You?re gonna need a bigger boat
It’s been more than 40 years since the movie Jaws scared us all out of the water. yet there is much that movie can teach us about organisational culture and the work of the safety practitioner
Sure, you may well have vowed never to go back in the water again after watching the film, but Jaws catalysed a fascination of sharks in me. Several times each year, a team of fellow divers and I charter a boat and head off into the “deep blue” to get “up close and personal” with these magnificent creatures.
Following a day of formidable diving with more than 20 different great white sharks, our group settled into the boat’s saloon, cold beers in hand, for that night’s movie. On screen, as the beautiful blonde slips into the water for a moonlit dip, that familiar theme quickly penetrated our brains. Duh-Duh, Duuuh-Duh, Duh-Duh, Duh-Duh, Duh-Duh…
I’ve seen the movie Jaws hundreds of times since its release in 1975 and – despite the shark losing in the end – it remains one of my all-time favourite films. After this recent viewing I found myself reflecting a little more deeply. I concluded that the movie is an incredible parallel of the work of safety professionals in many organisations around the globe.
“Welcome to Amity, chief!”
First, we meet the police chief Martin Brody, freshly flown in from the big city to lead the local police force on the quaint and peaceful holiday island of Amity. The chief is in “sponge mode” as he tries to figure out his surroundings, learn local lingo and understand who the movers and shakers are – in just the same way a newly appointed safety practitioner gets used to the culture when joining a new organisation.
When the body of Chrissie (the moonlight swimmer) is found washed up on the shoreline, the shock waves penetrate the local tightly knit community. A ripple of panic washes over the island when the coroner concludes that the girl lost her life due to a shark attack. Brody must take action – but how? He’s never had to handle a shark attack before, so his instinct takes over.
Stepping up, he responds by having his team swiftly close all of the beaches. News just in tells him that there are boy scouts completing a swimming test over in the lagoon. As a father, Brody is immediately concerned and races to the ferry to get the boys out of the water.
Before the boat gets going, though, it’s commandeered by the town mayor and his henchmen who rather overbearingly show their collective might. Mayor Vaughn even nudges the coroner to declare that Chrissie’s death did not occur as a result of a shark attack, but that it “could have been” a simple boating accident. The conclusion? Brody is railroaded into re-opening the beaches, a direct U-turn on his judgement.
Looking back on these few scenes, is it possible that Brody and his dilemma could mirror that of the safety professional shutting down a process according to his gut feel that there’s a significant risk of imminent and serious harm, yet being “encouraged to do otherwise” by higher authorities to ensure production targets are met?
“You knew all those things…”
Realising he has no choice, Brody agrees to keep the beaches open – after all, it’s the holiday season and he doesn’t want to stop people having fun – but we can see he isn’t happy with this outcome. Soon enough we learn that his hunch was right, as a young child is taken by a shark.
As the crowds leave the water in panic Brody sees the error of his ways. With the island in mourning and Brody racked with guilt, he’s faced down in the street by the mother of the lost child, who proceeds to tear a strip off him for not closing the beaches, slapping him hard in the face.
Let’s replay the lines from the movie:
“Chief Brody… I just found out that a girl got killed here last week – and you knew it! You knew there was a shark out there! You knew it was dangerous, but you let people go swimming anyway? You knew all those things. But still my boy is dead now. And there’s nothing you can do about it. My boy is dead.”
After seeing the police chief being publicly humiliated, the mayor offers less than sincere support, telling Brody the woman was wrong, and that it’s not his fault, but, deep in thought, Brody realises that she wasn’t wrong as he rationalises his responsibility.
Again, the parallel to the work of the safety practitioner comes to the fore with Brody assuming his role as the appointed guardian of the island people’s safety. He clearly understood what he should have done to keep people safe, but allowed himself to be bullied into not doing it and there was another incident.
As the film plays out, gangs of fishermen fight to grab supplies, bait and boats as they race to find the killer shark and claim the sizeable reward offered by the grieving mother of the last victim. Brody variously instructs, advises and begs them not to overload their boats and to take care on the water, but the fishermen – hell-bent on winning the bounty – don’t listen.
It’s a classic example of a safety practitioner who – in a work environment focused on productivity targets and “getting the parts out the door” – can see the accidents coming, yet has no control over the behaviour of those beyond his direct control.
Soon enough, a boat returns with a large shark, hoisted high on the dock for all to see. The mood is high and the anglers await their reward, but shark expert Matt Hooper has rocked up on Amity Island.
