Envisioning through semiotics

Envisioning through semiotics

Our columnist visits two Polish cities and discovers a rotating deer head in a church, which makes him reflect on the importance of paying attention …

Recently I visited two medieval cities in the northern part of Poland, Chelmno and Torun (both bordering the Vistula River, which runs through parts of the country). In the 13th century, the State of the Teutonic Order emerged in this area, with its knights setting up and ruling the towns (along with some local Bishops loyal to the Pope).

Chelmno and Torun date back to around 1065 and were, at the time, protected by a girdle of Gothic defensive walls. Many of its sections and guard towers are still standing to this day. The two cities are also filled with Gothic buildings, churches, castles and entrance gates that have withstood the test of time (despite all the battles and wars over the centuries).

My aim wasn’t to take in the beauty of these two towns, which I have visited on numerous occasions, but rather to consider their history. I wanted to understand the significance of the times in which they emerged, as well as some of the relics still visible today.

I decided to conduct two semiotic walks in Chelmno – one in the daytime and a second at night. I had the benefit of a guide, who took me to the large Parish Church of the Assumption, where I saw a 17th century deer’s head hanging from a rope attached to the ceiling. Wondering about its significance, I asked a woman who was working in the church to tell me more. She told me that the rope is sensitive to the changes in air humidity: when the weather is overcast, or humidity levels are increasing, the rope changes direction and the deer head turns towards the door of the church; when the skies are clear, it faces the altar. On my visit, the head was facing slightly towards the altar, and I decided to go back later to see whether its position had changed.

The weather had become overcast, and the head had rotated almost 180° and was now facing the church door. I guess we can regard this deer head as a very creative 17th century barometer!

There was also a large painting of Saint Valentine depicting the Christian martyr’s decapitation. The church has what is believed to be a piece of his skull bone preserved in a silver reliquary. (This is probably an urban legend, however, as it is believed that the skull of Saint Valentine resides in a glass reliquary in Rome’s Basilica di Santa Maria.) Both the deer head and the skull bone have become symbols of significance to those living in and visiting the city.

I also visited the city of Torun, where it was impossible not to notice the legacy of the famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543), an active mathematician, astronomer and member of the church. Today the Gothic-style houses of his family still exist and his statue stands prominently in the centre of the old town.

He is probably the most famous resident of the town, as he was the first astronomer to develop the theory that the sun was at the centre of the universe. To learn more about his life, I visited the home that he lived in, which is now a museum.

What does this all have to do with risk and safety?

Being attentive to semiotics and understanding the significance of our surroundings, be it in our private or our professional lives, is key. As leaders, and those employed in the risk and safety field, we often underestimate the need to be switched on to semiotics and using it in our engagement with people. Everything in life has significance. It is therefore important, in our role as leaders, to understand our surroundings and their meaning.


The importance of engaging in conversation

It was the conversation with the lady in the Chelmno church that enlightened me about the significance of the deer’s head, the painting of Saint Valentine and the relic of the skull bone. Allowing the guide to share her local knowledge also gave me some background on the history of the city, the artefacts located at strategic places and the significance of each of them. Similarly, my visits to the Copernicus Museum and the ruins of the long-ago knights in Torun gave me a new understanding of what happened centuries ago.

Being attentive in risk and safety

In the risk and safety industry, the requirements are very similar: we need to engage with and be attentive to what is around us. We also have to focus on the significance of language, text, signs, symbols and artefacts, and to uncover what the spin-off is.

We need to challenge ourselves when it comes to our ability to be attentive and suspend our own agendas (when walking on sites and engaging with employees at various levels of the organisation).

Do we observe what is happening around us and ensure that we understand what we see – be it the signs and symbols that we see on the walls, the information on communication boards, banners, posters and artefacts? Are our slogans and icons suitable and do they help to develop our desired culture? Do they reflect an approach of caring?

Do we focus on the right things in our discussions? For example, is the focus mainly on objects and controls or is there a balanced approach with some of the focus placed on the individuals as well as group dynamics or culture? In traditional safety, almost all of the focus is based on the controls and physical aspects.

Engaging for understanding

When talking to people, how often do we suspend our own agenda, allow them to direct the discussions, and listen with intent to ensure that we understand (and show that we are interested in what is being said)?

I have observed many people within the risk and safety industry doing much talking and little listening. I would have hardly learnt anything had I not suspended my own agenda and allowed the lady in the church or my guide in Chelmno to do the talking.

During incident investigations, for example, we seldom allow others to do the talking. Those chairing them often direct the discussion towards looking for specific answers. So much more would be achieved by allowing the persons being interviewed to direct the discussion and talk openly. When doing so and listening with intent (hearing what is being said, focusing on metaphors and comments made, focusing on gestures and body language) the outcome would be very different and far more helpful. This is very different from running the investigation like an enquiry.

Many leaders emphasise the importance of daily toolbox talks, believing that these are the silver bullet that will influence the understanding and buy-in of the safety focus areas, drive and performance. Often, these talks are focused on objects, rules and controls – things that will have only a limited impact on the development of the desired culture in any organisation. Thousands of hours are spent conducting safety talks, but these are usually a waste of time, money and resources. They are a “tick and flick” exercise, the approach being “let’s do it, get it over and done with and get back to work”.

If we want to make a useful difference, the traditional toolbox talks should be replaced with “engagement sessions where involvement is encouraged, transparency is encouraged and focus is shifted to include psychological and cultural elements”. (This is described in detail in my book It Works! co-authored with Dr Robert Long.)

In summary

We need to sharpen our skills in understanding semiotics, and to focus on the fundamentals of good listening and dialogue techniques. The power lies not in telling, but in listening. When we make time for others to share their experiences, we show respect and interest.

As leaders we need to reflect a caring approach, which starts with us encouraging engagement. We need to move away from “telling” and towards inviting everybody to participate.

Good engagement ensures group involvement and collective discussions during safety talks, during general discussions, when developing a new initiative, or when addressing certain concerns. Engagement can improve the group’s understanding of the message, idea or an incident that is being discussed.

Being attentive, understanding the significance of our surroundings and focusing on people (rather than objects only) is key to our efforts to develop the type of culture in organisations that we want. Taking people (individuals and teams) into account is aligned with a caring approach, it builds trust and, in the long run, it contributes to the success of a company.

Published by

Brian Darlington

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.
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