Three Spaces for Work-as-Disclosed

In a previous post on four ‘varieties of human work‘, I introduced the concept of ‘work-as-disclosed’. Work-as-disclosed is what we say or write about work, and how we talk or write about it, either casually or more formally. Work is disclosed by many people, both those who do the work, and those who do not, based on more or less knowledge of work-as-done.

It may be simply how we explain the nitty-gritty or the detail of work, or espouse or promote a particular view or impression of work (as it is or should be) in official statements, etc. Work-as-disclosed is typically based on a partial  version of one or more of the other varieties of human work: Work-as-imagined, work-as-prescribed, and work-as-done. But the message (i.e., what is said/written, how it is said/written, when it is said/written, where it is said/written, and who says/writes it) is tailored to the purpose or objective of the message (why it is said/written), and, more or less deliberately, to what is thought to be palatable, expected and understandable to the audience. It is often based on what we want and are prepared to say in light of what is expected and imagined consequences.

Shorrock (2016)

As I explain in the post, work-as-disclosed will tend to be different to work-as-done in several ways and for several reasons, including lack of knowledge about the work, difficulties in communicating about the work (e.g., the technical details), or fear about the consequences of disclosure.

This brings us to three spaces for work-as-disclosed that are relevant to trying to reduce the gap between work-as-disclosed and work-as-done, or at least to understand why such a gap exists.

Image: Ian Sane CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Public Space

The public space for disclosure is the context (combining social and cultural, organisational and institutional, legal and regulatory, and personal contexts) that warrants and permits public disclosure about one’s understanding of work-as-done. The public space will tend to involve reduced fear of unwanted consequences of disclosure, and therefore higher perceived levels of psychological safety and associated fairness or justice.

The public space will tend to involve disclosure about work-as-done that is congruent with work-as-prescribed, or at least with the work-as-imagined of others who are seen as significant (e.g., management, regulatory bodies, judiciary, staff [especially colleagues], and public/citizens). Finding means to expand safely the public space is a way to increase the shared reality about work-as-done, including its context.

This is a difficult task since there are different demands and expectations on those who do the work, from different stakeholders (public/citizens, government, regulatory bodies, judiciary, associations senior management, middle management, staff, and service users). There are therefore conflicts that create barriers to disclosure.

There are various regulatory and organisational attempts to expand the public space. One example is the UK Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Regulated Activities) Regulations 2014: Regulation 20. This requires that registered persons must act in an open and transparent way with relevant persons in relation to care and treatment provided to service users in carrying on a regulated activity. Another example is the open publication of safety investigation reports, which are normally kept internal to an organisation. For instance, LVNL – the Dutch air navigation service provider – “pro-actively publishes the reports of potentially serious occurrences and the results of the occurrence investigations. In this way, we give the local community more insight into aviation safety. The investigation results for each occurrence can be read here, and we indicate which measures LVNL has taken to prevent occurrences.” In the UK, freedom of information requests can also be submitted to expand the public space.

Institutional measures do not always work, however, and require measures to ensure people feel safe to disclose, or at least not unjustly treated following disclosure. This reminds us that the concept of just culture – as well as psychological safety – remains important, in both a corporate and judicial context.

The Private Space

The private space is the context in which much or most disclosure about work occurs, since disclosure is limited and still on a ‘need-to-know’ (or useful-to-know) basis, as is the case for the public space. In the private space, we see most communication about work as done, in general or in terms of the nitty gritty of human work. Between colleagues and immediate managers, for instance, there is a high need to know about what has been done (and what is left to do), at least at some level of detail. As one moves further away from the context of work (physically, temporally, or socially, for example), there is less need to know about the details. However, events that trigger work from others (such as unwanted events, major achievements or simply part of the ordinary workflow between individuals and teams) will tend to require wider disclosure.

The private space requires good relationships and understanding about work-as-done. It is a space for reducing the gap-between work-as-imagined and work-as-done. Poor relationships may constrict the private space, however, and there is little point in disclosing the details of work-as-done that is not relevant or understandable to others.

The private space is therefore similar to much of the disclosure space within a couple or a family. What is private does not need to be made public. But equally, it is not secret.

The Secret Space

The secret space is the context in which work-as-disclosed is limited or distorted deliberately, based largely on fear of the potential consequences of disclosure.

Staff may fear that resources will be withdrawn, constraints may be put in place, sanctions may be enacted, or safety margins or buffers will be dispensed. Hence, secrecy around work-as-done can be a self-protective measure against the drive to improve efficiency at the expense of other goals (such as safety and well-being). … In an environment where people are punished for trade-offs, workarounds, and compromises, which the staff believe to be necessary to meet demand, then the overlap between work-as-disclosed and work-as-done may be deliberately reduced. 

Shorrock (2016)

In this space, deliberate efforts are made to keep hidden or to distort aspects of ‘Taboo‘ work-as-done, in line with the ‘P.R. and Subterfuge‘ archetype, where work-as-disclosed (and often as-prescribed) is not as-done. These two archetypes of human work are therefore intimately connected to the secret space. (And so I’ll not repeat these posts here.)

Stigma and shame around unwanted outcomes associated with ‘work-as-judged’ (even when these outcomes are mostly accounted for by the context of work, such as demand, resources and constraints) will of course tend to restrict the public and private spaces, and expand the secret space. The secret space can become a burden to those who have to maintain it, which may be one, several or many people. Deliberate or accidental disclosure may present various risks, and these risks may be present for a long period of time. Meanwhile, others are denied the possibility to act on information that is pertinent to them, and their needs and rights may be denied.

There is an overlap between the private and secret spaces, but not all privacy is secrecy. In many or most cases, there is no special need to keep secret the nature or details of work-as-done. So work-as-disclosed will tend to be in the private space voluntarily, with there being no justifiable need for disclosure in the public space. Work-as-disclosed in the secret space, however, is often there because bringing it into the private space is not seen as a viable option. The potential consequences are simply too great (e.g., shaming, loss of job, prosecution). However, there is sometimes a desire to bring work-as-disclosed into the private space from the secret space. The burden of secrecy may be too great, or ethical concerns (concerning safety or justice, for example) may trigger a need for disclosure (or confession). When such attempts are frustrated, perhaps by colleagues or management, then work-as-disclosed is sometimes moved purposefully into the public space, via so-called ‘whistleblowing’. Here, the consequences of disclosure are even greater for the discloser, but seen as somehow preferable to the consequences of secrecy.

The lesson, then, must be to act ethically and to create conditions to help expand the private space, and even the public space (where this does not result in a flood of unnecessary or meaningless information), and reduce the secret space as much as possible. This is the responsibility of all of us.

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.

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