What Makes an Effective Safety Professional? - Part 4


When I decided to write a series of articles on the traits that I believed were necessary for someone to be considered an effective safety professional, I first of all examined a comment thread running on this topic on LinkedIn. A one line question that had elicited 134 responses at the time of writing:

Describe in one word… An effective safety professional is ________________ ?

Then I began to consider the comments under the three categories that I have always found to be present in truly effective individuals:

1. Technical Proficiency

2. Teamwork

3. Character

Over a series of articles I looked at how the responses to the questionnaire could be interpreted under each of those categories. However, it was apparent from very early on that most of the responses were character orientated (Persistent, Inquisitive etc.). And of these, most were moral judgments (Trustworthy, Conscientious, etc.). But I left this category until last, because character and morality are very difficult concepts to pin down. Character in particular has been considered by some of the greatest minds of all time, and they have all struggled to offer a satisfactory explanation of what it is, where it comes from and why it is valued.

Ernest Hemmingway defined character simply as “grace under pressure”, but I believe that this catchy little phrase does not capture its essence. And character is not just about courage; although courage is a vital component. Character, I believe, is a propensity to do what is right when the alternative is to do what is easy. But what is right is not always apparent. And, at times, there may be two conflicting rights, neither of which is easy. It seems to me therefore, that a prerequisite of character is the ability to make good moral judgments about what is right. And there are only three ways that I know of to make those kinds of judgments.

Firstly, something can be known, or felt, intuitively. But this leads to phenomenon known as naïve realism, where somebody believes that they see the world as it really is and everyone else should conform to their point of view (moral crusader). Also, if I see the world as it really is and if I believe the facts are there for all to see, it follows that those who disagree with me must be biased or willfully ignoring those facts.

Secondly, what is right can be learned from others, by simply following an established convention. But this allows people to think that there is a transcendent moral order, or orthodoxy, to which we ought to conform the ways of society (safety cheerleader). These conventions can be political (communism), legal (declaration of rights), religious (sharia law), or all three (Health and Safety perhaps).

Thirdly, one can use logic and rationality as was proposed by those who developed the ideas that led to the Age of Enlightenment, following in the tradition of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. But this results in a cold, calculating and ultimately futile attempt to weigh intangibles in order to establish which has the greater utility (cubicle dwelling, metric fixated, safety manager). It also undermines all the benefits of established authority, belief and wisdom.

It has been my experience that people with character do not use just one of these methods in order to establish what is right; they use all of them simultaneously. Their moral core supplies them with intuition, to which their reasoning apparatus applies knowledge/experience and logic. These mechanisms do not operate independently though, they have a dynamic reciprocal interaction. Through reflection and experience their intuitions become better: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind“, Immanuel Kant.

Also, their central moral core operates alongside an ability to see things from other people’s perspective, which gives them an appreciation that others may espouse very sincere views based on deeply felt and honestly held values that may well differ considerably from one’s own viewpoint.

This understanding allows them to establish a balance in their own minds between what is best for society and what is best for the individuals who make it up, which leads to a cognizance of the fact that no single individual has all the answers, and that there is seldom an orthodoxy which can be applied to everyone. It also means that they don’t tend to see the world in terms of simplistic binary opposites (no grey areas) either. In fact, they feel compelled to resist that mind-set. And in this context, character is not always elegant; it involves conflict.

Good moral judgment, then, is the foundation on which everything else is built in this vision of character. But this is not an easy road to travel, and many people will find themselves ill-equipped for the journey. Those who follow the other routes will find balm in conventional wisdom, logic/measurement or intuition and everything in their world will make perfect sense to them. They will probably gravitate towards an environment full of like-minded individuals. “People can maintain an unshakeable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are surrounded by a community of like-minded believers.“; Daniel Kahneman, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.

These people will experience very little conflict, but they will not be as effective as those who are willing to accept some adversity. Anyone who wishes to rise above the ordinary must follow a more difficult path. They must either possess or acquire a moral core and utilize all three elements of good judgment. And then they must be willing and able to apply that judgment in an environment which may not be conducive or receptive to their efforts.

Fortunately, however, somebody with the aptitudes espoused above will probably find the challenge presented somewhat rewarding. That is the beauty of a moral core of this nature. But where does this moral core come from? In the section, I will take a quick look at the evolutionary history of morality to see if there is a basis upon which to judge the LinkedIn comment thread and establish if there is a typical moral foundation on which an effective safety professional is built.

Evolution of Moral Character

I came to the conclusion that moral character was vital for any individual who wanted to be an effective safety professional. But where does moral character originate? How did it come about?

