Sometimes it’s good to just not think. And then sometimes its good to think, but about nothing in particular. And sometimes, that thinking leads you to places from which some insight emerges, like about balance, averages, mediocrity and what we don’t know.
Hey, it’s Andrew, and this is Safety on Tap.
Since you’re listening in, you must be a leader wanting to grow yourself and drastically improve health and safety along the way. Welcome to you, you’re in the right place. If this is your first time listening in, thanks for joining us and well done for trying something different to improve! And of course welcome back to all of you wonderful regular listeners.
I am really excited to be back with you for 2019, if you are listening soon after this comes out. In this episode I share with you a few reflections from the break which I thought would be helpful to get your cogs turning, and I have some gifts for you towards the end of this episode.
First and foremost, I wish you and your family a very happy new year. I’ve talked before about the arbitrariness of things like numbers and dates, and that these things only have meaning because we give them meaning. For me, the date of new year’s isn’t such a special time, but the turn of the year is. What I mean is, the time leading up to Christmas, a break or vacation, and the beginning of the new year. It’s like a slowing down, and then a speeding up. A natural time for pause. I hope you got whatever you hoped for out of that period. I spent a few weeks interstate with family, food, and having fun. I don’t sit still or relax very well, and I managed to improve that skill this holidays.
I also recognise that Christmas is a Christian tradition (yes, for those of you who haven’t ever thought about it that much, the first syllable of Christmas is Christ, as in Jesus Christ), and that there are a large number of people on this planet, maybe who listen to this podcast, and maybe at your workplace or in your community, who are not Christian or do not celebrate Christmas as a holiday. I don’t shy away from this, in fact it occurred to me over the break that there is kind of a beautiful subtlety to Christmas for non-Christians. Most of us will take some time away from work, whether that be at home or going on a holiday vacation. Some of us will continue to work through, which if you’re not in retail means making the most of the quiet time when the phone doesn’t ring, customers aren’t asking for anything, the boss is away, the commute is quicker. The beautiful subtlety is that Christmas has its historical roots in the idea of giving, where Christ was seen as a gift to the world, a tradition we continue when we give gifts to loved ones. So the fact that Christians celebrate Christmas, in many ways, is a benefit to them, and a gift to those who don’t celebrate. How nice is that!
You can tell I’ve had some time to think about things, sometimes at the more obscure end of the spectrum like that.
One of those things is this idea of work-life balance, which my brother got me thinking about. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never felt like my work and life have been in balance. Ever. I’m not the only one, beginning around 2017 there seemed to be a fair amount of chatter that we needed to leave the concept behind, and think about another more appropriate one. Some have suggested work-life integration, work-life harmony, and work-life blend. I don’t like integration because it seems business-ey, and almost cold and clinical, like work ever so slightly gets one-up on life because it’s a corporate BS word. Harmony I think is quite fluffy, since it’s actually a word which is used to describe music, and has been misappropriated by lots of non-music users. Blend I don’t like because it makes me think of things which are violently combined, as in a blender, to make almost a homogenous mix, where you can’t tell the difference between one or the other, in fact it creates something new entirely. That’s not appealing to me at all, whilst I love the idea of ikigai bringing together work and other aspects of life, I don’t like the word blend.
So I don’t think balance is really achievable, and I don’t like some of the popular alternatives. That got me thinking about what does good work-life blank actually look like? How had I experienced it in my life, and when was it problematic? This is kind of a way of thinking which comes from innovation – reverse thinking. Instead of me trying to think of the word, just focus on what the word is describing, and the word might appear.
The first thing that struck me is that the relationship between work and life is always changing. No month, week or even day is the same. And when things are going well, I find that I am actively thinking about, planning, and managing the relationship between work and life. It gets energy from me. In fact it probably requires energy, in the form of thinking, time, planning, adapting, and resisting slippage. When it’s not going so well, I am kind of in default mode, not investing energy in it, rather falling back on flimsy generalisations about this priority or that, my role as breadwinner vs all the other roles I have in life, not listening to feedback from important people.
The word which appears was dynamic. Work-life dynamic. I wanted to see if my understanding of the word matched the common definition, and compare it to the definition of balance. This is what I found.
