methodology that has a monopoly on making the world a safer place; there’s no panacea, no magic bullets, just hard work and dedication.

I know this isn’t exactly a epiphany—I’ve been warning people of the rising tide of people who place their ability to make money over the effectiveness of the snake oil that they continue to promote to people who don’t know any better—but it was none-the-less a fairly profound realization.

For those of you who don’t know, Heinrich was an insurance investigator who in 1931 wrote the book, “Industrial Accident Prevention: A Scientific Approach.” In this book, Heinrich asserted that  88 percent of accidents are caused by “unsafe acts of persons”.  Statistical analysis was in its infancy (at least in and industrial setting) and Heinrich’s risk pyramid: that is there is 330 accidents, 300 will not result in injury, 29 will cause minor injuries, and one will result in a major injury or a fatality.

What I realized was a) Heinrich was full of crap  b) it’s not his fault, and c) while he’s not all right, he’s not all wrong either.  His research methods and results are, after 6 decades or so, increasingly questioned.  But even if he didn’t fake his research (personally I don’t believe he did, at least intentionally) his methods, population, and conclusions were hopelessly broken.  The manufacturing environment in which he conducted his studies bear little to know resemblance to today’s workplace.  In those days, asking supervisors the causes of injuries was not likely to yield many answers that didn’t lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of careless workers.  I don’t disparage these supervisors or Heinrich; they reached the conclusion that any reasonable person of that period would have given their time and experiences.  But let’s consider the time,  in 1931 eugenics was considered legitimate science, Social Darwinism was one of the most popular social science theories.  Henry Ford was spouting White Man’s Burden, and Nazism and Marxism were both rising in popularity.  In short, there was a pervasive environment in which workers were believed to be little more than clever primates who once in awhile  could be expected to have the occasional lethal mishap.

In most parts of the world, we it is no longer acceptable to see workers as chattel. And if Heinrich were to have completed his study in these more enlightened times what percentage of worker injuries would be attributed to “unsafe acts of persons” aside from the zealots and fanatics who start with an answer (90%, 95%, etc.) and then conduct research to prove what they already believe.  Beware the man who conducts research the outcome of which can either preserve or endanger his livelihood.  If your livelihood depends on the world being flat, count on finding facts to support your need.  It’s human nature.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that Heinrich had the right of it; let’s pretend that his findings were accurate and correct. All that would mean is that given his population his conclusions were sound.  It wouldn’t however, mean that his findings were universal truths.  It wouldn’t be applicable to all industries, all areas of the world, or people. And yet, people continue to promote one methodology as applicable in most cases, even when they aren’t.

This may sound like yet another attack on BBS;  it isn’t. While there is certainly a time and a place for Behaviour-Based Safety (I am accused of being so virulently anti BBS that I can’t see the value in it, this is a false charge, but one I suffer relatively cheerfully.) it is the height and breadth of  arrogance to assume, without investigation, that worker behaviour is the primary cause of injuries.  But then again, it’s just as arrogant to assume that the process is to blame.

For years I sold a process that I invented as a work for hire. SafetyIMPACT! was a fairly prescriptive methodology that yielded terrific results.  But what made it tough to sell was the “not invented here” push back.  I spent 6 years working on safety improvements in the automotive industry, but the first time I tried to sell SafetyIMPACT outside the auto industry companies responded with “this isn’t the auto industry” and then “this is aerospace” and then “this is healthcare” and then “this is mining” and then…well you get the picture.  I always sort of rolled my eyes and thought these narrow-minded goofs just don’t get it; that they just didn’t understand that they weren’t that special, not that unique.

So I modified my style.  I turned the system I developed into a structure diagnostic tool that in one year would assess the situation, use the methodologies most appropriate to the situation, and build an infrastructure that would work for the organization.  After 15 engagements without a single failure I began to think that I had all the answers, that I had developed the magic bullet.

Last week I realized I was wrong.  I realized I didn’t have all the answers, in fact I didn’t have many answers at all.  I realized that all those people who refused to buy my snake oil were right; I don’t know who they are and I don’t know their specific challenges.  But if that was the case why was I so wildly successful? Because the key to success lies not in knowing what the organization needs, but in knowing that you don’t know what an organization needs and that you will have to research the situation.  You need to invent it here.

Filed under: Loss Prevention, Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, , , , , , ,

Extra: Phil La Duke’s Blog Just Got Easier To Share


Looking for a last minute holiday gift? Too cheap to buy anything for the boss? Sharing my post just got easier. Consider the gift of Phil. I was doing some end of the year maintenance and added a share button to all my posts. Now you can show off your astute taste in bloggery to your friends on Facebook, raise a mob of detractors in LinkedIn, or just mess with a stranger in Stumbledupon. It really doesn’t matter how you share, just as long as you do. So share, subscribe, send the word forth that there is a fresh perspective on worker safety, and one need not read the same old corporate propaganda about safety.

Happy Holidays,

Phil

Filed under: Safety

Why I Continue to Criticize Behavior Based Safety


Phil La Duke:

So much of a stink has been raised about this, I thought I’d repost and stir the pot

Originally posted on The Safety Net:

Much has been made of my criticisms of Behavior Based Safety.  For some, my questioning of BBS is essentially a personal affront.  Others accuse me of offering criticisms without providing viable alternatives. For the record, I don’t feel I have to offer any alternatives—and yes, I am publicly saying that if you knowing sell, promote or advocate a systems (safety or otherwise) that you know doesn’t work or that costs more than it will ever recoup, you are a conman, a thief, and yes a snake oil salesman and you know how you are so spare me your false indignation.

