Rituals in Risk Management – Part 1

November 10, 2022



In this podcast, Dr Rob Long and I take a deep dive into the significance of rituals, religion and mythology in risk and safety management. One would hope that we are a ‘modern society’ that goes by reason and logic but is that so? Find out more by listening to this podcast.



Nippin Anand, Rob Long


Nippin Anand  00:01

Hello, and welcome to another episode of embracing differences with me Nippin Anand. While it’s been a while, isn’t it? I haven’t done a podcast for a little while. So yes, I’m the founder of novella solutions. And my interest really lies in understanding the role of language in improving organisational culture. Some people like to say safety culture, but I like the term organisational culture because it’s more holistic. I do a lot of blogs and podcasts and you can find me on my website, which is novellas dot solutions. Or you can also find me on LinkedIn. Today, we’re going to talk about the role of rituals in risk management. And this is an discussion I had with Dr. Rob Long, who lives in Australia. And it’s an incredibly powerful way to understand a lot of what we do in risk and safety, when we situate it within the framework of rituals of religion, and mythology. So I think you’re going to enjoy this discussion. And there will also be a part two, which is maybe hopefully next week, if I get the time. And in that session, we will actually look at a very personal story of a ritual. And my, my aim is that you can, once you understand the theoretical foundations of rituals, which is in this this podcast, you can then put it in practice by looking at a very personal story. So today we’re going to learn about rituals. And the next podcast, we’ll be putting this whole idea of rituals into practice. So you really get to understand what rituals are all about. So this two podcasts, okay, so here we go.


Rob Long  01:55

One of the things that Miles is not one, it’s many things bother me about the way the risk and safety industry defines culture. Is it six extraordinary, you know, there’s not a definition of culture across the globe. That when the word culture is mentioned, that anything is raised of the importance of religion. And yet, every anthropologist knows that if you study any culture, anywhere in the world, you start with religion. You start with religious thinking, you start with how people think, religiously. One of the amazing things about the risk and safety industry is it’s avoidance of such a discussion. They don’t understand that a checklist, a checklist is a ritual, they don’t understand that. And yet, you could say quite clearly, I’m going to do this checklist. Religiously, we could use that metaphor, and no one would quibble about it, I’m going to I go to football practice, religiously, you know, I, I make sure that the source is always made this way on my food. And I do it religiously, no one gets offended by the use of that metaphor, except when you come to risk and safety. You can’t use the word religion attached to safety, because everyone thinks that that devalues the action you attach to it. And so it divorces that from how it defines culture, and by doing so, it takes out of an understanding of culture, the most important element that any archaeologist, any anthropologist and any sociologist would see as the foundation of culture. Isn’t that remarkable?


Nippin Anand  04:10

It is it is remarkable. And yeah, there’s, you know, there’s this prayer that we start with in the safety world, which we call let’s take a safety moment.


Rob Long  04:23

Yeah, let’s have a safety minute. Yes.


Nippin Anand  04:26

Yeah. And there are so many of them like,


Rob Long  04:30

oh, this this is not alcohol for our viewers. This is called kombucha. It’s a it’s a yeast based, soft drink. But anyway. Mind you, if you can drink religiously as well. And, you know, for some people, alcohol is a sacred moment. You can’t do without it. You know? Are you are impoverished if you don’t have a drink. So I find that this brings us to things like ritual and gesture, which of course, are foundational to understanding any performance by humans. So when we perform any act, it can be ritual or gesture. And we need to understand both when it comes in application to risk and safety. So I’ve got a range of questions. So the first 10 questions are on the nature of ritual. If at the


Nippin Anand  05:40

start, I think it’s, it’s a good reminder, to remind people of the use of the word performance, how it is used and abused, that went. Because it is very, very, very, very pertinent to the idea of rituals, if you want to understand rituals, go and look at the verbal and visual performance, how it is formed. And that is so different from the metaphor of performance that we see. Right? Oh, yeah. And it’s a beautiful word human performance, for example,