The definition of balance is ‘an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady’, ‘a situation in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions’, ‘offset or compare the value of (one thing) with another’. All of these were consistent with the problems I saw in what the term work-life balance conveys.
So how did dynamic compare? The dictionary said ‘(of a process or system) characterized by constant change, activity, or progress’, ‘(of a person) positive in attitude and full of energy and new ideas’, and ‘a force that stimulates change or progress within a system or process’. Constant change. Positive attitude, energy, stimulating change. I hit the nail on the head.
I thought my reflections on that might be helpful for you as you lean into 2019. Like me, maybe you would benefit from a little less striving for balance, and a little more focus on managing and investing in the dynamic of your work and life.
All of that got me thinking about other words and concepts we use, and how they might be undermining our effectiveness.
Balance is defined using words like equal, static, steady, correct proportions. If you are using the term work-life balance at work say in the context of a health and wellbeing program, that could be undermined when the systems and structures and people and behaviours are inflexible (even if they have the word flexible in them), if they are not changing to adapt to the changing needs of your people, your context. And definitely they will be undermined if you have a one-size-fits-all approach to your support or information or services, where you might think there are ‘correct proportions’ of people, demographics, risk factors or needs and from on high you or your business proclaim that you are supporting or enabling work-life balance. The irony there is that might be exactly what you are doing according to the definition, and that might be the total opposite of what you and your people actually need.
That then got me thinking about the way we work with numbers and concepts related to numbers and the stories we tell with these. I believe that one of the most simple concepts we use which is abhorrent is the humble average. The reason why it’s abhorrent is because we use it in isolation, forgetting the context which defines it’s existence. This might get a little nerdy, if it isn’t already, but indulge me for a bit and I promise I have a point.
The average is a number used to describe one characteristic of a set of data. It’s the sum of all data points in the set, divided by the number of data points. Let’s take height as an example. In any group, a workplace, your family, everyone in the supermarket, you measure the height of every person. You get a list of the various heights, and have a total number of measurements. You can calculate the average height. That average height is unlikely to be the exact height of any one individual person, thought it could be. So the average already is starting to become removed from the individual people in the group you are trying to describe, by using that number. Let’s then say we decide to make an average door for these people, because we know their average height. In most data sets of more than a handful of data points, what that means, if that about half the people will comfortably walk through the door. And half will have to duck, or hit their head. The average is a mathematically valid, and practically useless. So if that didn’t work, let’s take the measurements of leg length, so we can make some pants for this group of people. The differences in leg length will look a lot like the differences in height. We take an average, and we make the average pair of pants for everyone. This time, the short people and the tall people all get shafted, the pants don’t fit any of them. There might be one or a few people who get just the right length pants, which is actually a pure coincidence that their leg length is the same as the average. If there were a few more or less people in the data set, they wouldn’t fit those apparently average people.
Of course, averages are not used like this, for obvious reasons. What’s not so obvious is why. These data sets create what’s called a mathematical distribution. In large data sets, often this takes the shape of the familiar bell-curve, or normal distribution. The irony of that term is that there is no such thing as normal, every data point, every person, every attribute we are trying to measure, is unique. That’s where other statistical measures like median, mode, and standard deviation can be helpful. But none of these things take away the fact that each data point is unique. The other thing to note about these statistical measures is that they tell you literally nothing in small data sets, where there are few data points.
So my question for you is, when do you use things like averages to shape a certain narrative or influence a certain decision? When do you use other equally flawed data to try and create meaning, on questionable grounds? How helpful is the average days lost for a workers compensation claim, in actually affecting the outcomes of those individuals? Lost time statistics are similar, and so are a bunch of lead indicators like number of leadership walks or inspections or average time to close out corrective actions. Unless you are a State regulator looking at massive data sets, or a huge company with a serious safety problem, are your data sets large enough to provide a legitimate insight, or are you shaping some convincing story which stretches what the data is able to tell us?
And most of all, how are you ensuring that you don’t fall into the trap of very human, very complex things being reduced down to flimsy numbers?
So what can you do?