Despite all the hoopla about my criticisms of BBS and my repeated requests to those who would shout me down as charlaton who knows nothing of BBS to define the quintessential elements of a BBS program no one has responded.  There seems to be little consensus on the definition of…

View original 1,507 more words

Filed under: Safety

Constructive Criticism is Neither


Recently I adopted a personal philosophy that I am calling “Fierce Vision”.  I am developing it, as I so often do, on the fly. The philosophy is personal; it’s not for sale per se, but I suppose if you buy me—listen to a speech, attend a lecture, read my work, or hire me as a consultant—in a way, fierce vision is what you get.  When I get of my lazy ass, having walked the dogs, find the two Christmas presents that I bought and lost, and get down to writing today’s Rockford Greene International post (www.rockfordgreeneinternational.wordpress.com) I expect I will outline some of the broad concepts of what is slowly taking shape in my head (a scary place in the best times).

But somewhere in that nebulous stew that is Fierce Vision. Is the idea that we don’t have to listen to the excrement that  people pass as “constructive criticism”.  Last week I posted an article about suffering through criticism, and it may have sounded a bit like self pity. But I have come to realize that a fair amount of people feel entitled to  provide us with unwanted feedback when they really should just shut their gaping maws.  This is important in safety, not because we don’t have important things to say, but because often we provide feedback, less to warn others and more to make ourselves feel better. When we are criticizing—not offering advice, or training, or sharing our insights, but carping on about the stuff that bugs us.  You will know criticism when you see it; it is the piddly crap that drives us crazy about other people’s behavior.  Before we speak to another about his or her behavior, we need to ask our self why we are making the comment. If it is to make ourselves feel better, to unburden our souls as it were, we had ought to shut our pie holes.  Whether it be asking for forgiveness or setting people to right, if it’s about us, we need to remain silent.

Sometimes the criticism is subtle,  we’re not really directly telling someone that they’re broken, instead we  insinuate that you’re broken:  “You should buy a house; renting is for suckers.”  “You should sell real estate: there’s good money in it.”  Did you ever notice how some people can make you feel like crap while sounding so very helpful?  It is irritating and yet we feel guilty for being irritated since they were “only trying to help.”

Offering To Help When It Isn’t Welcome Is Butting In

The instances where people offer us help when we’ve never as much as hinted that we needed assistance is maddening.  Why does it irritate us?  They’re just trying to help out, right?  When someone tells us that “we should…”it is an act of aggression.  Once again or flight and fight goes on alert, our brains flood our bodies with chemicals, and our bodies brace themselves for a fight.  Sometimes we respond with, “you should shut the hell up and mind your own business (fight) or “yeah, you’re right” (flight.)

However well intentioned, the people who provide us with unsolicited criticism cause us stress.  The unspoken message in the “you should…” is that if you continuing doing what you are doing you are broken in some way.  The more passive their aggression the more alert our bodies become and the more stress-related problems we suffer as a result.

Some of you are thinking, “It’s my job to criticize” or “If I see some behavior that is unsafe I am morally obligated to intervene”.  That’s just you granting yourself license to butt in; it’s you giving yourself permission to “should all over” the people you are supposed to be helping.

Criticism tends to eliminate related behaviors that we value.  For example, let’s say you are the first to arrive at the office every day and the task of making the coffee falls to you.  You don’t mind, you do it because you like drinking coffee, it’s not hard to do, and you like helping out the group.  Now, one day, I come up to you and say, “you know, I’m getting sick of having to put away the coffee filters, mopping up the little puddles you leave behind, and sweeping up coffee grounds.  You’d think at your age you’d have learned to clean up after yourself.”  After my reproach of your coffee making, what are the chances that you will be making any coffee (safe for me to drink) anytime soon?  Chances are great that you will either stop making coffee (flight), tell me that I can make the coffee from now on (fight), or continue making coffee but now deliberately leaving a bigger mess (passive aggressive).  In all these cases, our goal to get me to pick up after myself are left un-achieved, and in two thirds of the cases a highly desirable behavior falls along the wayside.  Clearly, a feedback tool that does not trigger the fight/flight response is necessary.

Not all feedback is dysfunctional, in fact, good, advisory feedback is essential for lowering our stress. Instead of getting all self-righteous and criticizing workers you will likely find that advice is a far more effective feedback mechanism.  Where criticism is destructive and focuses on negative aspects, advice is the practice of providing a more balanced description of the behavior.  When providing advice, we begin by discussing positive behaviors before discussing behaviors we would like to see changed.  Our example of the coffee-making mess could have been handled using advice instead of criticism and would likely have a much more positive result.

Instead of complaining about the negative aspects of the coffee I should have started by commenting on the things in your behavior that I valued before moving on to the behaviors I would like to see changed.   “I want you to know that I love it that you make coffee everyday; I am NOT a morning person and I rely on that first cup of coffee.  I also need you’re help.  Often, the kitchen area is a mess, in a large part because of the coffee that you make.  How can I help you to clean up after yourself?”

I can already hear some of you laughing, “yeah right…they’ll just say ‘you clean it if it bothers you’”…maybe; if you lack that person’s trust probably; if you have an ulterior motive; definitely.  If you are insincere in your praise, you create, what a friend of mine indelicately dubbed, the shit-filled twinkie.  The shit-filled twinkie is a comment that at first appears to be a compliment (a delicious-looking snack cake), but inside the compliment is an insult (need I further explain the analogy?)  In the interest of decorum, let’s refer to my friend’s analogy as the SFT.  SFTs are created because the speaker is just going through the motions of commenting on positive elements of the behavior.  SFTs do more harm than good.

Far from being a SFT, this approach mends troubled relationships and helps to build trust.  As you build trust, your stress level, and the stress level of the other person diminishes.  Remember, though building trust takes time.  Initially, the person receiving the feedback is likely to resist this change in you and only through patient, consistent advice will the relationship ultimately be mended.

Another outstanding way to provide feedback is through reinforcement.  Reinforcement is used to increase desired behaviors.  Basically, reinforcement is a sincere, meaningful compliment.  It is a way of thanking people for doing things right, and letting them know they appreciate what they’ve done for us.

