Implications of yin-yang theory for safety professionals

Everyone has seen the taiji (pinyin) or Taichi (Wade-Giles) symbol by now.

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Taijitu, thanks Wikipedia!

As a map of the entire human experience, it is fair to say that it lacks detail. At the same time, it’s a very useful way to remind yourself of the theory at the centre of Traditional Chinese Medicine. A skilled practitioner can apply it to any duality in life, and be reminded of timeless aspects of the human experience. For instance, we can apply it to ‘Safety I’ vs ‘Safety II’.

Safety I means ‘approaches to safety that are based on imposing rules and structures’. Rules and structures are visible, intellectual in nature, proclaimed loudly, hard, clear-cut and immediate: these are ‘yang’ characteristics, and signified by the white colour.

Safety II means ‘approaches to safety that are based on valuing human skill and judgement’. The words ‘soft’, ‘subtle’, ‘hard to define’, ‘wishy-washy/wet’ come to mind: these signs indicate that Safety II is ‘yin’ in nature, and signified by the black colour.

If yin-yang theory is scientific, then it will make falsifiable predictions about the relationship between Safety I and Safety II that can be tested. If yin-yang theory is useful, then it will generate actionable guidance.

Predictions for safety systems

A living system has both of them

If we were to rely exclusively on Safety I or Safety II, then we could say “The profession of safety improvement is dead.”

Each contains the other

Safety I practices often include the appointment of supervisors and monitors — explicit systems that reinforce the importance of human judgement. As we recognize the importance of Safety II, we are codifying it further — without visibility, these invisible things cannot survive our crowded and demanding world.

Each generates the other

If we have really good people, then we can rely on them to successfully execute procedures. If we have really good procedures, then good people will be able to use those procedures to achieve desirable things.

Total energy is not a fixed quantity

Subtracting from one does not give you more of the other. Having worse people does not give us better procedures. Having worse procedures will not give us better people.

Imbalance will not endure

When one is much stronger than the other, the system enters an unstable state. There are beneficial and pathological ways that this can manifest:

  • Self reinforcement means that as an energy type gets stronger, it will tend to continue getting stronger. eg: “That procedure worked, let’s have another one!”
  • Mutual generation means that as an energy type gets stronger, it will tend to create conditions that benefit the other energy. eg: “I’m concerned that all of these procedures might cause us to neglect the value of judgement, let’s see what we can do to rebalance things”
  • Sudden reversal occurs when all of the energy of one type is replaced by its opposite — the stronger the imbalance, the more traumatic a reversal will be. eg: “I’m sick of all these procedures! Let’s throw them all out!” or “This place is chaos! Nobody is doing anything anymore without a proper approval!”
  • Traumatic separation occurs when the energies cannot yield to each other, and the system tears itself apart. eg: “I can’t work here any more because of all the [bureaucracy/chaos]!”
  • Deficient collapse occurs when the energies are too weak to achieve anything. eg “Nobody cares what I think, and the procedures are worthless. I’m going home.”

The wheel turns (the quest for balance inhibits progress)

We do not walk by putting all our weight evenly on both feet — we put all of our weight on one foot, and then we put all of our weight on the other foot.

Guidance for Safety Practitioners

As a practitioner, your views will contain some mix of ‘Safety I preference’ and ‘Safety II preference’. The situation you are dealing with will match one of these templates better than it matches the others. Realistic (mixed) environments will call for realistic (mixed) responses.

Safety I and Safety II both strong

Diagnostic signs: Rules and procedures are appropriate, and are revised to maintain currency. People assert themselves well, listen well, and have access to the resources that they need.

Recommended action: Cultivate relationships with everybody. Learn indiscriminately, and identify opportunities to follow your passions. Be a part of efforts that interest you.

Safety I strong, Safety II weak

Diagnostic signs: Rules and procedures are justified, but don’t always seem relevant. People complain about bureaucracy, and resources are not always released when needed.

Recommended action: Cultivate relationships with people in authority. Learn how resources are distributed in the system, and identify opportunities to exercise judgement. Be a part of efforts to reform existing procedures.

Safety II strong, Safety I weak

Diagnostic signs: Rules and procedures are ignored, but this doesn’t cause serious problems. People complain about lack of clarity, and resources are wasted.

Recommended action: Cultivate relationships with people of good judgement. Learn how decisions are made in the system, and identify opportunities to improve consistency. Be a part of efforts to disseminate skills.

Safety I weak, Safety II weak

Rules and procedures are contradictory, and paralysis ensues. Bullying and frustration are overwhelming. Resources are nowhere to be found.

Recommended action: Cultivate relationships with people who endure. Learn how to survive, and identify opportunities to protect against harm. Be a part of a wider community that is more nurturing.

There’s more, but not today

Yin-yang theory doesn’t just talk about the relationships between opposite sides of a duality, it also addresses each aspect as an individual entity. There are ways to differentiate between ‘too much yin’ and ‘not enough yang’, and different treatment strategies for different kinds of imbalances.

Then there’s five-elements theory, and then there are theories that are more specific to particular domains. (Sun Tzu on military theory, Huang Di on medical theory, etc.)

Tangential thoughts

I’m fascinated by Medium’s suggested tags for this post: ‘love’ and ‘poetry’. I love this stuff, and it is poetry in my eyes; but I don’t think those tags would be a good service to people who click on them.

Adding the previous paragraph replaces ‘poetry’ with ‘thoughts’ — it seems that fascination is not poetry! And the previous sentence tips the balance back again, restoring poetry at the expense of thought. ‘Love’ endures while yang thoughts alternate with yin poetry. How fitting :)

Written by

Nick Argall is an organization engineer, structuring activities to help businesses achieve their goals.

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