Compliance or Defiance?

by Dr Rob Long on February 15, 2013

in Construction Safety,Robert Long

Compliance or Defiance?

I heard a Manager say recently, “If we try and make it idiot proof then someone will just find us a bigger idiot” Dave Smile

Guest post by Dr Rob Long from

idiotIt’s a strange thing this binary thinking that uses the strategy of entrapment to beat its own drum. I have been coaching in safety leadership all week on building and construction sites and the binary mindset creates so many problems. Rather than actually trying to understand why people make decisions and judgments, the popular response is to label someone as ‘an idiot’. Once a person is labelled as an idiot, they no longer need to be taken seriously nor, treated humanly. The black and white mindset assists the dehumanization of risk too.

In the building and construction culture it seems you are either intelligent or you an idiot, there is no in between. The ‘black and white’ is so attractive yet, it doesn’t explain reality, nor does it help in approaching a conversation about safety. Instead, such language and thinking tends to suppress conversation and perpetuates a lack of effective communication on site. The language of zero does similar, creating a dichotomy by setting an absolute as a goal. The same sees to apply to the issue of compliance, the black and white mindset sees either compliance or defiance. Yet, in reality, there are many reasons why people make mistakes, succumb to error or miss the mark, and none of it is intentional.

We know from research in psychology (Fromm, Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, Sanford) that the authoritarian personality type (F Type) is most attracted to fascism, fundamentalism and bullying. The key elements of the authoritarian type are:

· Rigid beliefs about right and wrong.

· Compliance with orthodox authority.

· Belief in aggression toward those who do not comply with authority or who are different.

· A negative ‘black and white’ view of people in general.

· The demand for ‘strong’ leadership and associated power.

· A belief in simple answers and polemics.

· Resistance to creative ideas.

· A black and white worldview.

· A tendency to work through fear and project problems on to others.

We also know from social psychology (Zimbardo, Slovic, Plous, Caldini, Sunstein) that there are many social reasons why people make decisions. We also know that a range of cognitive and social biases and effects, influence human judgements in ways that are not conscious. So, if people are not conscious of many of their choices, how can they be blamed for being defiant? How does such blaming enable effective conversations about safety and risk? How do these filters in language ‘block’ relationships and accountability for risk on site?

photo credit: fatllama via photopin cc

  • Gary Bliss

    In understanding human reasoning on safety, we find that some people will try anything when someone or something else says differently. There is a difference between obedience and rebellion in that rebellion can happen out of a lack of knowledge, or because they care only about themselves and what they want to be right about. Obedience is trying to comly with what is asked yet not quite getting there because what is asked is not understood whereby we must be sure what we say about safety is understood from an eighth grade education.

  • Morning all, I agree with Rob. Making errors and lapses in judgement are all part of the human condition. Accepting that people are error prone and that people are the inventors, creators, designers, architects, engineers, builders, and operators of all workplace systems then it isn’t a big step to accept that all workplaces have a degree of ‘error’ built into them. My view is that we add layers of complexity to our world and occasionally over intellectualise problems. Fundamentally, workplace health and safety is about communication or rather failures in communication. That is communication between people and between people and the environment. Two roadblocks to good communication are ignorance (I didn’t know/wasn’t told) and arrogance (It can’t happen). Clear these roadblocks from communication pathways and you’re on your way to safer systems of work. If human error lurks around the corner in every human system, then we should all become hunters and track down errors or more situationally mindful.

  • Larry Hoekstra

    Since employees (primarily men) do not like rules and regulations, how about empowering them to treat other employees with repect and human dignity? Employees will do the right thing when given the opportunity. Don’t just focus employees on safety rules and regulations, and the emphasis on compliance with the regulations!
    Holding employees responsible for each other’s well being might be the key to creating a safe work environment. Creating an environment where they “have each other’s back” brings personal responsibility into the equation and internalizes the formal safety training. In an environment where employees are able to confront each other about personal safety concerns everyone wins!

  • Khalid Iqbal

    Make sense…I am sure these kind of tags are consciously on unconsciously use many places, states and countries what you have mentioned in your article. Make thinking sense to Safety professionals as well as HoDs that how their company or people handle the tough situation..taking as challenges or making challenges for others…

  • Roy Fitzgerald

    Unfortunately the local norms, habits and political influence become recursive work practices and gain momentum. The very well-known and practiced procedures used to assist with uniformity in work activities,designed to ‘control’; start to deviate and we have quasi-procedures over-ride the decision making processes at all levels. It maybe those that do not align which get the ‘idiot’ tag, no less than the idiot who runs a red traffic light. I have muttered “idiot” a few times in such situations. Compliance is about those that apply the rules and those that don’t. It is a dichotomy of the ‘known’ way or another way. With work places, human errors may be due to inadvertance (the slips and lapses) but mistakes tend to merge towards non-conformance to the work system and non compliance with statutory ‘rules’. Rule breakers tend to gain momentum with their practices and while gaining momentum a new ontological context increases under heated pressure cannot be sustained, blame, misunderstandings and we have ‘fusion’ – local epistemological consequences follow. What people know about ‘compliance’ and how they came to ‘know’ about it is a mirror of the decision-making process. Non-compliance, as unintentional as it is, does not excuse the pilot who crashes a plane into zero ground level.

  • Calling someone an idiot is a good approach, it means you do not spend time figuring out what really went wrong and you do not have to do something constructive to fix it.I remember one bloke I used to work with who had a big drinking problem and did some silly things, most people dismissed him.Get him alone and off the grog and he was a smart man.

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