Irrespective of the kind of feedback we provide, we need to be specific.  It is unfair to expect people to respond favorably to vague feedback.  “You know that thing that you’re always doing, I hate that.”  What are we expected to do with this kind of feedback?  Unless I know exactly what elements of my behavior you don’t like, there is little I can do to change my behavior.  Instead, we would be better served by saying, “I dislike it when you put your feet on the dinner table and I would like you to please stop that.”

Providing specific feedback means that you must speak from your knowledge-base about things that you have experienced and seen with your own eyes.  How do you respond to a policeman at the door who tells you that some of the neighbors have complained about the stench coming from your garage? (Clearly this is an attack and you are likely to respond either by fighting or fleeing.)  Many of us would ask, “which neighbors?” or “who’s complaining?”  It is difficult for us to assess the value and seriousness of the complaint unless we can “consider the course” or at very least put the complaint into some sort of context.  If we don’t know who the feedback is coming from it’s virtually the same as getting no feedback at all.  We really should restrict our feedback to things we’ve observed, noticed, or experienced and leave hearsay out of our remarks.

So before you charge out to the workplace snooping around for unsafe behaviors, ask yourself “do I have the interpersonal skills to provide solid information? Or will my comments do more harm than good?” Ultimately, you may have to muster the courage to shut the fuck up.

 

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Safety, Worker Safety, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Late Post Again…


Late Post Again

I suppose I owe something of an apology to those of you who hit the site on Sundays expecting a fresh post.  I’m sorry.  It’s Christmas and I’m a guy who is spread pretty thin.  This week I am continuing my series on stress and how it affects us and our safety.  I will likely interrupt this series next week, as on January 1, 2012 this blog will be blasted out to the world by the ESHQ LinkedIn Group.  I haven’t decided yet.  Your comments one way or the other would be appreciated.  Until then, safe holidays, and Merry Christmas.

—Phil

Filed under: Safety

Feedback, Stress, and Safety


Some of the most successful people working in safety advocate feedback as a way of making the workplace safe.  While I think a good share of these people are simple minded and mentally enfeebled, I think most, if not all are good intentioned and a handful, really know what they are talking about.  But how important is feedback really? And when “experts use that term, what exactly are they talking about?  Since so many people prattle on about feedback, let’s start at the very beginning. Whether it’s the obnoxious driver waving a middle finger or the smiles of flirty waitstaff, people are forever providing us with information about our behavior and this practice is called feedback.  Ideally, feedback is given to us to help us to improve our relationships, but as often as not, feedback is provided to make the speaker feel better without regard to whether or not the feedback is accurate, welcome, or in anyway useful.

Intentional Feedback

 Most of us would like to think that our feedback is well thought out and intentional—that is, provided deliberately with a clear and distinct message.  Intentional feedback is often used to boost worker performance, encourage workers to work more safely, or generally follow the rules and avoid stirring the pot.  Recognition programs are a simple form of feedback; the program is a way for employers to tell the recognized employees to keep up the good work.  Even though we strive to only provide intentional feedback, and may even believe that we are being successful, too often we also provide unintentional feedback.

Unintentional Feedback

We communicate with more than just our mouths; in fact most of the messages we send out are non-verbal.  Some nonverbals are conscious decisions—the style in which we dress and the way we wear our hair, for example.  We send far more nonverbal messages unconsciously and sometimes these messages get us into trouble.  Take for example the employee of the month who is perceived as a lying, backstabbing little toady but the rest of the worker population.  In selecting this employee to be recognized you are sending the message that you want all employees to be lying, back stabbing little toadies.  But it doesn’t have to be that extreme.  Suppose you over do it and praise all the time.  To  the high performers you come off as condescending and patronizing and to the mediocre performer you have just endorsed all his or her behavior desirable and undesirable alike.

But unintentional feedback goes far deeper than over praising, and can be dangerous in any situation, and deadly in safety. Sending a clear message (and not sending mixed signals) on a safety issue is essential, but it is something that many safety professionals just plain screw up.

Providing Feedback

Before providing feedback we need to recognize that there are right ways and wrong ways of giving this information to someone else.  The first rule of providing feedback is to focus on behaviors, not attitudes. Unfortunately, many people are seemingly unable to make the distinction between who we are as people and how we behave. We feel what we feel because of chemical electric signals that run through our brain.  If the stimuli that our nervous system picks up are such that the brain tells us to be angry, we will be angry.  If it says we should be happy, we are happy.  Barring chemical imbalances, psychological illness, or a malfunction of the brain, this is how life works. Contrary to what many believe, we cannot control our emotions (we can control how we behave in response to our emotions, but there is scarce little we can do about our brains being awash in chemicals).

That is not to say that we are hapless victims of our internal chemical plant.  While we may not be able to control our emotions—how we feel—we can certainly control our behaviors—how we act on what we feel.  Oft-times people provide us feedback on our emotions instead of on our behavior.  The result of this muddied feedback is that oft-times people say things like “you have a shit attitude” rather than “I find it upsetting when you use that tone of voice when speaking to me.” The first statement is unproductive and stress producing for a variety of reasons.

First, the first statement attacks the essence of whom we are as human beings.  After all, where doe attitudes come from?  What people frequently describe as an attitude is the physical manifestation of our emotions.  And where do our emotions come from?  Emotions—though many are loath to admit it—are created by chemicals in our brain.  Where do the chemical in our brain come from?  Our brains produce these chemicals—completely involuntarily—in response to external stimuli.  So when someone tells you that you have a shit attitude, they are essentially saying that your emotions are shit, and (continuing the logic stream) that you have shit in your brain.  This feedback isn’t exactly the kind of “up with people” sentiment that is likely to put one at ease, rather it elicits a “circle the wagons” response that churns out more chemicals and heightens our stress level.

Perhaps the most common form of feedback is silence.  Silence could also be described as the absence of feedback when feedback is expected.  Silence is appropriate for the times in life where we want everything to stay the same.  “If you weren’t happy, why didn’t you say something?”  Silence is often an excellent tool for remaining cool when your emotions are raging, but silence is a short-term fix.