The single greatest event in human evolution, according to Michael Tomasello in ‘The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition’, came when the first primates began to cooperate in a way that has not occurred before or since on our planet. We began cooperating with what Tomasello calls ‘shared intentionality’. Essentially, this meant that one primate began to see other primates as an intentional agent like the self (this led to the evolution of language, tools and culture etc.). But, he suggests, in order for humans to take full advantage of this development, an entire psychology of cooperation would have had to spring up to encourage it. And for it to flourish and evolve further as it did these traits must have helped it considerably.

So we developed a conscience to keep us from straying into selfish territory; feeling guilt puts a brake on our appetites; empathy helps us appreciate the needs of others so we can lend assistance and reduce any tendency to harm others; shame motivates us to put things right and dispositions to be kind and generous builds reputations and attracts allies.

These attributes, or moral matrices (Haidt, ‘The Righteous Mind’), undoubtedly helped create highly cohesive and extremely cooperative groups. And Darwin believed that cohesive groups will always out-compete other more individualistic collections of people for scarce resources. So, moral matrices bind people together better than anything else. But moral matrices also blind people to the existence of other matrices. Human beings are designed to believe that there is only one true and correct way of looking at any given situation (see Asch’s conformity experiments). If a group have an established way of doing something it is more beneficial to the group, from an evolutionary perspective, that everybody is committed to this than to approach a problem with a more efficient solution but in a disorganized fashion.

This makes it very difficult for people to consider that there may more than one form of moral truth, or more than one valid framework for judging success or failure in society. And it may explain the scarcity of character in highly cohesive societies. We have innate evolved intuitions but we must adapt them to the culture we find ourselves in, a culture which is also evolving. “We are born to be righteous, but we have to learn what, exactly, people like us should be righteous about,” Jonathan Haidt, ‘The Righteous Mind’.

Different cultures also favor different elements within the moral domain. Richard Shweder developed a three part model of morality based on three ethics; autonomy, community and divinity. People who favour autonomy place the rights of individuals above all else; people who favor community give priority to the needs of the many rather than the needs of the few; and people who prioritize divinity see humans as a sacred vessel for the soul which must not be degraded or dishonored (which extends to a concept of purity, pollution and environmentalism). According to Haidt, the WEIRDer (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) you are, the more you see a world full of autonomous objects, rather than relationships. Haidt does not say it, and it would change the word to WEIRDUr, but I think you could add Urban to that mix. Most other societies, though, build their cultures around the other two ethics.

However, because we simultaneously evolved as individuals within the collective we are compelled to further our own self-interest while presenting the best possible appearance of propriety to the group. Good moral judgment must traverse the chasm between what is best for the individual and what is best for society. Therefore, within the overall cultural context, individuals also have their own moral compasses. Although, I believe that compass is the wrong metaphor in this instance because, as Haidt discovered after extensive research, it is more like a palate with taste receptors or a music sound system than a compass. Some of the settings are high in some people and low in others, just as some sound systems have the base turned up and some don’t. The difference, though, is that morality is not easily changed, which is probably why Haidt prefers the taste bud metaphor. He suggests that just as we have taste receptors for salt, sweet, bitter, and so on, so we have six basic moral receptors: caring, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. More information on this can be obtained at: http://righteousmind.com/ and at http://www.yourmorals.org/

While all of us are born with a certain proclivity towards settings on these six moral foundations, each of them stands to be amplified or quieted as well as somewhat modified by a host of internal and external factors. The internal factors include our personality and its development, while the external factors include the environment in which we are raised (culture, etc.), and the particular experiences that we have as we go through life. All these factors act together, I believe, in a dynamic reciprocal relationship along the lines suggested by Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory:


Haidt’s theory and research however, though extensive and well received, is novel and challenging. The new atheists (Richard Dawkins etc.) for example, rancor at the fact that it provides an evolutionary imperative for religious experience and debunks the notion that religion is a parasitic meme. While religious people on the other hand, rancor at the notion that their belief in the divine is driven by a genetic predisposition. Nevertheless, I decided to examine the traits from the LinkedIn thread (Describe in one word… An effective safety professional is ________________ ?) under Haidt’s six moral foundations, to see if there is a typical moral imperative for an effective safety professional. The outcome of this exercise will be examined in the next, and final, article.

Liam Moran

Written by Liam Moran

Liam has worked on construction sites in the US, UK and Ireland, and spent over 17 years working as a skilled butcher for a meat processor while continuing to run his family’s farm. Following the closure of the processing plant, Liam returned to college where he obtained a First Class Honours Degree in Construction Management, and went on to work as a Site Engineer for a construction company. Liam became interested in Health and Safety when he wrote a thesis, The Effect of Group Dynamics on Safety Culture, for his Honours Degree qualification and subsequently went on to gain a post graduate qualification on the topic from Trinity College Dublin.

Safety Cary Blog
Ask a Safety Question
Safety Prediction Blog