What We Don't See

By Chris Chittenden

By our nature, human beings generally do not take in everything about the situation in which they find themselves at any given time. We tend to be focussed on a specific something and the rest is just background. This applies to our physical environment as well as the activities we undertake.

For example, have you ever driven a car when you had a major concern on your mind and suddenly wondered how you had gotten to where you were? The driving just happened for you because you had done it so many times before and this allowed you to focus on the concern you held at that time. You were able to take in the physical surrounds, perform the actions that controlled the car and yet you weren't aware of those actions.

Each of us does this background activity every day of our lives. We call this "transparency". In other words, a transparency is something we do not see but that is there none the less. So many things are transparent to us. Many of them are the basic actions we do in life such as walking, writing and so on. They are things that are so well learned we do not have to focus on the activity any more when we do it. They are all things that we learnt to do at one point in our life and now they are our habits.

When a transparency is disturbed in some way, we become aware of our activity and focus on it. We term this a "breakdown". To continue our example of driving a car, a breakdown in the transparency of driving would occur if we blew a tyre. Immediately, our attention would shift to our driving and we would focus on that activity above all others.

What does all this have to do with health, safety and environment? The answer is that we undertake many activities at work transparently. We have done something so many times before without a problem, we do not focus on the activity at hand. We expect certain things to happen as they have always done and sometimes when they don't, we get hurt.

Where does our coaching work come into this? One thing about breakdowns is that they do not need to just occur, as human beings, we can purposely create them. The key is to first identify that a transparency exists. This can be done in any number of ways but essentially someone needs to focus on the things being done in the work place and then be able to identify which ones are habitual.

This has always been a fundamental role of the consultants who are brought into organisations. They come in with a new set of eyes, and see things that are transparent to those who work in the organisation. They then help create the breakdowns from which the organisation can change the way it does things for the better.

Once identified, if it is felt that a transparent activity poses a potential danger, then a breakdown needs to be declared. Simply pointing out the activity to those who are engaged in it will break the transparency but may well not do so for long. Habitual behaviour is difficult to change, so it is important that the process of declaring the breakdown is handled effectively.

Firstly, consider the mood in which this activity is taking place. If there is generally a negative mood, you will need to consider ways of changing that before seeking to declare the breakdown. One way to shift the mood is to couch the breakdown in personal terms that relate to the people involved. "How would you feel if you can't do your favourite activity because you injured yourself at work?" In many cases, people do not see what affect a potential work place injury may have on the rest of their life, so this can have a very potent impact on them.

Once those involved in the activity accept the breakdown and the need for change, speculate with them about ways of breaking the habitual behaviour.

Once it decided what changes are to be implemented, seek public declarations from those involved about their intention to break their habits. Such a declaration will hold individuals accountable to the group about their actions and is a very strong motivator for change.

Finally ensure very clear requests are made and accepted about what needs to be done. In future editions, we will expand on how to make effective requests and offers and manage the promises that ensue.

We believe many accidents occur in the workplace because people simply do not see the danger they are in. Look around your business. If you feel there are transparent practices that are creating dangerous situations why not give our office a call and get one of our consultants to come and talk to you.

We would be delighted to work with you by showing you new ways of observing situations and who knows, it may save a life.

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© 1999 Chris Chittenden