Often we use silence as a flight mechanism, we don’t want to fight, so we mentally extricate ourselves from the situation by remaining silent, rather than providing more direct feedback and potentially provoking further attack, we remain silent and let things simmer.  Silence should be used sparingly; it hurts relationships as we ascribe sinister motives to the person from whom we receive no information.  As our brains have only partial information with which to determine whether or not we are in danger we react as if the silent ones are hostile to us.  Many an employee inaccurately assumes that his or her boss doesn’t like him or her simply because the employer has not provided enough reassurance to the contrary.

Years ago, I had a job that required a heavy travel schedule, which in turn meant that I had very little contact with my boss.  Soon I became convinced that my boss was out to get me, and that—despite constant praise from my customers, and positive performance reviews—I was in imminent danger of being fired.  It is interesting to note, that even though I was fully aware that my paranoia was a direct result of a lack of feedback from my boss, I was unable to shake my raging paranoia; my subconscious was far stronger than my intellect. (Not something of which I am especially proud; let’s just say I don’t have it on my resume.)

We also may become paranoid if the majority of the feedback is silence.  If we feel out of the information loop, our brains, craving information with which to protect us, manufacture threats and plots against us.  Again the brain’s “better safe than sorry” response prepares us for greater and greater threats that may not exist.

Another form of feedback is criticism.  Criticism is the practice of sharing negative information about us without any other information.  Criticism is essentially an attack—someone tells us that what we are doing is bad, wrong, or otherwise undesirable.

Repeated criticism hurts relationship; a big surprise—we tend to dislike people who continually remind us of how stupid we are, how much we need to improve, or how foolish we’ve acted.  As we are in close proximity with people who criticize us, we are increasingly likely to employ a fight/flight response.  If we spend enough time with the person and our fight response is engaged it is highly likely that we will lash out at that person either overtly or covertly.

An overt aggressive response can take the form of a verbal blow up or in extreme cases physical violence.  Take for example the case of the worker who is continually criticized by his boss.  Day after day the boss knit picks about the quality of the work.  One day the criticism becomes too much and the employee explodes in a flurry of obscenity, he tells the boss in dubious anatomical accuracy into specifically which orifices the boss can stick this month’s status reports.

The aggression is far more likely to be covert.  In the previous example the employee became overtly hostile as his fight/flight lever got switched to fight.  In a far more likely scenario, the employee becomes passive aggressive.  Instead of obscenity and creative anatomical body packing the injured employee takes the fight underground.  Graffiti gets sprawled on bathroom walls; deadlines get “innocently” missed; key information is not conveyed and the employee engages in malicious obedience.  Passive aggression, doesn’t relieve stress, however, and in many cases leads to guilt as our stress level subsides.

Sometimes criticism triggers the flight response; instead of fighting we flee.  The flight response manifests itself in a phenomenon called escape and avoidance.  In other words, we—often without realizing it—will quickly excuse ourselves from the company of the person who over criticizes us (escape) or, when we are able, avoid contact with the criticizer altogether.   My ex-wife and I like to play a little game we call “what’s wrong with Phil”.  The game begins with her saying, “you know what’s wrong with you?”  As much as I love this game (I actually lettered in it in high school.) I find myself saying, “You know how I love this game, and how I thirst for information to help me on my road to development, however, I have pressing business elsewhere.”  It comes as no surprise that I don’t want to listen to an attack on who I am as a person, but any response short of fleeing the scene is likely to provoke more, and escalated criticism.

Filed under: Safety, , , , , , , ,

Why Worry? Stress that We Deliberately Create


stress

Another common source of stress is what I call “predictive stress”.  Predictive stress arises from the common practice of trying to relieve pressures of worrying by asking, “what’s the worst thing that could happen?”  Asking this question is incredibly stress producing as we now add a whole list of calamities to our worries.  It’s not bad enough that we worried that our boss didn’t like us, now well meaning but dim-witted friends introduce the worst case scenario and we add being fired, loosing our homes and become destitute and diseased homeless nomads driven mad by life’s luxuries lost.   Gee that’s a cheery thought, thank you for adding to my gloom.   It makes sense that if we don’t have a complete picture of a situation that we would have to prepare for the worse case scenario.  The problem with this practice is that the worst-case scenario is  not  the mostly likely scenario.  Instead of picturing the worst-case scenario, we should picture and plan for, the most likely scenario.  When we plan for the most likely scenario, it’s prudent to prepare some contingency plans (saving money for a rainy day, for example) but we need to stop our Armageddon thinking and concentrate on real issues and things we can do to minimize our risks.

Take for instance, the prospect of loosing your job.  Economic conditions, management decisions and a host of other factors that could contribute to loosing our jobs are completely beyond our control, so worrying about these and obsessing about them is a complete waste of time: the stress consumes our energy and provides us with nothing of value in return.   Instead of worrying about the prospect of loosing a job, we need to make contingency plans.   Some people will never be happy with our lack of worry and will actively seek to agitate us.  I remember when I was in high school; I was talking during one of our many fire drills.   The teacher launched into a surly admonishment of my behavior and finished her self-righteous monologue with, “what are you going to do if there is a REAL fire?!?!?!  I calmly responded by walking her through the complete evacuation procedure.   This didn’t satisfy her, in fact, it made only made her more angry, “okay, smart guy, what are you gonna do if the wall is blocked by fire?”  Again, I calmly told her that I would break a window, hang from the window ledge, and drop to the ground below, doing my best to stay upright and flex my legs, reasoning, that all though I would likely break a leg, I would prefer my odds with gravity rather than against the fire.  At this point, nearly enraged she spat, “and what if the window is blocked, then what?” she asked almost screaming.  Again, calmly, I told her that since the room had a drop ceiling and retractable wall, I would crawl to through the ceiling, drop into the room next door,  and leave by one of my aforementioned methods.  This time truly screaming, she asked what I would do if that was not an option. Now, frustrated by the situation having been extended to the most extreme, ludicrous worst-case scenario, I looked at her and said, “then I guess I’ll die, will that make you happy?”  and then I added, “although in this extreme scenario you’ve cooked up, I doubt my talking during a fire drill would kill or save anyone.”  What does this story prove (beyond that my high school teachers earned every cent they were paid)?  I think the story is a nice illustration of people’s love of worry, and the impatience of people who love to worry with those of us who don’t.