Rob Long  06:16

with that directly means measurement. But when you understand the word performance, as enactment, the word comes from drama, from theatre, and how have we performed, so if I perform a ritual in the theatre, then it could actually be that I, I do something special before I walk on stage. So I have a ritual. And so I say our break a leg, which is a theatrical ritual to make sure that everything goes well. You know, so it’s like, the moment people hear the word religion or hear the word ritual, in the risk and safety industry, they stop thinking. And so similarly, they only understand the word performance to mean measurement are, it’s a KPI, you know, it’s a KPI or performance indicator? No, it’s not. When we think of, you know, performance, I mean, I, I can pick up my guitar, and I can perform a musical item, I can sing a song as a performance, you better not start measuring that performance or your record. And this is what risk and safety doesn’t know, the purpose of performance, to enact it, is to embody and live an embodied enactment, it is not to measure it, you know, if I, if I go to a, a performance of my favourite music, if I sit there with the checklist and start assessing it, then I’ve already wrecked it. Yes. If I go to my children, with a checklist to assess their performance, I’m already not a parent. If I go to my love life with my wife, and I start assessing her performance, then I’m no longer in love. So when I’m talking about a ritual performance, I’m talking about a theatrical enactment, I’m talking about a enactment of something that has meaning, by the way, and the method that it’s done. And I can, I can also devalue it, by its repetition, or the lack of meaning, I give that in its repetition. So, you know, a meaningless ritual. A ritual that has no meaning is usually something we robbed of its original value, and we rob it of its purpose. And so it becomes a meaningless ritual. But many, many rituals can be incredibly meaningful. So we have a ritual, my wife and I, when we get up in the morning, we hug and we kiss, and we say, I love you. Well, I wonder how meaningful What is that? And yet, it’s a ritual. And we want that ritual. And we give it meaning, and we give it power, and we could not stop doing it. And this is a silly thing about people not understanding ritual or religion. The moment you hear the word ritual, they think it’s meaningless ritual. No, it’s not. Every time I shake a hand of a person have not met before I put my hand out in friendship, I shake their hand, that’s not a meaningless ritual. And so we have to understand more deeply the semiotics of ritual. And so I’ve just posed some questions here to consider. Or the first question, what is the sequence of the ritual now? Why would I ask that? What is the sequence of the ritual? Why have I asked that?


Nippin Anand  11:01

I think what is important is that you want to understand the causation. It’s you want to understand what is preceding? What is what is coming up to what, yeah, do


Rob Long  11:15

we do we have? Do we hug first and kiss later? Or do we hug then shake hands? Or do we say hello? As we shake hands? Or if you’re in New Zealand? Do we rubbed noses of you in Cambodia? Do we bow and so the sequence of the ritual is something which is culturally enacted, and culturally validated. And if you get the sequence wrong, then it not only shows ignorance, for respect in the ritual, it shows that you have no cultural understanding of the ritual itself. So sequence is the beginning. You know, even if you don’t know its meaning, at least understand that when you go to New Zealand, it’s it’s you you touch noses, at least. Now, if you don’t know how to do it, when to do it, who to hold, then you become a learner, you ask? No different than if you go to Cambodia or Thailand? In in how you greet now. Now, I’ve never been to India? I don’t know. I’d have to ask someone. I don’t know, in India, what you do to greet a stranger? I don’t know. And same for male or female as well. I don’t know. So it’s sequences important. Yeah. Yeah. The next one is, there’s an underpinning belief behind all ritual that gives it meaning and purpose. And, you know, we need to understand what that underpinning belief is, you know, so if it’s bowing, here, then there is a humility attached to that. And an assumption that if you don’t do it correctly, that you are, you are offensive, you are being arrogant, you’re not being humble. So how did the ritual in nature originate? It certainly helps to know how the ritual started, and how it’s anchored. And so that’s the third question there. You know, I, when I think of meaningless rituals in risk and safety, I see people doing things and I have no idea where it’s come from, or no idea what its purpose is yet. And yet, if I was go to a local temple, everyone would know what the origin of the ritual was, and, and and where it’s anchored. So, you know, this is the difference in between a meaningless ritual and a meaningful ritual. So what is the symbolic enactment? That’s a very important question, because there is no ritual that is not symbolic. Even if it’s a ritual in its verbal, or its, or its gestural, or it can any form of para linguistic action, if it is symbolic, and it’s anchored and attached to that symbolism. And you cannot separate the two. It just like you cannot separate myth and symbol. You cannot separate ritual and gesture and symbol. You can’t separate it. So what is the symbolic enactment is absolutely critical. To understand, and again, we go back to, you know, meaningless rituals, we often have people who don’t even understand the power of a symbol, you know, and they’ll dismiss it or you know, as being just symbolic, you know? So giving a bunch of flowers to someone you love or something like that, you know, what an incredibly powerful symbol yet, if you ruin that, then you you could do so easily by devaluing its symbolic value. Next one, what are the rhythms, the patterns and the framing of the ritual? Very, very important foundations to communicate, communicative power. What, why is the ritual performed and I put in brackets there, the lamb now, the lamb is a wonderful, wonderful author, who has written about the semiotics of drama, and performance in his wonderful book. I don’t know if I have it here close on hand. I thought I had it nearby. But I can’t see it. I should grab it. Here it is. If you really want to understand the notion of performance, then this is the book


Nippin Anand  16:37

Yeah, the semiotics of theatre than drama by


Rob Long  16:41

absolutely essential, the semiotics of theatre and drama. So when asked the question, why is the ritual performed? Then I would suggest you read e lamb, which is this books been out for quite some time. Here Eelam, the semiotics of theatre and drama, because, you know, that is essential to understanding what we mean by when is something performed?


