Rituals in risk management – A real life story

December 15, 2022



In this podcast, we use the framework of rituals to tell a real-life story. The central message of this podcast is to recognize the role of ritual in risk and safety management. The framework of rituals can help us become visually and verbally sensitive and improve our listening and observation skills.

Further information


Hello and welcome to another episode of embracing differences with me Nippin. ARLEN embracing differences is a podcast series aimed at understanding different perspectives about risk management. Often different ways of looking at risk and risk management, whether it’s human factors engineering, systems thinking, safety, management, anthropology, religion, mythology, psychology, sociology, humanities, business studies, you name it, they will all lead to different understanding about risk. The engineering world is contended that we should work towards designing failsafe systems. But for someone with a business hat on this would mean a cost to a system thinker in every failsafe design, we are only transferring the risk from one part of the system to another, or even from one form of risk to another. So you may be able to reduce physical harm by introducing a physical barrier. But you may end up with emotional or psychological harm to people, because they become risk averse. So what is the best choice to make? The starting point is to stop criticising and start appreciating different pathways to managing risk. And then picking up the one that suits your needs is the appreciation of different viewpoints that is central to the idea of embracing differences. I must admit, it’s a hard thing to understand very hard indeed, and precisely the purpose of this podcast. So the podcast is available on Spotify, Apple pod bean, Google podcast and anchor. And I’m the host of this podcast and the founder of novellas, Nippin Anand at novellus. We are all about understanding and improving organisational culture within the framework of language. We call it social psychology of risk. Which means what does our language tell us about the quality of our decisions and the culture of our organisation? So that’s really where we are mostly interested? How can we improve our culture and make reflective decision habit? That’s the question we want to ask. And now some people call it safety culture. I like to use the word organisational culture, because it is a lot more holistic in nature. I want you to also check out our IQ method, which is a conversational way of sense making and learning club events. The details of IQ method are available on our website novellus dot solutions. We also do taster sessions every fortnight to bring people from different parts of the world together. It’s an hourly session, which tends to be a lot informal and fun, I would invite you to attend one of those sessions if you want to know more about our IQ method. Now, here’s a couple of special announcement to make before we start talking about the podcast today, which is the next IQ coaching series starts on the 26th of January. It’s a nine week programme, where we meet on an hourly basis every week as a small group of about six to eight people. If you’d like to book to this course or want to know more about it, please get in touch. The next IQ workshop in person is scheduled in London on the 23rd and 24th of February, we have already filled half of the spaces. So if you would like to book now is the time details are again on the wellness dot solutions slash events. Hi, Pedro,

Pedro Ferreira


wondering Nippin Are you

Nippin Anand


recovering getting better?

Pedro Ferreira


Good news. His Christmas is just around the corner.

Nippin Anand


Yes. That’s that’s really good.

Pedro Ferreira


So should we talk about today about rituals, which we addressed previously, but perhaps now in a more practical way. And I hear you have a story that I think illustrates quite well what we would like to address today. You want to tell us a bit more about that story?

Nippin Anand


Yes, absolutely. Let’s do that. I think we have told this story previously, and a lot of people are familiar with it. But I think for those who haven’t heard this one, it’s worth listening to your right bedroom. We have done a podcast with Dr. Rob long some time ago, maybe three series or three episodes before this on rituals. And he gave us a really good conceptual framework to work with. I think it’s now really this is about and this is something I promised in that episode that we will put it in practice by telling the practical story I think this is how people relate it best. So before I did that, let’s just try and conceptualise just let’s do one take one step back and see what is a ritual. And I think that’s that’s that it will start slowly started start to make sense. I think in some ways, ritual is what we call the audio visual performance of a culture. If you want to understand culture, you must go and observe a ritual, both the verbal and the visual performance of the ritual. And that gives you a really good idea of what rituals are all about. And to do that, we must have a fair degree of understanding of what semiotics mean, how we understand symbols, how one person understands symbols differently from the other person, and how we must respect every individual subjectivity when it comes to understanding the world around. So there is an element of that what is significant to you may not be significant to me, because we come from a different culture. And I think that cultural intelligence is central to understanding what rituals are all about. So, that’s the first thing that if you want to understand rituals, you must be semiotically, visually wobbly, more intelligent or more sensitive, and you should be able to pick the nuances. Now, in terms of defining what

Pedro Ferreira


is very sharp, so something that we’ve talked about, and I think it’s very helps a lot understanding what we mean by rituals. And that’s perhaps going a bit into the difference between a ritual and a habit.