Adaptive Dysfunction

Our personalities are in part, ways to protect our bodies.  (This is not to imply that this alone is the purpose of or origin of our personality—I’ll leave that for the philosopher’s to ponder).  Our personalities are shaped as we mature and create our danger database.  We retain behaviors that protect us (or bring us joy, or reward us in some way, etc.) and we reject and avoid the things that have harmed us.  This process is not limited to our physical body, but our personalities as well.  The process of gathering sensory input, categorizing it, and storing it in our subconscious for further use is a relatively simple phenomenon compared to the complex development of our personalities.  Because everyone’s life experiences are unique the world is full of personalities, no two exactly alike. No personality is better or worse than the other although the interaction of personality styles can be a significant source of stress.

There are many different ways to categorize personality styles, and many good tools for identifying and describing a person’s personality style, but that is for another author to explore. Personality types are like horoscopes, we can see something of ourselves in any of the Zodiac signs, because they describe universal reactions to life. For our purposes there are four major types of personality Compelling, Persuasive, Social, and Orderly.  All these personalities styles grew from some very primal reactions to the dangers in the world, and therefore, most people have elements of all four, and any well adjusted person will exhibit characteristics of all of these personality traits depending on the situation. We learn to see these very complex personality styles as archetypes—the executive, the salesman, the social worker and the accountant.

The compelling personality believes in a hierarchy based on dominance.  The compelling personality will force his or her desires on the group.  The compelling personality learned at an early age that action and dominance will help force others to behave in ways that are easy to predict.  The compelling person will tell you what to do, and expect you to do it.  The compelling personality shoots first and asks questions, makes decisions quickly and expects quick results.  Don’t waste the compelling person’s time with idle chitchat, he wants you to say what you need to quickly and efficiently.  If you ask the compelling personality for advice and you will get quick direction.  “Here’s what you do…”

The persuasives learned early that if people like them they will get desired results so they spend their days cultivating relationships.  They like people and people like them.  They are direct, albeit meandering communicators, who get to the point only after telling a story, a joke, or asking about you.  Persuasives survive through innovation and creativity and social skills.  A persuasive won’t tell you what to do, rather they will freely tell you what they would don in the same situation. The persuasive personality is driven to talk, in fact, they process information by talking to others about it.  They need to talk in order to think. This non-stop jabbering may cause others to misread the persuasive personality as incapable of gravity but such is not the case.

Social personalities are shy people who form deep friendships with a relatively few number of people.  They have a deep affinity for fairness and are profoundly upset by what they perceive as injustice.  Caring and concerned friends social personalities prefer to console rather than to give advice. Social harmony is a primary motivator for the social personalities and these people abhor conflict and resent those who bring it.

The orderly personality lives for rules and perfection.  Introverted and exacting the orderly personality fears being wrong above all things. Orderly personalities make decisions carefully and deliberately and may be accused of analysis paralysis.  Orderly personalities intensely dislike having decisions rushed.

Far smarter people have spent far more time studying the development of the human psyche than I can or will ever do, so I won’t bore you with my take on that.  Sufficed to say, that while most of us develop personalities that help us to function in society, others among us develop in dysfunctional ways.  Dysfunction is one of those words that has become widely used in psychological circles, but I use it in a slightly different way.  Behaviors, beliefs, and inhibitions that help us to better relate to others in society protect us and reduce our stress.  Behaviors that put us at odds with society are dysfunctional, because they make it more difficult to “function” as a member of society.

People who have adapted to life in a way that puts them at odds with others suffer from (or more accurately the rest of us suffer from) “adaptive dysfunction”.  Before you rush out to use this as an excuse for being a jerk, this is not a mental illness, rather it is learned behavior that can be unlearned.  The adaptive dysfunctional person has found a way to survive without following society’s rules.  I once played softball with a man named “Kirk the Jerk”; this was obviously not his given name, but one that suited him and suited him well.  He wasn’t a big man, or a particularly tough one, but Kirk was rude, nasty and thoroughly unlikeable. He wasn’t even that good a softball player, but people welcomed him on the team mainly because people had known him for years and accepted his behavior as normal and acceptable.

We see these people every day and most of us except the dysfunction as  “oh that’s just Kirk the Jerk’s personality”. These people bully there way through life seemingly unconcerned by other people’s opinion of them. They have survived using behaviors outside the social norms.

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Safety Culture, , , , , , , ,

Candy From Strangers: Safety and Stress


The following posts and those I will be making in the coming weeks are excerpts from my book: Candy From Strangers: A Survival Guide To Stress (Publication pending). I think most of you understand the relationship between a low stress workplace and a low injury workplace but  this work takes a look at the science behind stress management—Phil La Duke

Introduction

Times are stressful.  Terrorism and war come to us live on television and the Internet.  We could barely manage our lives before September 11th and now we have ten times the stress and are no better equipped to deal with it; what can we do?  Danger seems to lurk at every turn, it seems like we are constantly prepared for battle and we feel tired, weak and haggard.  There’s no denying we live in stressful times, we often yearn for simpler times far from the stress of modern life.  Unfortunately, travelling back in time to the days of cholera epidemics and world wars really wouldn’t do all that much to alleviate our stress, would it?