Firstly, work out whether you are twisting any stats and data in the way I’ve suggested might happen. I guarantee you will find something. Then ask yourself whether there is a better way to tell the story from the stats. Let’s use Lost Time Frequency Rate as an example. A business has 100 people, working 38 hour weeks, 48 weeks per year. They have an industry average LTIFR of 2.1. If this business has one single lost time injury, their LTIFR is 5.48, more than twice the industry average. Oh my gosh, the Board will want a special report, we need to implement a program to reduce this, the graph on the report looks so steep! None of these numbers matter. You would be better placed to orient your narrative around the individual person who was hurt, and how they are going. Focus on learning from the incident, and answering the question whether there is a systemic issue here or not. If your numbers don’t tell you anything useful, stop using them, and explain why. I will take a wager with anyone that an argument like that will be met with a positive response from your leaders. And what if you have some requirements for keeping data like this, say for Regulatory or client requirements? Well, take the lead from a large construction company here in Australia, who shared with me that they record things like Lost time rates, but this is invisible to their business. The data is only supplied to the client, and the company is very clear in explaining that the data is meaningless to them, so they do not let it sway their focus from more important things. That might sound like some sort of conscientious objection, which I suppose it is, but it’s firstly true, secondly still contractually compliant, but thirdly and most relevantly, its demonstrating true health and safety leadership which is influencing their entire supply chain.
Averages are dangerous. They can be misused. They are often inappropriate and thus useless for helping us be more effective in influencing positive change. And no one really gets excited thinking about what’s average, and aiming for merely being above average or merely incrementally shifting the average. Meh.
Now that thought got me thinking about what it means to be average. Mediocre. Not good, not bad, middle of the road. Its an interesting question to ask. A guy called Svenson, and yes he did come from Sweden, asked the same question of a bunch of drivers. When considering their individual driving skills, what percentage rating would they give their driving skills in relation to all other drivers on the road? With Zero being amongst the least skilled drivers, and 100 being amongst the most skilled. You may have heard of this before, so stay with me while we join the dots with what I was sharing earlier. 93% of people in the US sample considered themselves above 50%, or statistically speaking, above average. Now the nuance comes in the way this was worded, because it was a relative question (your skills in relation to everyone else’s, spread over 100%), that means its impossible to have 93% of drivers above 50%! This research and many other studies which replicated the effect, led to what is now called the illusory superiority bias, or above-average effect. We all have a tendency to overestimate our skills, ability, knowledge, in comparison to others.
That raised two questions for me. First, what if we are all more average, or mediocre than we think, and second, what does it really mean to be average, or good, or excellent, as a health and safety professional? I don’t have your answers I’m sorry to say, because that’s a reflective question, a learning question, for you. You might find it helpful to listen to a few previous episodes which could point you in the right direction. Episodes 41, 42 and 69 with Dave Provan should be really helpful, since Dave is a world leading researcher and thought leader in the area of the role of health and safety professionals. Part of what his research touches on is the tension that exists between what we think business needs, and what business thinks they need from us. Episode 56 called ‘Know your Customer’ will help you reflect on and come to better understand the latter.
And finally, all of this left me wondering about what we don’t know about what we don’t know. If we all think we are above average, and we daresay couldn’t all consistently and confidently put our finger on what exactly it means to be an above average safety leader, then what might we not know? Be oblivious to? Even ignorant?
Well there is a name for that too. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after a professor and his research student who together took illusory superiority to a new level in their experiments. They had a bunch of people undertake a range of challenges, to do with logic, grammar, and judging whether jokes were funny. No surprise that when each person rated their own performance in relation to the rest of the group, the above-average bias was shown. But the interesting bit is that when they compared perceived performance with actual performance, the people who performed the worst were the group who most wildly overestimated their performance, and those who performed best actually underestimated their ability. The name of their paper, says it all: “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. The best bit is that by improving skills and knowledge, the effect reduces (basically, the more competent you become, the better aware you are of your competence). So investing in yourself to learn and grow this year is a good investment. Because if you think that you are doing ok, you’re above average, maybe, just maybe, you aren’t. Either way, learning and growing is only going to help you improve your competence, your quality and value to the people you serve, and your overall effectiveness.