Nippin Anand


I will come to that in a minute. Actually, that’s a really good point. Okay. Okay. So I definitely will dwell on that. Because yes, that question has been asked before a ritual. Yeah, that’s a good one, a ritual is a process that takes away rational thinking in the face of an uncertainty. Now, that is a very powerful way to understand the ritual. Because in the world of risk and safety, we have a number of processes that we like to pull out in the face of uncertainty in the face of something that happens that we don’t know how to tackle well, so be it an incident, be it going into a tank, where we have no idea what the risks might be. So we do a risk assessment, we want to be we face a change in our organisation, and we want to do, we want to see if we can manage change. So we do a management of change or chain management process. And, and this, there’s a whole range of processes that we have at our disposal, disposal when, when, when it comes to managing or tackling uncertainty. And that’s a really nice way to understand rituals that are ritual is something that takes away rational thinking, we don’t have to think rationally too much, because we have a tried and tested process in place. Now, which brings me to the three most important components of a ritual. One is, there must be an intention, which means that there must be a purpose to a ritual. The second one is, it’s repetition, that we should be able to repeat this ritual, it should have the repeatability element into it. So that’s again a process a process is written so that it can be repeated several times. And the third one is attention, which also kind of answers the question that you raised about habit. Now, a ritual in a ritual we must attend to it, we must be fully immersed into it. And that is very unique to rituals when it comes to differentiating between a ritual and a habit, because a habit, by its very essence is doing things unconsciously, not knowing what we are doing. Whereas in a ritual, you must attend or you must be immersed fully into the ritual. So there is there is an element of mindfulness in a ritual that is completely absent in a habit. And I know people have this tendency to use the word ritual very loosely, when they say, well, something has been ritualised. What we don’t understand is, that’s not what a ritual is. A ritual must have, you must be fully present in a ritual, which does not happen in a habit. And there is a very beautiful, saying that I picked up or an example that I picked up, and I was reading an article, which differentiates between a ritual and a habit. Now if you Look at the way, you know, when the pandemic hit shaking hands was no longer was the right thing to greet someone. So if your actions are habituated, which means are dictated by habit, changing those actions will take a lot of effort. But if your actions are a function of a ritual, which is about mindfulness, about attending to the ritual, you shift away from handshaking and adjusting to the new greeting, whatever it is, very, mindfully, very gracefully. And if you are a master for ritual, that adjustment comes from very effortlessly to you, like an athlete or a musician who’s in the zone. So that’s really the differentiation between a ritual and a habit. Right. Any questions? bedroo on that?

Pedro Ferreira


No, I think that that’s very helpful. And I’m sure that we’ll put things into right put the story that we now go into in the right frame. So you tell us a bit more about it.

Nippin Anand


Yeah, yeah, sure. I mean, I think before we start the story, I think it’s also very important to give people a framework of the main components of the ritual. And the idea is that like us, you can also start to become, you can also start to pick the key components in a ritual, for the lack of a better term. So this framework, there are certain things that you need to understand. If you want to make your rituals meaningful, so Well, in very simple words. If you want to align your rituals with their purpose, whatever ritual you have in your organisation, so if it’s about team meetings, or about safety meetings, or risk assessment, or, or whatever it is, the idea is that the process should be aligned with its purpose, whatever purpose it seeks. And if you observe these few components in a ritual, you will be able to do that, like us, or like we are learning. The first component is, what is the place of the ritual? The place or the space is critical? Where is the ritual being performed? The second one is what metaphors are being used in the ritual. And that is being sensitive to the language to the verbal aspect of performance. The third aspect is what symbols are being used in the ritual. Right? The fourth aspect is, what is being imitated in the ritual? Or is there an element of imitation in the ritual? No, one person raises their hand in the meeting and everyone else does. One person says, Are we okay? And everyone responds, Yes, we are. Okay. So there’s an element of imitation in many rituals, or most rituals, repetition, what words what phrases are being repeated in the ritual? That’s very important dissent. Is there any dissent? Is there any questioning in the ritual? Authority, who has the authority in the ritual? efficacy, what produces efficiency in the ritual? You know, I remember many years ago, I was sitting in a, in an appraisal with my line manager, and the first thing he said, and we used to meet only once in or twice in a year for my appraisal. And that meant a lot to me, because that put beside my progression in the organisation. And imagine starting that ritual by saying, Well, we have only 40 minutes and we need to get through with this. And imagine you have already destroyed the whole ritual with the that those those few words, the efficacy, you know, what produces efficiency in the ritual heuristics? What shortcuts what learned shortcuts are being used in the ritual? Gestures, what gestures do people use in the rituals, called Code is more like a language, a coded language, which is only familiar to people from that particular community. So for example, if you bring somebody who’s not from the Risk and Safety world into a risk and risk assessment, they wouldn’t have a clue of what you mean when you say toolbox or risk assessment or gha or stuff like that. So, what coded language is being used in the ritual? And finally, habits which we have already discussed before? What is it that people do unknowingly? What what what sort of habits to the to the show? I would add one more thing to it, which actually was picked up by somebody and I think that’s very important. What is the sequence in the ritual? Sequence is something that you should never disturb the ritual or it is never gets. It’s never disturbed in a ritual. So Whatever happens before B, and B, C happens after B, people usually don’t destroy those or disturb those sequences and sequences are important and ritual when you start to observe a ritual. And when I tell the story, this will make a lot more sense now. So once you understand all those components of the ritual, you’re able to make a lot more sense of rituals in your organisation. And even to the extent that you can start to put some of those things or make some things more meaningful to your organisation. Any questions bedroom on this so far?