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon are undeniably distressing but the plain truth is that these attacks didn’t invent stress, rather they took the stress of our everyday lives, amplified it, and crammed it forcefully to the forefront. It could be said that worry is t he only thing that truly separates man from the animals.  The human brain is sophisticated enough to analyze our environment and predict likely outcomes.  The human animal, alone can gather information from all over the planet, transmit it to all corners of the globe in milliseconds, and present it to it’s willing audience waiting to worry.  The rain forest, global warning, nuclear war; time and again we gather and report information that will give us more to worry about, and worry without action equals s tress.  Parents who once wistfully reminisced about their school days are now giving panicky lectures to their children about what to do if a classmate comes to school with a gun.  A loud noise in the workplace makes people think of a madman on a rampage.   Even the U.S. mail is no longer benign; the simple act of opening a letter can have lethal consequences.  From air travel to a stranger at the door we live in deadly times, and waiting for disaster is slowly but surely killing each of us.  Information overload, sound-bite addiction, and good old fashion worry have combined to create an unprecedented gristmill.   We live in a mortar and pestle society and something has to give and give soon; unless we do something about it.

We have to do something about this stress before it kills us.  Do you doubt that stress is killing us?  A fortune is made and spent on drugs to treat medical conditions—from stomach ulcers to headaches—that are caused or aggravated by stress.   While millions of people suffer from stress related scare few of us do anything to appropriate manage the stress of modern life.   Many of us have tired of the new age approach to stress and have resolved to “tough it out.”  While this “grin and bear it” approach to stress management is an increasingly attractive approach it may actually contribute to a person’s stress and create even greater problems.

Stress and Its Role in Our Survival

Everyone these days seems to be talking about the dangers of stress and frankly many of them don’t seem to know much about it.   When asked to define stress today’s pundits tend to either ignore the question or to cloud up their response with jargon and “psycho babble”.  Stress, simply put, is our body’s way of protecting us from danger.  Without stress we would blissfully roast our hands against a hot stove, or lop our way into on-coming traffic where smiling motorists would mow us down.  We owe our lives to stress.   When stress is properly applied to our bodies it saves our lives.  We yank our hands away from hot stoves, leap in panicked jerks out of the path of on-coming traffic as the freak-out motorist careens wildly through traffic to avoid us.  Yes, stress is an important part of our survival.  But what about when stress is misused, misinterpreted, or misdirected by our bodies (did I miss any “misses”?)  The same reflexes designed to preserve our fleshy behinds turns on our bodies like a jilted ex-lover.

Most of the information our brains receive comes to us through our subconscious.   In order for us to be able to focus and concentrate on abstract tasks our brains automate many of our routine tasks.  Picture your brain as a computer filled with thousands of software programs that automate the simpler tasks, and even some tasks that are not so simple.  How many of us have to stop and think about the physical steps required to turn a doorknob, start a car, or drive to work.  We do all these things without thinking because our brain has automated these tasks.  The old joke about not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time is funny precisely because our brains have so automated these tasks that to not be able to do both at the time is ludicrous. While the conscious mind doesn’t bother with the mundane, the subconscious works overtime to get us through our day.  In addition to running these “sub-routines” our brains must sort through tons of information that it receives and route some of it to our conscious minds while filing most of it away in our subconscious where it is compared by the nervous system against our “database of danger.”  Forgive my melodrama, but I think the analogy is an apt one.   As infants we come into this world with very little information; we’re helpless.   Through a concerted effort on the part of our brains we gather as much information as we can as quickly as we can.   We quickly learn that a hot stove is far too dangerous to be trifled with and so we file away in our subconscious any inputs—visual, aural, oral, tactile, and olfactory— that are even remotely related to the danger we call a hot stove.  Our subconscious even writes a program that cause us to remove our hand from a hot stove so fast that we have removed ourselves from the danger before our conscious minds even realizes what’s happening.  Our subconscious has saved us using what scientists call the fight-flight reflex.

The fight-flight response is our bodies’ way of protecting us from the all the dangers that we have filed away in the “danger database”.  As we our bombarded with information our brains sift through the small percentage that is necessary for our cognitive functions, or in other words the things that require us to think about, for instance, reading.  Do you find it difficult to concentrate in a room filled with noise?  Is it more difficult for you to read in when surrounded by a flurry of activity?  If so, the difficulty likely arises from your brain trying to sort through this input to determine whether or not a danger is present.  In the time you are taking to read this, you’re brain is being deluged with sensory input.  Perhaps a fluorescent light is buzzing nearby or maybe a television plays off in the distance.  While you aren’t conscious of the input, your subconscious is carefully and quickly reviewing the information and checking it against your danger database.  In most cases these inputs are harmless and your subconscious doesn’t bother you with them.  In some cases these inputs match a danger in the database and trigger a conscious response.  In still other cases, the input don’t provide enough information for a definitive conclusion to be made and the brain has to assume a “better safe than sorry” posture.   In these cases the brain prepares the body for the worst-case scenario and the result is stress.

Just as touching a hand to a hot stove elicits a rapid response where we jerk our hand from harm’s way, so too does our body react to subtler threats although in far less dramatic ways.

Whenever our bodies perceive danger our brains activate the “flight or fight” reflex.   First it our bodies give us an energy rush as it releases stored sugar and fats into the bloodstream. Next our brains increase our breathing to supply more oxygen to the blood—oxygen that will be needed to give our bodies the short-term boost it will need to combat the danger.  Our heart rate then accelerates to provide more blood to the muscles. Newly flush with more blood, our muscles tense for action.  More blood is quickly supplied to these muscles as the body reroutes the blood from the hands and feet.   Blood is also routed to the brain and away from the stomach and digestion stops. Our senses become more acute and actively scan for more signs of danger.  Finally, alertness heightens to the point where it becomes difficult to focus.   Our bodies turn into finely honed killing machines ready to strike down danger in its tracks.  Unfortunately, not all triggers are, in fact, dangers.