Nippin Anand  17:09

Yep. It’s interesting, Rob, you say that, I once did a workshop where we had people from around the world. And I just brought out the video in which a tiger was being cremated in India. Yep. And cremation of an animal is not common across cultures, we usually bury them in the earth. And there were people in the room who had tears in their eyes, and they didn’t know why.


Rob Long  17:37

Yep, yep. Yep. Well, you know, funny, funny thing. Nippin When I was when I was a clergyman, so when I was working in churches and not for government organisations, and conducting funerals, let me tell you, you better get that ritual performance, right? If you Bumble up a wedding ritual, or a funeral ritual, if you Bumble that up, You wrecked the performance for the people who need meaning in that moment. And so, how, how we bury people, how we cremate people, how we marry people, and so on, is absolutely critical to understanding ritual performance.


Nippin Anand  18:43

Yeah, there’s another one, which is a seafarer goes missing at sea, he jumps overboard, and the company is expected to write an accident investigation. You don’t know what to say. It’s over, he’s gone. What do you want me to write? And yet the society demands, findings and recommendations. If you don’t have findings, they don’t have recommendations, that ritual has no meaning at all. That’s how powerful the symbol of an accident investigation report is that it must produce a finding and a recommendation at the end. Even when there is


Rob Long  19:22

none. Yeah, that’s right. I mean, is it is it is astounding. And so, the next is what accessories are used in the ritual very, very important. So instruments, clothes, anything that is a an attachment. So you know, anything that we anchor our bodies to, or what we do with their bodies, becomes an embodied mode of learning in the ritual. So we learn by doing and observing. So in the second page of my, my tool there the gesture tool, you know, even this, this, this, the movement of our hands or how we hold hands, and things like that, they then become an instrument of the ritual itself. And so there are so many, you cannot count them 1000s and 1000s of rituals we perform every day, and many of them are gestural that they, they come embodied in a gesture. So, you know, here’s a little wink at you Nippin. See, what does that mean in your culture a week? What does that mean in India? Anything?


Nippin Anand  20:50

It Well, if it’s, it’s basically enticing another person.


Rob Long  20:55

Oh, okay. Yeah, in Australia, that means I am not telling you the truth. If I do that, that is another meaning. Yes, yes. If I, if I go, if I go. And by the way, I saw, I saw a red koala bear. And I went, then we know, in Australia, that I’m giving I’m having a lend of you. That’s what we say. And that phrase I’m having a lend of you. Is is an Australian phrase we use all the time is like pull your leg pull your other leg. Have you heard that one? Yes, yes, yes. Yes. Yeah. It’s like, pull the other leg it plays jingle bills. That’s what we say in Australia. So understanding not just the accessories, but also the Linguistics of what goes with the performance. So what is attached politically to the performance? And what is communicated unconsciously? Now those 10 questions that are written and never asked anywhere in the Risk and Safety world anywhere in the globe? Never.


Nippin Anand  22:08

Would you like to elaborate? Would you like to elaborate on what is communicated unconsciously? Because I think that’s a really powerful one. Which is what you said just now by winking your eye, right?


Rob Long  22:20

Yeah, yeah, I really weak my eye. And, and what, when that happens, if it’s cultural, you actually don’t know you’re doing it. When it is so habitual so ritualistic so gestural, it just it just, you don’t think Bye, bye. Oh, goodness, me. I don’t think when I raise my hand, I don’t say I’m gonna say goodbye to Nippin and raise my hand. No, you don’t. You’re taught from a very early age as a child and becomes a heuristic. You just do it. And if someone says to you, oh, by the way, Rob, you’re waving a hand. I really, am I Oh, yes, I am. And so we don’t bring to the surface, the unconscious action, we attach to a ritual. And so even a young child by the age of three or four, just does this. Bye, bye. Bye. Bye, daddy. Bye, bye, Mommy. My little, my little granddaughter doesn’t even think there’s no thinking. No, she just starts blowing kisses at me from from Perth. You know? She hasn’t been ordered to she doesn’t have to. And she doesn’t think about doing it. It’s not there’s no thinking involved. It’s not a rational choice. It is an automatic, completely unconscious enactment.


Nippin Anand  23:54

It’s interesting, because when you look at how a risk consent risk assessment ritual starts. Sometimes the first the first thing is, okay, we have 10 minutes. Let’s get on with it.


Rob Long  24:06

Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s right.