Pedro Ferreira


No, no. Just looking forward to who? The what illustrates this so well.

Nippin Anand


Yeah, yeah, let’s do that.

So, I will go back to this to one of the most profound stories of my my life, I happen to interview a seafarer whose name is John Soria in March this year, it’s been almost 10 months now. And I think about it every now and then. And just to give you some background, this was a seafarer who was involved

in an accident on board his ship, and I interviewed him five years after the accident. And the accident was quite horrible and quite profound in his own life. Because he fell eight metres deep into a tank, Pedro. And he, it was not only took him almost about four hours to get out of that space, it was so claustrophobic, and also because he had broken several bones in his right leg. But it also took seven days to get any serious medication because the ship was, was birthed in China. And there was a national holiday in the country, which meant that he was kept on painkillers for seven days with those broken bones. It was a horrible story to hear. And I will not go into the details of the story because the podcast was done on that and people can can listen to it. But I want to go straight into the context of this discussion, which is all about rituals. And one questions I question that I asked him was, so what do you think was the cause of the accident, and you know, just to help him reflect on it, and that was as open as I could be in the questioning. And his response was, he said that there was no risk assessment carried out. And every risk assessment was carried out, this wouldn’t have happened to me. So going back to the audiovisual performance of a ritual I wanted to do, too, I just asked him requested him if you can help me visualise what that risk assessment should look like? What is it that you do in the name of risk assessment. And his response was this federal and some, you know, every word of what he says, needs to be listened to carefully, within the framework of the components of rituals that we just spoke about it, it will start to make a lot more sense. So he says, so before we do a certain critical job, we would have a meeting in the sheriff’s office. After the duty of Chief Officer at about eight o’clock, he would go down to the sheriff’s office, the guys from the deck team are already waiting for him, we will talk about the critical job, we will be working aloft, which is on the side of the ship, the parties involved Bolson will be the one to delegate the task to the boss and is the head of the crew, he will say who will be on the still stage, who will be up there assisting. Last time, I was just an ordinary seaman. So I was just assisting and Bolson will be on stage. And the way we did the risk assessment and Toolbox talk meeting would be there is a checklist. So we would need to know every item on the checklist. And we would also be given the procedure. That’s how we do it now. And then I asked him towards the end, I said, Is there anything else in the risk assessment that you do apart from that? And he says, so since primarily that’s for the safety of everybody, right? They will also sign the form after everybody’s introduced to the things that we need to. So we will sign the form.

