A Learning Adventure in Understanding Risk and People

When you open your mind to learning, ‘unlearning’ and to a new and different way of thinking, it can be refreshing, liberating and motivating.

In May 2012, I commenced my  learning adventure in understanding risk and people. This is when I started my post-graduate studies in the Social Psychology of Risk under Dr Robert Long through the Australian Catholic University in Canberra, Australia.

When I think of these studies, I think of an ‘adventure’ which is a term that my good friend Gabrielle Carlton and I thought of when we were sharing our learning with a group of people recently. ‘Adventure’ seems the most adequate way to describe a journey that is not linear, that is filled with lot’s of ups and downs, and one where, despite having a broad plan in place and knowing the general direction you are travelling in, you’re just not quite sure where it will take you until you arrive! This does not mean that it is not organised or well thought out, quite the opposite in fact, it is so well thought out that the program is great balance between planning and the ability to adapt as needed. Just like a good risk management program!

At the start of this ‘adventure’, I thought I knew quite a bit about risk, safety and people. After all, I’d been involved in the risk and safety industry for most of my working life, it’s what I do. I’d completed an undergraduate degree in Occupational Health and Safety, attended numerous training and development programs, and I’d worked in some senior roles in large and diverse organisations over 20+ years. I wasn’t a novice, but boy did I have some learning to do when it came to really understanding how to deal with risk, safety and people.

For instance, despite my previous studies, training and experience, I had no understanding of the impact of semiotics on our unconscious and what this meant for decisions and judgments about risk. I had no clue about the power of words and I didn’t know that so much that goes on around us impacts on our decisions.

I didn’t understand that most of our decisions are made in our unconscious mind, and I thought that effective safety meant more control, clear standards, good process and consequence management.

I’ve learned a lot in just under two years. I’ve read more than 50+ books and almost three times as many articles, publications and journals in that time. I’ve been welcomed into some wonderful learning communities and I’ve been fortunate to build some trusting relationships with close friends who are also ‘on the adventure’. Compare this to my under-graduate degree where I reckon I read no more than 10-15 books and maybe 40 journals in six years. That didn’t feel like an ‘adventure’ in learning, it was a chore, it was about passing exams and completing assignments. It was full of science, law and engineering, all important in understanding the world we live and work in, but no understanding of people and risk. In other words, compared to my previous studies, with this current post-graduate program, I’ve been doing a lot of critical thinking lately, and I love it!

One of the most important parts of this learning ‘adventure’ is the learning communities that have been created. For example, I was privileged last week to meet with a new Cohort of students who commenced their own learning adventure in the Social Psychology of Risk. I was asked to present a short story on my learning of the past two years. I was pleased to share my story which focused on three key areas:

  • What I used to do (and think was right)
  • What I’ve learned
  • How I go about things now (i.e how do I apply the learning of social psychology of risk in my work)

I also shared a little about my experiences as a study and the key things that I’ve learned over the past few years as a student.

People seem most interested in how I apply my learning to both my work and personal life now. So what are some of the things that I do differently now?

  • I listen a hell of a lot more than I used to. For me safety used to be about ‘telling’, ‘instructing’, ‘policing’ and ‘advising’. Now days, I’d prefer to listen to others, understand whether they know how to deal with risk and support them in discovering things for themselves. The key to this is good quality conversations and a focus on ‘others’ not ‘self’.
  • I look at things with a different lens. While I still see cords on the ground, guards on machines and mobile plant working it’s way through a site, I’m now much more interested in observing and listening to people, understanding them better and supporting them to learn, instead of controlling them in the name of compliance.
  • I think about how different groups work together in an environment. When I used to talk about culture, my definition and understanding were very limited. Now, I’m engaged by organisations to assist them to understand and/or support them in developing their culture so that it becomes more mature and ‘risk savvy’.
  • I take more time to reflect which helps me make sense of things.
  • I engage in community, with friends that I trust, to share and test my learning and ideas.
  • I embrace my own fallibility as a human being, I understand that I’m not perfect and will make mistakes, and I know this is all part of learning.
  • I read, explore ideas and think more critically. I don’t accept simple answers and ‘pyramids’ as the solutions to complex and challenging problems. If a problem is complex, I now understand that the solution (if there is one) is probably complex too.
  • I understand ‘wicked problems’ as ones that can only be tackled, rather than solved.
  • I feel liberated and free that I don’t need to know everything and that I have a lot more to learn. This allows me to be more humble and support others to learn too.

These are just some of the key things that I do differently.

For those who are interested in my presentation to the students last week, I’ve attached my slides from the presentation. I’m happy to share this learning with everyone as I know that will help my learning too.

I’ve been fortunate to travel on this exciting adventure over the past two years, and I have no intention of ‘getting off the ride’.

When you open your mind to learning, ‘unlearning’ and to a new and different way of thinking, it can be refreshing, liberating and motivating.

Is there anything that you could ‘unlearn’ and open your mind to so that you can see the world through a new lens? 

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