If It Feels Like Blame and Shame…It Is

By Phil La Duke

Blame isn't pretty

Blame isn’t pretty

A few weeks ago, I posted “A @#$@ Storm In Texas” a commentary on how alarming it was that The Boston Marathon drew so much media and public attention while the explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas garnered almost no attention outside the professional safety community.  In the introduction that is required when sharing a link in a LinkedIn discussion thread I made the comment that it was time for Safety professionals to “step up or shut up”.  My comment was directed at those safety professionals who, for years, had been bragging up the decrease in worker injuries and “flat” fatalities as if they had single-handedly had ushered in a Golden Age of worker safety.  My contention was that if one claims credit for one circumstance (in this case safety improvements) one must shoulder the blame for circumstances that are disastrous.  I didn’t even imply that safety professionals were responsible for these disasters, and most safety professionals didn’t take it as an accusation.

The harder I tried to point out that if the mouth breathers had actually read the post with even them most rudimentary reading comprehension skills they would understand that I wasn’t assigning blame to anyone in this post. Still the outrage persisted; people who look to take offense will seldom be disappointed.

This is generally where an author writes some simpering apology detailing all the regret that his words may have caused some of the readers; screw that.  I stand by what I WROTE and bear no guilt for what someone infers from my writing, and frankly those who took offense did so solely of there own volition. Whether it be because of fragile egos, general neediness, penchants for drama-queen hissy fits, or legitimate guilty conscious, I refuse to plea mea culpa for something I neither said nor intended. This week, with its flood of crybaby hate mail helped me to realize a deeper truth about one of my favorite targets: Behaviour-Based Safety (BBS).

One of the strongest criticisms of BBS is that it “blames the worker”, this tends to be dismissed by BBS proponents as patently untrue and a construct of organized labour who, they contend, oppose BBS because it holds workers accountable for unsafe behaviours.  For the record, I don’t speak for organized labour, but their opposition to BBS goes far beyond the propensity, in its mind, for BBS to blame the workers.  Furthermore, it isn’t just organized labour that accuse BBS of fomenting a “blame and shame” environment.  So who’s right? I really struggled with this, because a) some really bright people who I respect immensely support BBS and they assure me that BBS doesn’t blame workers for injuries and b) I have first-hand knowledge of BBS systems that HAVE created environments where workers feel as if they are being blamed for being injured.

Intent Is Meaningless

The backlash from the Texas post taught me a lot about blame and shame, and, in so doing, taught me a lot about BBS and blame. First, and most importantly, if someone feels blamed and shamed, they ARE blamed and shamed.  Blame is something someone does, but the resulting shame is a feeling wholly originating within the recipient. We can’t control how we FEEL and if we feel that we are being blamed than our emotional reaction is the same as if we were actually being blamed.  So perception, not intention is key.  Whether or not I intend to blame someone for being injured—and this applies not just to BBS but to any safety system where workers feel as if they are being punished, denied reward, or ostracized for an injury—is effectively immaterial, what matters is whether or not the other person feels blamed.  It should matter whether or not we intend to create those feelings, but it doesn’t; if people feel persecuted there really isn’t any emotional difference between that state and instances where the person is indeed being persecuted.  It’s a bit like the old saying, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that everyone isn’t out to get you”; perception IS reality.

Right and Wrong Don’t Matter

Emotions are powerful, often ugly things.  Hit someone at a visceral level and you are likely to see a side of them you would have preferred had gone forever undisclosed.  Whether the person has correctly interpreted your words and intentions or is so far off base that they leave you wondering if they are from this planet, in the end it doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong in their conclusions, the emotion still remains and we need to deal with them.

Guilt By Proxy

People love incentive programs—I’ve seen grown men and women sink to the pettiest of indignities for a free baseball hat with a logo on it or some dopey trinket that they neither want nor need—but even the finest incentive program can leave feeling people left out, blamed, and victimized simply because they didn’t get a prize.  The person who blows the safety BINGO by being injured may feel blamed and shamed (irrespective of intent, stay with me people). Even the person who doesn’t get recognized for contributing a suggestion to make the work place safety may intensely resent the person who receives the award who eventually begins to feel blamed.

When Is Enough Truly Enough

Political correctness and sensitivity witch-hunts happen when an organization worries so much about the potential for offending a minority of the population that it takes ridiculous measures to prevent anyone from ever possibly taking offense.  Should we buckle under to the pressure to make sure that no one gets offended? It will come, I’m sure, as no surprise that I think people should grow up.  I am against any attempt to deliberately offend people for offense’s sake, but do we really have to shut down programs that the wide majority of the people in our organization like and enjoy simply because someone complains? I think not.  Sometimes people just need to feel the hurt and let it go.  The real question is how much inadvertent blame and hurt feelings can your organization tolerate? Emotions are powerful and difficult to defuse and they can lead to everything to strikes to workplace violence, so we can’t just decide to let the crybabies whine.  Where is the line between common sense and political correctness? I don’t know and frankly that is really for each organization to decide, but as is so often the case I don’t know where the line is until after I have crossed it.

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