Nippin Anand


So Pedro, the idea is let’s just start to understand this within the framework of, of the components of rituals that we highlighted. So there’s two aspects to it. We can go deep into this story, but we can also look at it step back and see what this is all about. Now, if you consider risk assessment, as identification of hazards and risks, what becomes quickly apparent to you just by listening to all this is that there is none of that in this story, none of that there is hardly a conversation in this risk assessment. It’s when you listen to it carefully. It’s more about job delegation. It’s about making people responsible. And it’s also a bureaucratic exercise, which means that it’s, it’s meant to be for the purpose of this of this exercise is to get it done on the piece of paper, which he answers very eloquently towards the end. But let’s just start to pick up some metaphors in this ritual in the first instance. So I’ll even talk about stuff like he says that we would have a meeting in the ship’s office at eight o’clock. And after the duty of the chief officer at eight o’clock, he would go down to the ship’s office, the guys from the deck team are already waiting for her for him, as a beautiful example of sequence, that, in the in the sequence of the ritual, somebody must have to wait first, before somebody else in the position of power and authority arrives in that place, right. It’s also very interesting to hear the metaphor of somebody not going down to the chips off with somebody already waiting. And if you’re sensitive to spatial metaphors, you can already see where the problem is. He uses the term critical job at least twice. And what’s also interesting is that on a small ship, with a handful of people, we have managed to introduce the term parties, the parties involved, he says, which is, which is parties and stakeholders is a very commercial word to use. And it already invites conflicting ideas, conflicting perspectives, conflicting interests. And some people say to me, that you read too much into words, and I say to them, you replace the word parties with family or group and see the energy in the discussion, it’s completely changed, such as the power of words. And also simply giving away your authority, your power by saying I was just an ordinary seaman, which means you have a very passive role to play in a risk assessment, you’re not an active member of the team. So you can go on and on. But it’s just, you know, we’re just barely scratching the surface here. But seeing that, how, how, when we look at it from the framework of metaphors and symbols and, and authority and dissent, because there’s no questioning in this ritual, it’s all about telling people what they should be doing where they should be standing, we quickly come to realise that this particular ritual has lost its intended purpose. In fact, it would be a mistake to call it even a ritual because it’s become so habitual, there is no, there is no rhythm in this, there is no mindfulness in this ritual. And that is the point I wanted to make that just using that framework of the components that we highlighted in the beginning, we are able to observe and listen so much more just from the small extract. And then towards the end, to put a closure to the ritual. What is it that is needed, the closure is is achieved by signing a piece of paper. And I think that’s wonderful how we seek closure in a ritual, and how far it has gone from its intended purpose, which is to have a conversation about about where are the risks? What can we know, that we didn’t know before we started the meeting, what sort of unconscious biases will float up through a meeting of minds through conversation between people, none of that is visible in this ritual. So that’s so much you can achieve by placing it within the framework of a ritual. Any questions Pedro

Pedro Ferreira


I think that that punch line is is really powerful. His sentence and because this is for the safety of everyone, and everyone signs the document. mean just just putting those two together is should ring a lot of bells in your mind of where this has gone. And how far has it gone away from it. purpose. So I’m just wondering and perhaps to, to put a clear, clear ending in our discussion. So what are we to do with rituals in our workplaces? Are we to look to and promote their existence? And when we know, they’re there? Are we to promote their existence? Or are there some? Is this something that we should seek to get rid of? Where do they belong? Where should they fit in? How we should approach them? The sir, I think a lot of people out there still think that rituals just belong in, in pear places and churches and, and temples, but they’re, in fact, everywhere in our lives. And so what should we do with them?

Nippin Anand


Yeah, yeah. Let’s, let’s just talk about that. I think I think the the, I think that the starting point really is to understand the, the power of ritual, to understand that there are rhythms in a ritual that you don’t see in habit, the starting point is to understand and appreciate that the degree of attention that you need to pay in a ritual that we are not good at doing so we invite people to a meeting, and we hardly ever give them the opportunity to speak. We have no time to listen to them. It’s mostly a one way conversation. And I think that’s, that’s something that we need to understand. Because if we keep talking, how will we ever lesson? And how will we ever understand anything new, which is so important, when you are facing uncertainty? If you keep asking the same set of questions, from your incident investigations, and your risk assessments, because you’ve become so habitual, how would you ever even listen, if something new comes up? Because that’s not in your ritual? And I think I have always believed in the idea of a conversation, but it’s becoming more and more clear to me why a conversation is so important in a ritual. So to answer your question, you cannot learn anything new, you cannot understand your own unconscious, you cannot understand the flawed framing of your questioning. That is producing the same results every time if you’re not open to listening. And when I say listening, I basically mean listening to what you do not know your own unconscious biases. Forget about the other person. So that’s definitely something you want people to think about. Now, in terms of some of the components that we did mention. See, the idea is to avoid or to to minimise mindlessness. In a ritual, the idea is to is to constantly think about avoiding a ritual to become a habit. And some of the things that might help you is if you always do a ritual in one particular place, you might want to consider moving to another place. Why the same meeting room? Why the same place where you sit every time in the same meeting? Why the same whiteboard? Why the same presentation. So breaking from these habitual practices will create an element of mindfulness in a ritual, even simple things like let’s not always sit in the same place, will evoke some different thoughts, different ideas, I think that’s important. Also, paying attention to your metaphors, I think is very important. Why is it that we always use words like follow, instruct, remind, ensure, be careful as a metaphor of safety? Why don’t we use a different set of words, you know, sharing caring? Tell me more helping listening? I think so metaphors are very, very important. Simple things like when you ask a question, be as open as you can be. Now, instead of saying, what colours are you saying on the board? What could be the colours because people do think see things differently? And you have to appreciate that as a facilitator of a risk assessment or an incident investigation. So be as open as you can, in order to come to terms with your own unconscious biases. Why does the checklist always have to start from top to bottom or from left rioter risk matrix, why can’t it be from bottom to top or from middle somewhere, or even leave the checklist towards the end, do the checks first and then come to the checklist so that it doesn’t become a mindless exercise which is dictated by a piece of paper. So I think, I guess what I’m trying to say is that is one way to promote a ritual is to, well, one way to avoid ritual, habitually arising or making a ritual mind mindless, is to evoke some critical thinking is to evoke some imagination, some creativity in your daily work, whether it’s a risk assessment, or an incident investigation, or whatsoever and, and also to become used to the idea of having a conversation, where you can leave your agenda for 10 minutes, and just listen to what the other person is saying. Not for his sake, if that’s too difficult for you, not for their sake, but for your own sake, so that you might be able to learn something new that you didn’t know, until you started that conversation. And I guess it’s hard for many people federal to do that. I fully empathise with that. We are, in a way a bond of why we’re designed as humans for for actions and doing things were not designed for reflection, and thinking. But I guess listening makes a huge difference. If you genuinely want to learn more than what you knew.

