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Rules are rules, or are they?

02 June 2020

In the context of mixed messages about the lockdown, Gary Fallaize, RRC managing director, discusses the need for leadership and how best to manage behavioural change.

It has been an interesting week in the UK with much debate over the interpretation of rules and more controversially, who they apply to.  

Some of our politicians' dissembling  has helped compound the confusion at times, some seeming to agree that driving 60 miles to check your eyesight is acceptable behaviour.

This follows a change in government public health messaging from the clear unambiguous “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives,” to the less clear “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives.” The lack of clarity or ambiguity in this new statement was explained that people would use their common sense.  

As somebody involved in health & safety and training, I must admit to being both amazed and somewhat disturbed by these recent events as it is contrary to what is seen to be good practice in the management of health and safety. In normal times much could be excused as normal politics but as we are in a public health “crisis” or “emergency,” I appreciate even the choice of word would be seen as exhibiting political bias. It is a challenge to comprehend the thinking behind some of these actions.

Lockdown has been tough for many, but has on the whole been successful, and delivered the stated aim of reducing the spread of the virus and ultimately saving lives. To deliver such a substantive behavioral change in such a short time was a significant achievement, something many of us will appreciate with our attempts to change culture in our own organisations. Much of the success was down to the clear instruction to “stay at home” for a purpose to “save lives” the vast majority of us could understand and relate to.

But with the weakening of the instruction and recent events there is increasing evidence of this success fast eroding and it is difficult to see how the situation can be recovered.

Leadership and managing behavioural change

There are some obvious lessons about leadership and managing behavioural change, if we avoid the politics and dissembling. Leadership is key and must include leading by example. In my early days working in the accounts department of what was then a brewery, now a shopping centre, the financial directors frequent golf afternoons did not provide the motivation for his teams to put that extra bit of effort in to meet deadlines.

A bit later in my career a far smarter leader used to apologise and ask if there was anything we needed on the few occasions she had to leave early, surprisingly enough even the toughest deadlines were met.

The same principles apply to safety leadership, you cannot expect those working for you to follow rules you do not follow yourself. Plus you need to inspire and bring everybody with you.

There are also lessons in messaging. Instructions must be clear, unambiguous and make sense. “Danger of death” is a stark but clear warning. “Do not enter” is a very straight forward instruction. The suggestions that on matters of safety we should allow people to use common sense is interesting. Common sense is a combination of knowledge and experience and this differs greatly from person to person. To be a viable alternative to clear messaging and rules, all those expected to use common sense to avoid danger, would need to have full knowledge and understanding of the risks they will encounter. I find most people exhibit excellent common sense in obvious matters of safety but this quickly diminishes with the less obvious.  

We are a rule based society and when you get to the workplace good safety requires clear work instructions, method statements, risk assessments, training etc to ensure people work effectively and safely.  For these to work they must be reasonable, and to some degree, a good safe common sense approach to a specific task. Rules will be broken if they are seen to be written by people with little understanding of the specific task.

But once rules are agreed they must be adhered to by all, if some are seen to bend or break them others will follow. That does not mean they cannot be reviewed and improved but this needs a process and engagement with those directly involved.

as you can see I have been skirting around some of the more controversial issues, but my final observation is that driving is not a recommended way to check if your eyesight is working and an excellent example of where common sense cannot be fully trusted.