Most of us have heard of mothers who experience brief moments of superhuman strength and lift a car off a trapped child, a testament (whether factual or not) to the benefits of the fight-flight reflex.  But what about instances where the threat isn’t real?  What effect does the flight-fight reflex in imagined, or misperceived threats have on our bodies?  The body reacts to a threat that isn’t there the same way it does to real threats, it gets our bodies ready to bust a head or bust a move. In the cases where the treat is imaginary, or chronic, our brains flood our bodies with toxic chemicals that we don’t really need and can’t use and so our bodies are left to deal with these chemicals the same way it deals with other poisons.

Remember the story of the Sword of Damocles?   In this legend, Damocles expresses his envy for the life of a king he was visiting, marveling at the luxurious palace, array of servants, and beautiful women at the king’s disposal.  To prove a point (to put it mildly) the king orders his servants to suspend a sword above Damocles’ head with a single string.  The king then tells Damocles that this is what the king’s life is like; always wondering if the string will break and he will be killed.  For many of us, our lives are like the Sword of Damocles, and our bodies react to the stress of wondering when the dangers we continuously perceive will make there moves and force us into action.

Stress is designed to protect us, so why does it cause us harm?  The fight-flight reflex was designed as a short-term solution to an acute, life-threatening situation, by kicking our bodies into overdrive, but the bulb that burns twice as bright burns half as long.  Instead of release a massive does of chemicals, we instead release low-level doses that wear our bodies out.

When our fight flight reflex is activated our brains become miniature chemical plants as an area of the brain stem releases of a variety of chemicals. Norepinephrine, a hormone, that in turn causes the Adrenal glands to release and pump out Adrenaline. Adrenaline increases our heart rate and raises our metabolism in anticipation hearts beat faster, our blood pressure increase, our pulses to race, us to sweat, and for us to breath heavily. The brain also reroutes our blood from the stomach to our muscles and other vital areas of the body while it releases blood sugar, lactic acid and other chemicals, all to get the body ready to pound a mugger’s head in, or to run like a rabbit.  These chemicals are effectively toxins that give our bodies a quick jump-start.  This “shot of adrenaline” is critical to our survival but this barrage of chemicals effects our emotions and leaves us feeling anxious, worried, and even paranoid—even when the danger isn’t real.

We tend to think of the Flight-Fight Reflex as an all or nothing proposition, but is it?  What about small dangers that we encounter that don’t escalate into a full-blown crisis?  In these cases the brain still releases chemicals and prepares our bodies for battle.  Blood is rerouted, smaller amount of chemicals are released instead of an immediate response the brain gradually puts us on alert, effectively changing our body chemistry and putting a long-term stress on our major biological systems.

Let’s again take a look at what is happening to our bodies: our heart rate increases.  An accelerated heart rate is useful in a crisis but a chronic increase leads to high blood pressure.  We breath faster providing more oxygen, but when the condition is chronic it causes chest pains from a tired, strained diaphragm.  Digestion stops as blood leaves the stomach; this causes a variety of digestive problems and aggravates ulcers.  Blood leaves the hands, head, and feet, which causes headache, and cold hands and feet.  Coagulation of the blood increases, which increases the likelihood of blood clots and strokes.  Muscles tense in anticipation of an attack; which leads to chronic muscle pain and fatigue.  In short, if we expose ourselves to low-grade stresses we use our body in  a way in which it was never intended and it wears our.  Just as building that were designed to withstand a great force all at once will gradually fall apart from years of light wear, so to will our bodies fall apart from constant exposure to stress.

Some of you maybe thinking, “okay this makes sense, but I don’t exactly have a whole lot of danger in my life, but I still have a whole lot of stress.”  I doubt any of us have no dangers around us, although I grant you most of the dangers that our bodies perceive aren’t real.

Most communication is non-verbal, in other words, most information we gather about our surroundings comes from our senses, and not from what we read or that is spoken to us.  Our senses are barraged with input that our brain sorts and filters and decides what is important.  We need only take a moment, close our eyes and listen to the noises in the room.  How many previously unnoticed noises do you hear?  All our senses are gathering data at a blinding speed and storing it in the wonderful and amazing database of our brain.  Some of these inputs the brain decides are worthy of the attention of the conscious mind while others it stores in our subconscious mind for later retrieval and use if necessary.

The brain rightfully judges much of the input from our senses as benign, while other information is matched up against our database to see if it is indicative of danger.  If one smells smoke, one is likely to investigate the cause.  Why?  Is the smell of smoke so unpleasant that we should immediately eradicate it?  No.  Why then do we investigate the smell of smoke?  To be sure there is no danger of fire.  So what does any of this have to do with stress?  As infants we gather and catalog sensory input, some of these inputs we categorize as harmless and others we categorize as harmful.  We are confronted with many things we’ve programmed ourselves to see as potential hazards.   Take for instance the baby crying on an airplane.  We know that babies cry for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with any sort of danger to us, yet the baby’s cry produces physiological responses in our body because our subconscious catalog equates crying with danger.

But in many cases, our poor brains don’t have enough information to make an informed decision as to whether or not sound the alarms so it assumes the worst.  In the early days of humanity mankind didn’t have the luxury of mistakes, if Grog ate the blue food and died, the rest of the tribe steered clear of blue food, reasoning it was better to miss out on a culinary delight that it is to die an agonizing death from ingesting poison. The idea that what you don’t know can kill you is hard wired into our brains, and the human animal has adapted to this such that if we don’t have enough information we fill in the gaps with the worst case scenario.

Other superstitions grew out of man’s need to accurately predict the outcome of serious situations, like a major battle or the harvest crops.  Desperate to predict the future, man turned to oracles, mystics, and fortunetellers.  Primitive societies didn’t have a whole lot of stress as we know it, but they had their fair share of death.