Pedro Ferreira


You have been an interesting parallel, I think is coming to mind. And I’d like to hear what you what do you think of it? I mean, set checklists are everywhere in in every workplace, and perhaps one of the most famous places where they pop up is an aeroplane cockpit. And I’m getting the feeling here that in that sort of environment, a checklist is there to support the ritual. Pilots have their own flight crew ritual, and the checklist is done when they’re doing the ritual. As they do the check, the checklist is there to support that ritual. Whereas if we take that to a John saris story, the risk assessment that checklist the documentation they using seems to be the very thing that is stealing away the purpose of the ritual. Does that make sense?

Oh, absolutely. And this is what I felt the confusion is the idea of a ritual is so powerful, because in essence, what I learned from from the confusion list way of looking at ritual is that once you become a master of the ritual, then you are you are in the rhythm of the ritual. So you’re not addict. So you are very quick at detecting when mindlessness creeps into a ritual. And you go back into into

Nippin Anand


Yeah, precisely. Yes, Pedro. You’re right. Absolutely. So you, you know where exactly you are becoming a victim of habits. And you know, when to evoke mindfulness into it? Yes. So the checklist is not the one that yes, checklist is important. But checklist does not dictate the process you do.

Pedro Ferreira


So we go back to that initial point that we always like to make, which is, it’s all about the person and the person listening to her own self, first of all, and to others. Right. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. Yes. Yes. And I think before we end, we should leave a couple of questions with people say, just think about what rituals in your organisation have become misaligned with their purpose. And one way to understand is that whether it’s a risk assessment and incident investigation, a board meeting or a toolbox talk, whatever it is, think about two things, at least, which rituals are there to dehumanise people. And I can clearly see many, many things that we do to belittle people to dehumanise people and which rituals are there to breed mistrust, that you come to a ritual and it actually breeds mistrust instead of trust. And if you think about those two questions, and you can start, you can start to think how can we change that in our organisation? How can we make sure that every ritual every meeting every every ceremony, every get together?

Nippin Anand


We can promote? More meaning more purpose and more trust. And one way to look at is, is how can we improve relationships? And how can we recognise people in our rituals? I think that’s that’s the key to it.


Pedro Ferreira


Yeah. So almost try and look around and see what rituals have stopped working for organising people and person and have began to serve other purposes other than building organisation. Right? Yeah.

Nippin Anand


I go back to my story where I was saying earlier, when they start off of an appraisal meeting, you’re, you’re, you’re told you have 40 minutes, and we need to get on with it. And what kind of an appraisal would that be? What what, what is that? What is the purpose of that ritual? Is it really about bringing my my best potential out? Or is it about creating a sense of vacancy, a sense of dissatisfaction and worthlessness? It’s almost like, well, you just have to do it, because we have to get through it. There is no real meaning in this in this exercise. So it’s really about dehumanising people in many ways, isn’t it? Yeah.

Pedro Ferreira


I think that’s a very good example, at the end, anything to add? Nippin?

Nippin Anand


No, I don’t think so. I think we, we it’s, it’s been a wonderful conversation, like always Pedro. And let’s see what people have to say after listening to this.

Pedro Ferreira


Looking forward to that.

Nippin Anand


All right, you take care. All right.

Nippin Anand


Do you have any questions, any feedback, any comments, any criticism, you can always write to us? You can write to me personally, at support at novellus dot solutions. You can also leave a message for us on our website novellus dot solutions. You can email me personally nippin.anand@novellus.solutions and you can find me on LinkedIn. Until then, have a good day.