Nippin Anand  24:09

Yeah. So what is communicated unconsciously in that instance, is that is just coming in the way of work is just some save us from doing the work. So the message is so powerful, and yet not it’s so unconscious. It’s so subliminal. Yes. Yes. Amazing. Rob. Now that we have covered this ritual tool, we will get to the gestures next. But what is the central idea of having those questions there? What is it that people would gain by becoming aware of these things?


Rob Long  24:48

Well in in any context, whether it be risk and safety or whether I’m in a hospital, or whether I’m in School. Yep. And, and I’m lining up to go in class. That’s a ritual. It’s a ritual that teachers teach lining up. It’s a ritual to create order. And children do it and are taught to do it automatically without thinking line up everyone, they just line up like soldiers. Why why I think this is important is if you don’t, if you don’t reflect on these things, if you don’t consider them, if you don’t think about them, and meditate on them, then you will be the victim of the meaningless ritual yourself. If you think Risk and Safety is a mechanical engineering exercise, if you think that’s that risk, and safety is a mechanical engineering exercise, you rob culture, and everything’s happening around you culturally, you become absolutely oblivious to it. It’s like, it’s like, if you, you went to the picture theatre blindfolded, you know, because nothing on the screen is of any value. It doesn’t matter where I sit, it doesn’t matter what people do, you know, all of the things which we can see that critical in theatre are dismissed as irrelevant in the risk and safety industry. So there’s no semiotic power in doing a checklist. There’s no semiotic power in the way we start up a tractor or do our work. You know, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a farmer performing a ritual in season, or whether you’re a mechanic, having a ritual in the way they work on a car, you know, the better we understand the rituals, the better we understand what’s going on, the more we value, what’s going on, and the less we dismiss it. And the more we understand it as an essential to culture, not something we throw away with a stupid line in risk and safety that says culture is what we do around here.


Nippin Anand  27:20

I think what you’re referring to, in my view, is this idea of mindlessness that has been used in rituals. It’s so mindless, we don’t realise that. And it’s an interesting question you ask Rob, which is, why is the ritual performed? I think, the why has been lost. We are so convinced that the checklist need to be ticked off, the paperwork needs to be completed, but nobody really wants to ask the question. But now is the risk assessment performed, a risk assessment is performed because we need to have a good discussion we need to understand different perspectives about what what is a hazard? What is an issue? What is the trade off? What are the byproducts, we end up in a situation where we have no idea. So the mindlessness of the ritual takes over? Yes. And purpose is lost? Yeah, yes. Amazing.


Rob Long  28:15

What do you think Western culture does Western society does? We we have people on our media, who laugh at Indigenous Australians, when they have a smoking ceremony, they make a fire, and they deliberately make it smoke. And it’s symbolic of the of the spirits of their ancestors. They say they wipe the smoke into their faces. Right? And that’s their ritual. They call it a smoking ceremony. Who the hell am I to say that has no meaning? Who am I what arrogance. And yet, this is what we do and risk and safety. We apologise for using the word faith. We apologise for using the word religion, or ritual or just most risk is about a leap of faith. That’s what risk is, is a leap into the unknown, where there is no evidence to justify your Leap, but you take it anyway, that is risk. Wonderful,


Nippin Anand  29:24

Rob. This was such an eye opening exercise. What do you think? Would you like to read more about rituals? Do you need some help with understanding how much of what we do in risk and safety can be understood better and improved? If we were to look at it within the framework of rituals and cultures? Do you want a little checklist that should help you observe the rituals in your restaurant safety processes and practices? You can always email me at support at novelist dot solutions. Or you can find us at net at novellus dot solutions. I also want to give you some questions that you want to think about. Now that you have understood what rituals are all about. You want to ask the question like, What is the sequence of the ritual? What is the underpinning belief in that ritual? Does it have a meaning or purpose? How does the ritual originate? Which means we’re How does it go back in history? How has that belief then been anchored or held upon to? What do you see as the power and energy in that ritual? What is the symbolic enactment in this ritual? What are the rhythms and patterns and framing that you see in the ritual? What accessories people are wearing, this is interesting what instruments they have, what clothing they’re wearing, how they’re dressed up. That is also very important, what is attached politically to the performance of this ritual? And what is communicated unconsciously without knowing in the ritual? So try and and see if these questions take you anywhere when you start to observe a ritual. And I’m sure you will get so much more from what you do in the name of risk and safety in your organisation. If this podcast has piqued your interest, you can subscribe to us at Spotify on Spotify, Google podcasts, Apple podcast and we will also have a lot more podcasts coming up in the next few weeks on culture, safety, culture and organisational culture. Until then, I will say what I say religiously and richly. Enjoy learning with and by embracing differences. Thank you