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Whirling Chief
Nº 98

Safety as an Enabler of Performance

The above photo is the iconic shot of 11 steel workers as they take a break, perched on what was to become the 69th floor of Rockefeller Center in 1932. This building’s construction, along with many other New York buildings, unfortunately claimed many peoples’ lives. This was the height of the Great Depression and most people were just grateful to have a job, albeit a dangerous one. “The pay was good. The thing was, you had to be willing to die,” said John Rasenberger, author of High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline.

This photo, as well as documenting this seminal building’s construction, is often used as a way for us to reflect on how attitudes towards safety have changed. These workers were hundreds of feet above the ground, not tied on, and with little consideration for their safety. The photo gives us some insight into what was considered ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ at the time.

There is no doubt that our relationship to the safety of people at work has changed significantly since the 1930s. The way we build these type of buildings now is much safer, with the expectation that no one dies or even gets injured during their construction. Indeed, our relationship to, and definition of, safety at work has shifted in many other significant ways.

We have moved beyond safety being simply the absence of harm done to people. Today, we consider that Safety is one of humankind’s most fundamental concerns. In everything we undertake, we all hope to emerge on the other side intact and free from harm – and having learned something from the experience we can take into the next endeavour.

But physical safety is only one aspect of what we now understand by the phrase ‘Safety at Work,’ which now includes mental and emotional health, often described as Psychological Safety: We not only seek to do no harm to people who work with us, but we aim to send them home having developed in all aspects of their lives. Thus, through their experience of work, they are happier and as a result have better lives.

When we create such ‘safe places of work’ – safe in the broadest sense – it is not only good for the people who work for those organisations, but it is good for the organisation. Let me explain.

When we create ‘safe environments,’ environments that are free from fear, where people are able to bring their full selves to work, we see that trust and collaboration emerge. We know that where there is fear, for example, fear of losing one’s job, fear of the organisational hierarchy, fear of not being good enough, it is almost impossible for us to be creative or innovative as we are always holding something back. Physiologically, our bodies unconsciously shut down these ‘non-essential’ things and focus all of our energies on dealing with the threat, whether this is imagined or real. Conversely, if there is no fear and we feel supported, cared for, and loved, trust emerges, along with collaboration and a host of other positive things. When we bring our full selves to the work we do, we’re more engaged and connected with the work we’re doing and the environment we’re working in – and hence we’re safer.

I had the privilege at the end of last year to be shown around Google’s headquarters in Zurich. Google is one of the most innovative of companies and knows that they must create a ‘safe environment’ for their people – not just to attract and retain the best talent, but to enable them to do their best work. As you walk around, you are struck by the openness of the offices (yet people are working intimately in small teams), the flexible working hours, and the fun that they build into the work environment that simply results in people loving being ‘at work’.

These are all the physical parts of the office they provide. However, you are conscious of the care they show every member of their team, the fact that innovation is both encouraged, and indeed expected, even embedded in their culture. They use seed funding to promote and accelerate great new ideas, then rapidly create teams around these ideas. People are encouraged to work on whatever inspires them, and have fun doing it.

These are some of the ways that Google creates a safe environment for its people and, hence, encourages innovation and creativity. This is an example of how safety, in its broadest sense, has become an enabler of organisational performance.

When people feel safe, they bring their full genuine selves to work and thrive, and when they thrive, their organisation thrives. We call organisations that thrive Why-Based Organisations, and these organisations have four key attributes, over and above normal organisations.

To continue the conversation of how to start to create these type of organisations, we have produced a short three-part video series on steps to becoming a thriving organisation and would love for you to contribute to the conversation.

What is a Thriving Organisation?

How to Create a Thriving Organisation

Leading Thriving Organisations

As a final thought, when we consider our current relationship to safety in 2017, what will people in the future look back on and think? ‘Wow, I can’t believe they did that!’ or ‘I can’t believe their employees put up with that!’

And that leads me to one final question, that as a safety coach I constantly reflect on and struggle with:

What is it that we currently accept about ‘safety at work’ that we know deep in our hearts is really unacceptable?

WhyNot transform the nature of work? I’d love your thoughts.


  • 27 March 2017

By Simon Marshall

"I am an optimist that sees possibility everywhere: I believe that every person is capable of leading meaningful, fulfilling and extraordinary lives. When we tap into this huge potential in people, magic happens. And when we extend this across organisations, we can create healthy, resilient cultures and unprecedented performance –...


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