Work and How to Survive It: Lesson 2. Understand Variation Inside Your Organisation

Much of my practice is informed by counselling and psychotherapy as well as humanistic psychology more generally. One of my problems with these fields, however, is that insights and discussions are largely kept within the world of psychotherapy. What a waste! The vast majority of people are not engaged in psychotherapy and for the most part, psychotherapy pays little attention to applying itself to the mundane issues of everyday life, outside of counselling rooms. This is a second in a series reflecting [for now] on excerpts from Life and How To Survive It, by the psychotherapist Robin Skynner and the comedian John Cleese, with some reflections on work and organisations. 

Other posts in the series:

In Chapter 1, John Cleese and Robin Skynner are talking about people and families at different levels of mental health. Cleese asks about families that are unusually mentally healthy.

Robin …in trying to describe excellent mental health, and compare it with ill-health, and with the ‘average’ health in between that most of us enjoy most of the time … it’s difficult not to talk as if they are quite different from one another, and inhabited by different people. But, in fact, our level of health is changing all the time. We all feel more healthy in our better moments, when we are ‘in a good mood’, when things are going well, when we feel loved and valued, when we have done our best. And we can all feel less healthy under stress, when our usual sources of support are removed, when we have ‘let ourselves down’, when we ‘get out of bed on the wrong side’. Also, our level of health is not the same in all areas of our functioning. A person who is ‘average’ overall may be outstandingly healthy in some respects, even though functioning poorly in others.
John And obviously the overall level can change over time, too. Otherwise you’d be out of a job. I mean people can get more mentally healthy, can’t they?

In my last post, I wrote about the everyday experience of work, which is often ignored in safety, for several reasons, sometimes beyond the control of safety practitioners. Within this great area of day-to-day activity, many things are happening that we can easily miss unless we pay attention to them. One is that performance changes over time. One aspect of this is what is sometimes called ‘practical drift’. In Friendly Fire,  Scott Snook defines practical drift as “the slow uncoupling of practice from procedure” (p. 24). It is one way how we end up in the work archetype of The Messy Reality.

This is very hard to see from the inside, as it tends to happen slowly and tends to help achieve a range of goals that are more positively reinforced within the organisation (e.g., cost efficiency and production). But without paying attention to normal, everyday work, we don’t see what is going on. Importantly, we don’t see changes in the normal operating point, and associated behaviours, especially when these changes happen slowly and are only exposed to those who are closely associated with the work, whether front-line staff, middle managers or the Board

Figure 1: Drift toward failure. Adapted from EUROCONTROL (2013).

It often takes an outsider to see this practical drift. As Edward Hall (1959) wrote in his book The Silent Language, “culture hides much more than it reveals, and strangely enough, what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants” (p.39). We are victims of our cultures – professional, organisational, and national – and insights often require an outside perspective. By ‘outsider’, I simply mean someone who is seen as an outsider by those in a particular in-group, or at least someone who is on the edge of the group.

Outsiders not only see this drift more clearly, but have ‘permission’ to ask about it. This can be associated with their relative innocence. Outsiders may be able to ask the sorts of questions that a child asks: Why do you do that? What do you do it like that? What is that for? The outsider will often, however, need a basic knowledge of the work, especially for less observable forms of work and work that is very complex.

‘Permission to question’ can also be because the questioner has been accepted into a particular role. One of these has been termed ‘barbarian’, by Steele (1975) in Consulting for Organizational Change. Steele characterises this role as “violating comfortable but limiting norms and taboos that are preventing the system from being as effective as it might be. (A counter measure against tunnel vision.)”.  This relates to the archetype Taboo. In-group members will find it difficult to raise taboo issues and will often need exceptional interpersonal skill to do so in a way that helps others gain insight.

An outsider may be a cultural insider, e.g., an air traffic control supervisor or anaesthetist from elsewhere. In this case, the person is an outsider in terms of workgroup and location, but an insider in terms of profession. Supervisors observing the work of other workgroups is one way to help people ‘see’ (and improve) their performance. They may be able to see things and ask questions that true insiders can’t.

Another kind of shift or change is where performance moves towards exceptionally good performance, where work is sustainably productive, innovative, healthy, joyful, etc.  Again, if normal, routine, day-to-day performance is unknown and generally ignored (not subject to anything like the same kind of attention as incidents), then we may just gratefully accept the marginally reduced number of incidents (on the left hand side of Figure 2), but not see the way that work is changing for the better, including the ‘good practice’ that contributes to it. In our Ignorance and Fantasy of this day-to-day work, we may well implement changes (rules, limits, targets, league tables, incentives, punishments, etc) that pull the operating point back, halting progress.

Postive drift
Figure 2: Shift toward exceptional performance. Adapted from EUROCONTROL (2013).

As well as changes over time, a second thing is happening that we can easily miss unless we pay attention: there are differences between different parts of an organisation. As Skynner reminds us, “our level of health is not the same in all areas of our functioning”. In travelling to over 50 air traffic control units and centres of various kinds, I have seen and heard about large variations in many aspects of practice and performance. In most cases, where units and facilities are isolated geographically or culturally (e.g., by profession), these differences are unknown or not appreciated beyond the facility, and often beyond the department, work group, or room. Therefore, good practice in one area of an organisation is not known in another that is similar in context and could benefit. For example, one particular air traffic control tower had developed its own refresher training arrangements. These innovative practices could have been of great help to other towers but, lacking day-to-day contact with the tower in question, were unknown. (See Issues 25 and 26 of HindSight Magazine, on ‘Work-as-Imagined and Work-as-Done’ and ‘Safety at the Interfaces: Collaboration at Work’.)

These differences may also be papered over by the way that we measure performance. For instance, if we average measures across the whole organisation, or if we measure things that do not reflect differences between different areas of an organisation, then again we will be less likely to see and pay attention to them. This means we must pay careful attention to the way that differences may express themselves in terms of department, location, profession, gender, age, experience, and on. In many cases, the differences within organisations are greater than the differences between them, but if we don’t pay attention to what’s going on, we’ll never really know.


EUROCONTROL (2013). From Safety-I to Safety-II. A White Paper. Brussels:  

EUROCONTROL Network Manager, September 2013. Authors: Hollnagel, E., Leonhardt, J., Shorrock. S., Licu, T. [pdf] (Contributor)

EUROCONTROL (2017) HindSight Magazine. Safety at the Interfaces: Collaboration at Work. Issue 26, Winter. Brussels: EUROCONTROL. [webpage] [pdf]

EUROCONTROL (2017) HindSight Magazine. Work-as-Imagined and Work-as-Done. Issue 25, Summer. Brussels: EUROCONTROL. [pdf]

Skynner, R. and Cleese, J. (1994). Life and How To Survive It. Mandarin.

Snook, S.A. (2000). Friendly fire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.

2 thoughts

  1. My experience of healthcare is: Psychology and the limits of human ability are denied / ignored. How else to explain rosters with full work day, then on call (24hrs+total)? Rosters are planned, not an emergency. There’s always someone to tell you to ignore the evidence from psychology and neuroscience and ‘tough out’ bad behaviour, bullying, harassment, onerous rosters. Failure to do so is a ‘personal weakness’. If only our brains worked that way. Much work to do as we’re failing at the most basic levels, let alone more abstract concepts.

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