Heroes are an important element of mythology. As a ‘Safety Mythologist’, I am more than just a bit interested in all kinds of elements of mythology. Let’s take a look at heroes in relation to safety. Not an exhaustive review, but just some musings and reflections.

Believe it or not, heroes are to some degree a problematic thing in Norway. This may come as a surprise, what will all the Viking sagas and their quest for fame through heroic deeds? Well, seems they left that behind when they were done raiding most of the civilized (and part of the then not-yet civilized) world. Sometime in the course of the past 800 years Viking heroism was replaced by something called janteloven that goes against focus on individual achievement and (most likely) against heroism. Yet, you will surely find heroes in the workplace.

Stretchy Heroes

When you look at safety literature, or management literature in general, you may notice that there is also some promotion of heroes or champions. Examples are (top) managers that are to front and promote an implementation, or the people who have brought upon an exceptional performance (e.g. reported many incidents, came up with a great solution, or ‘saved the day’).

Recently, I read a book on behavioural change. This book encouraged managers to compliment performance of a task where the employee is in kind of a ‘stretch’ situation: a task where he either physical or mentally acts at the boundaries of his capacities. Sounds like a typical trait of a hero.

I understand the message, and I even agree under certain conditions. If we want to develop, we often have to go beyond boundaries and stretch ourselves to achieve something. Role models can (and should) be used in a positive way, as an inspiration and an example to follow. There is, however, also an important pitfall hidden in here. The question is what are these people labelled a heroes for? Are we talking about stretching in personal development or is the hero fixing problems with regard to competing objectives? And, as always, there is the question of what side-effects there will be.

This reminded me of the following anecdote that I was told by my friend and colleague Beate Karlsen. I’m sure that similar incidents have happened other places and you can add your own experiences.

The story

Our story takes place at an organisation that manages infrastructure. They are responsible for both the development of new infrastructure, and the maintenance of existing. There were particular challenges with regard to particular critical technical competence that was necessary for both maintenance and construction projects. There were only a few people with this competence.

In order to deal with these challenges and do maintenance and personnel planning in a good manner, the organisation has a Masterplan. This Masterplan looks at planned maintenance 24 months in advance. A more detailed plan is made with a 12 months perspective and then there is a 4 month planning where things are even further detailed. 14 days in advance the actual jobs are put into a time table and after that there is no major planning; the working orders are distributed. Everything that comes within that 14 day timeframe will be disruptive to the plan and lead to adjustments or cancellations.

Parallel to the day-to-day business of maintenance there was a highly profiled and prestigious construction project. As most major projects, it was managed on budget, time and progress. Funding was the least of their problems. Time and progress, on the other hand, were more problematic because the opening date for the new infrastructure had been decided on a high political level and celebrities and media had been booked for the official opening.

Despite the established planning regime described above, with a planning department working full-time with the Masterplan and more detailed plans and working orders, the project seemed to have ignored or not noticed this regime. The project was in the habit of requesting scarce resources really late, often on the same day they needed them.

Usually the technical department would agree to the request from the highly profiled project. Consequences were that it became harder and harder to make the shifts to go up, maintenance had to be postponed or rushed through and people became tired and stretched thin. Obviously one solution would have been to decline all last-minute requests from the project, but this would at the same time mean that one would miss the income from well-paid hours by the project. Besides there was a lot of perceived and real pressure to deliver, not in the least because the same top-manager was responsible for the project and maintenance.

Therefore the technical department would stretch themselves into extremes to meet all demands. They would also try to solve the situation in a ‘soft’ way, by discussing and explaining the challenges to the project, take up issues with regard to task risk assessments that never had a proper level of quality when done in the last minute, availability of assets and so forth. This seemed to create some understanding from the project, but no lasting improvement.

As a next step, the technical department tried to use incentives. It was communicated to the project that all requests for support had to be done within a reasonable timeframe, otherwise the cost for the support would be many times the ordinary price. But, as said, money was not a problem for the project and they happily paid whatever was necessary to get the job done. The project would also show their gratitude for the help by awarding the ‘heroes’ that fixed their problem by sending cake to the department to celebrate when a job was done.

Celebrations are great, but in this case they were yet another factor that over time contributed to a drift into an unwanted direction with negative consequences. These included signs of burn-out among the employees with critical competence, several serious near-misses because of the very superficial risk assessments and not getting done all necessary maintenance for safe production on the existing infrastructure.

There is kind of a happy end: the project was finished in time and hoorays all around.

What Can We Learn From This?

Firstly you should be very conscious about what heroes you want to cultivate. It may lead to problems in the long run because it can send signals about the preferred behaviour (‘sexy’ projects above ‘boring’ maintenance, production above occupational health, fixing problems above structured and systematic work, etc.). In this case it more or less awarded bad planning with serious disruptions to other tasks, and even endangering safety and health.

This case also contains some great lessons about how incentives and competing objectives work. Research has actually shown that paying a fine for ‘breaking a rule’ kind of legitimizes the behaviour (e.g. a study with fining parents for picking up their children late at a day care center in Israel), so simply making the hours more expensive is not a solution.

Concluding, I am all in favour of flexibility and a strong orientation on solving problems in a practical way. I’m also very much in favour of praising people who have delivered a great job. But watch out for side-effects. Celebrating heroes is a strong expression of the logic that lives in your system and organisation and it is amazingly enduring. It creates expectations - maybe even obligations - for the future. And, ironically, sometimes when a hero fixes a problem, he actually contributes to prolonging it!


Also published on Linkedin.