So it’s my wish for you in 2019, that you are able to give first, and give more, which I believe will lead to you receiving in return. I wish for you not to achieve work-life balance, kind of like chasing a unicorn, but to invest energy in managing your work-life dynamic, dynamically. I wish that you can tell honest stories with meaningful data. I wish that you preserve and strengthen your engagement with and commitment to the humans at the centre of our mission as leaders, and you make a compelling case for that kinds approach to the people within your sphere of influence. I wish you are able to make investments in your learning and growth this year, and forget about average, and shoot for amazing.
I would love to hear your thoughts, reflections, your discomforts or constructive challenges to the things we’ve discussed in this episode. The best way for us to have a conversation which benefits everyone is to go to safetyontap.com/ep101, and leave a comment. I read and reply to each one, I really value dialogue with you and I respond to personally to every single one.
I promised gifts didn’t I? Adding to the value already on offer with our 101 podcasts, videos, e-books, transcripts, reflective notes and downloads available at safetyontap.com, I want to give you more. And its far more personal. It’s for you.
I will be recording live coaching conversations with people just like you. Coaching is an amazing way to unleash performance improvement. And it’s actually the reason why I started the podcast, when I realised I couldn’t have coaching conversations with the colleagues I had in a job, I wanted to still help people. Now I know the podcast is super helpful for you, because you’ve told me, but it’s not the same as coaching. So it only took me two years to figure out that I should just have coaching conversations which are recorded for the podcast. It makes so much sense!
The way this works is you bring along your number one challenge right now at work, and we’ll spend an hour or so in a real-time coaching discussion to help you work through that. Now I can’t get to everyone obviously, but I know that many of you will have similar challenges, so you get the benefit of super-relevant content, high quality coaching, and all for free! But the only way I can get started with this is if you stick your hand up and say, I would like help. The way to do that is go to the ‘Be a Guest’ link at safetyontap.com, click the free coaching link, and I will be in touch.
The other gift which turns up the dial on the personalisation of this podcast, is featured case studies. Learning from each other, socially, and learning from real life examples, that is experience, is the best way to accelerate your learning. I only have 40 or 50 episodes a year, which isn’t many when you think about all the potential things we can talk about and learn from. And who knows best about what ideas and stories are worth sharing, than you?! I’m inviting you to have an entire podcast episode dedicated to a specific idea, situation, lesson or story, which you think other listeners will benefit from hearing. This is not an interview, this is 100% learning packed case study, your story in your words and your voice. I am giving you the airtime.
Now the interesting thing is that most of you will listen to this, and think, yeah that’s a good idea, I’m keen to hear from other people. You might also be thinking, ‘that’s not me, I don’t have anything interesting or useful to contribute’. I can tell you, given the amount of time I spend talking with people like you, that is not true. You do have something unique to share, something of value, something no one else knows but you. So the airtime is there for the taking. What I’m inviting you to do, is to take the time to reflect and ask yourself, what can I share? I want to hear from you, I want to enable you to tell your story. Go to the ‘Be a Guest’ link at safetyontap.com, click the case study link, and let’s make it happen.
So that’s two gifts, free live coaching podcasts, and listener case study podcasts. I’m excited about these.
The third gift is going to come later in the year. I’ll tease you with it now, because it helps keep me accountable to make it happen, and I’m super excited about this one. If you’ve listened for a while, you’ll know that I bang on about growth and learning and accelerated development a lot. Like Heaps. The reason is firstly that few of us do it well, and secondly that if we improve how we do it, we become drastically more effective. So the teaser is this: imagine if we took social and experiential learning and put it on steroids. If we rallied as hungry leaders around a common challenge we face, and we come together to drive each other and ourselves forward, towards solutions, towards scary action.
Because all of us have these ongoing issues which hold us back, which we can’t figure out, which are a pain for us. Many of us will have these in common. And yet there is no shortage of information out there on these issues or topics, heaps of it, maybe too much. And still we have these issues. So the problem is not that they are unsolvable or the knowledge doesn’t exist, the trouble is that we are not connecting to the knowledge and taking action in a leveraged and intentional way. And it may not work. But it just might work.
I hope you’ll stay tuned, I hope you’ll encourage me to bring you this third gift, and most of all, until next time, I hope you take even more positive, effective or rewarding action, to grow yourself, and drastically improve health and safety along the way! Seeya
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