The optimists among us are now shaking their heads and decrying this as heresy, but consider this situation: your boss tells everyone in the department (except you) that they are to be in a mandatory meeting at 9:00 a.m. the next morning.  When you ask your boss if you need to be there, your boss says, “No, I just need to see everyone else.”  You ask similarly tight-lipped co-workers who tell you “they aren’t allowed to talk about the meeting, or what it’s about.”  Now ask yourself, is the purpose of the meeting to plan a surprise party for you or is some sinister plot afoot.  Is this example really so absurd?  What responsible parent tells a child “if a stranger offers you a ride, you take it!  You never know when another stranger will be by and the next stranger may not offer!”  Even the friendliest parents will tell their children not to talk to strangers.  Why?  Aren’t strangers just friends we haven’t met yet?  Of course we warn our children about strangers because of a potential threat, not an actual threat.  Our brains treat the nonverbal, subconscious input in the exact same way, when in doubt, sound the alarm.  The brain figures that is better to have chemicals that we don’t need than it is to need chemicals that we don’t have; but this is not necessarily a healthy outlook.

What’s worse is that because our brains respond to the absence of information in the same way it does to real danger indicators. Our brains must assume that information that is not in the danger database is a threat; if it assumes a perception is benign when it is malignant the body is completely vulnerable.  But if the brain assumes the perception is malignant when it is actually benign the body is still ready for action and assumes no real risk.  A lack of information from an authority figure will lead to paranoia.  If our bosses don’t talk to us we convince ourselves that our boss doesn’t like us.  If the silence continues we may convince ourselves that our boss intends to fire us.  Left unchecked, this fear may make us dislike our boss to the point where we quit or act out and get fired.

To complicate matters, non-verbal warnings may not even come from our own senses, often we are victims of “herd stress”.  Herd stress is where an individual picks up the stress of his or her surroundings.  Watch a documentary on the animals of Africa and you will see an excellent example of herd stress.  A herd of gazelles stand leisurely grazing.  Suddenly one tenses at a hint of danger.  Within seconds the whole herd is on full alert and in the blink of an eye the herd stampedes as one, out of harms way.  Are we humans so different?  When we pick up nonverbal cues that indicate that someone around us is stressed, we become stressed.  Why?  Because our brains sense that even though it can detect no danger, perhaps someone else in the tribe has perceived danger.  Our bodies will react without waiting to see if the threat is real. Think of this as the “lookout reflex”.  Our bodies rely on “look outs” to warn it of dangers that it either has not detected or has not yet cataloged as dangers.

Picture our senses as our bodies’ radar.  We gather information about our physical environment and scan for dangers.  If our senses pick up no sign of danger we are completely relaxed.  If on the other hand, our bodies detect potential dangers it puts our bodies on alert; the level of alertness corresponds to the level of the perceived danger.  The United States military uses a system to rate security threats on a five-point scale.  Defcon 5 represents the lowest level of threat while Defcon 1 represents the highest.  This is an apt analogy for our bodies system for evaluating danger.  When we are relaxing and having fun our internal radar has sensed no threats and so it offers no reaction, it’s at Defcon 5.  But as the subconscious mind identifies potential threats, it moves us to  a more heightened state, Defcon 4 if the threats need to be monitored but prove no immediate threat, Defcon 3 if the threats are more serious and so on.

Anything that interferes with our ability to correctly monitor the dangers around us causes de facto stress.  Listening to music so loud that we can’t hear an ambulance siren is very stressful, for example.  Our internal radar is jammed so we must drop to Defcon 3 since that is the only way our subconscious can be sure that we are protected.  Great! So we have to sit around in silence or stress will kill us, right? Silence can also stress us.   Nature teems with noises from crickets chirping to birds singing.  Silence in the forest usually signals a danger is looming.  The last thing one hears before the leopard attacks is an unnerving silence before the roar.  By surrounding yourself with silence you may be added to your stress.  Our bodies need and expect to hear some ambient noise, without some noise our radar may believe the senses are malfunctioning, or that the lack of noise is just the silence before the roar.  Remember our brains didn’t construct the danger database in a vacuum, rather it assigned meaning to each of the inputs it received.  The popularity of recordings of natural sounds (waves crashing, wolves howling, rain falling) is testament to the soothing affects of nature.

So much of the information we receive is non-verbal and subconscious that sometimes we see some “unexplained” phenomenon, like psychic flashes and premonitions.  Have you ever had a dream that foretold the future?  Predicted the death of a loved one?  While there are cases where such phenomenon can not be readily dismissed in many cases these psychic emanations are nothing more mysterious than our subconscious mind reading clues that our conscious minds miss and predicting a likely outcome.    Take the psychic flash that foretells the death of someone you know.  Isn’t it plausible that your internal radar picked up  nonverbal cues from the person (subtle changes in skin color, behavior, tone of voice, weight, etc,) that gave your subconscious a clue that all was not well with the person’s physical condition, even though the person may not have been aware of his or her own weakening physical state?

Our dreams our where our brains make sense of all the accumulated information and sometimes provide us with meaningful information about our waking world.  Our dreams may warn us of a potential problem, or may just be telling us that it now understands all the information it gathered and has decided the all the information it gathered is harmless.  Either way, our dreams can be an important source of information about the source of stress in our lives.  In most cases, our dreams our meaningless, left over information that our subconscious mind doesn’t know what it should do with.  Should it file it in the danger database or throw the information away.  Dreams are the mechanism for our subconscious minds to make the subconscious cognative.

Defensive behaviors that remain after the danger has been removed are called superstitions.  Most superstitions are rooted in fact.  For example, spilling salt is considered bad luck because salt was once a highly prized and somewhat rare commodity.  Salt was necessary for preserving food and was used to pay part of Roman soldiers’ wages.  Spilling salt, and thus losing it, was literally losing currency.  Spilling (and losing) one’s paycheck would generally be considered unlucky by anyone’s standard.  Spilling salt is no longer all that unlucky in and off itself.  Modern refrigeration and mining techniques make salt plentiful and less necessary (many of us intentionally avoid it!)  But in many people’s minds, spilling salt is still unlucky.  The irony of stress and superstition is that many superstitious people create the stress associated with dangers that that modern technology has eliminated.

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, , , , , , , , ,

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