His experience and knowledge confirm that this shark is not the one responsible for the attacks on Chrissie or the boy, but the jubilant crowd won’t listen. Hooper feels as though he’s wasting his time.
“They caught A shark. Not THE shark.”
Chief Brody senses that Hooper is right. The duo sneak into the mortuary so that Hooper can examine the remains of the first victim. Within seconds he sees the cause of the woman’s death:
“Well, this is not a boat accident! And it wasn’t any propeller; and it wasn’t any coral reef; and it wasn’t Jack the Ripper! It was a shark.”
At this point, Brody is forced to admit to himself that he should have held his nerve and resisted the mayor’s instructions… Perhaps just like many safety practitioners playing back events post-accident, with the benefit of hindsight and the prompting of a regulatory inspector or industry expert.
Later, Brody finds his young son sitting in his new boat outside their home. Filled with emotion he screams at his kid to get out of the boat. His wife tells him to calm down – the boy is just excited by his birthday gift, and the boat is still tied to the dock, so he’s going nowhere.
As she tries to soothe her husband, she notices what Brody is reading – a book on shark attacks – and suddenly turns to scream at the boy in the boat, overcome with fear and emotion.
How often have you, as a safety professional, struggled through a similar situation – alone like Brody – until someone close to you finally sees it from your perspective?
“I think we’ve got another shark problem”
With concerns racing through his brain, guided by the technical expertise of Hooper, Brody learns of another death, so finally takes the decision to close the beaches. When he tells the mayor what he will do, he’s met with absolute resistance.
The mayor’s instruction is for the police chief to do whatever he needs to do to keep people safe, but that the beaches must remain open. His justification is that Amity is a holiday town and relies on the tourist dollar.
It’s that classic juxtaposition of safety versus productivity… Rather than shut the beaches, instead beach-tower observers, extra boat patrols and helicopter fly-bys are all thrown into play – but this completely ignores the real root cause of the problem.
Another attack occurs in shallow water among scores of happy holiday makers. This time, the shock of seeing what was right in front of them causes people to think differently. Even the mayor realises the gravity of the situation and eventually agrees to a local fisherman’s demands for a large fee to find and execute the killer shark.
The parallel here with safety culture is the epiphany gained by business leaders who personally experience a shocking accident and then realise that safety actually does matter – and they don’t like that uneasy feeling of responsibility that dawns on them.
The movie now enters a different paradigm as the hunt for the shark plays out. Brody has to confront his fear of the water and quickly learn the skill of boat skippering and the art of shark fishing, while managing the expectations of the grisly, well-experienced seaman Quint and the strategic-thinking, technical genius Hooper.
Have you ever felt like Brody? Perhaps as you, the practitioner charged with keeping people safe, must learn to understand and find the balance in the “way things are done around here”.
You’ll recall the end of the story… The angry fisherman, who had taken chances all his life, meets his maker, while Brody and Hooper’s plan comes to fruition and culminates in some solid risk elimination with the demise of the killer shark.
As they paddle back to shore it’s obvious that Brody has reflected deeply on his actions (and inactions). The deaths have caused deep scars in him. He’s struggled with trying to keep everyone happy, while balancing safety (the lives and community spirit of the islanders) with productivity (their economic dependence on tourists coming to the island).
As the police chief, Brody’s responsibility is to always do the right thing – even though his decisions may not land well with his stakeholders.
My work as a consultant takes me around the world, (I’ve been to more than 100 countries) and I’ve met several people like Matt Hooper – the technical expert who struggles to communicate what really needs to be done, seeking someone to listen and provide support.
I’ve also encountered too many people like Quint – who are deeply experienced, but brash, with a myopic focus on result and reward.
I’ve also met many like Brody – the safety professional who is “otherwise encouraged” to go against their gut feeling or expert advice, who have tragically ended up with scenes of destruction playing out in front of them, as happy lives are turned upside down with irreversible effect.
Do you find them in your organisation, too? For the final scenes of this feature, you’re not going to need a bigger boat. You just need to face your fears, stand up for that in which you believe, and get back into the water. Don’t wait for the shark to bite first.
Sharman on Safety is based on ideas and concepts from Andrew Sharman’s new book: From Accidents to Zero: a practical guide to improving your workplace safety culture. Andrew is an international member of the South African Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (SAIOSH) and the Chief Executive of RMS – consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. More at www.RMSswitzerland.com.