Connecting Safety to Purpose

Rick Strycker

Connecting Safety to Purpose

Editor’s Note: This is the 2nd of a five-part series examining safety in the workplace and how context shapes behaviours, beliefs and actions.

2 of 5 dots

In the previous post, we observed that it’s better for both safety and performance to assume people are the solution, not a problem to be solved. We also said that it’s ok to provide boundaries and conditions and expect people to work inside them. In this post, we want to talk about how to unleash people to be and do their best.

Most people are drawn to the work they do and the industry they are in for the very best of reasons.

I was reminded of this when recently talking to one of our construction clients.  Taking him through a Why Discovery conversation, it struck me that most people, whether talked about or not, work in their industry for deeply personal reasons.

After several questions, this person told me that they joined the industry to improve other peoples’ lives, by bringing to the world the infrastructure that contributes to society’s development, be this bridges, tunnels, buildings or infrastructure. The presence of these physical things makes the world an better place, he believed, and a more pleasant experience for the everyone.

Indeed, we have a past construction client whose tagline is, Bringing Engineering to Life, which eloquently sums this concept up. Whether in energy, mining or manufacturing, or whatever sector you can imagine, this higher purpose, cause or belief of contributing to others — this Why — is real for people, even if not fully visible or expressed.

Yet, in many industries, people still get hurt, and sometimes killed in the course of their work. When this happens, it puts pressure on people who believe in the purpose of the business but recognise the pain caused by these events. Some give up on the noble cause of business and become resigned or cynical, and others take up the torch of safety and try to make it the purpose of their life’s work.

Living with this dilemma is really tough. But as humans, we’re good at dealing with tough stuff and can create ways to ‘live’ with it — not to like it but to live with it.  We may create a story that it is the inevitable cost of doing the work we do, but as long as we are enhancing many peoples’ lives, maybe it’s ok. Or, we make up another story that safety is the most important thing at any cost, even at the expense of the business success.

But if we are truthful to ourselves, none of these stories we tell ourselves really takes away from the internal struggle with ourselves; it simply just doesn’t feel right. In addition, it appears we have hit a plateau in the performance improvements in safety and productivity.

It may dawn on us that the only real option is to find a way to move forward that is outside the current paradigm, the very thinking that holds the current circumstances in place.

The best way to do this is to start to unpack some of the stories or assumptions that are deeply entrenched in our collective belief systems. The three most common assumptions are:

  • The assumption of inevitability – “After all, construction/mining/energy is a dangerous activity. People are always going to get hurt aren’t they?” Or, on the other hand, “the leaders here are never really going to understand how important safety is. They just don’t get it.”
  • The assumptions of powerlessness – “This is so big of a challenge. What can I actually do about it?”
  • The assumption of no solutions – “We’ve been working on this for years and people are still getting hurt.”

To confront these assumptions requires energy — concerted and committed energy — that is needed to overcome the inevitable drag back to the current ways of thinking.

Fortunately, there is a place to go to tap into a huge amount of energy, a resource that unleashes people to move beyond the current dilemmas. That place is the very reason we joined the industry in the first place, our Why, the very reason we exist and are contributing to the world in the way that we do.

If we tap into this energy of Why, which exists in everyone of us (yes every single person in the organisation), we release energy that is already there. We tap into the energy that may already be expressing itself in negative ways, such as frustration, sadness or anger. Then, we turn it into positive energy that engages everyone in creating a new future, the possibility of safety is not just about the absence of harm, but the fulfillment of the company’s Why, it’s deeper purpose.

This can happen when we shift the context for safety from being the absence of bad things to the presence of people being their best and performing at the top of their game. When this occurs, the people we support can all feel a growing sense of well being, high engagement and sense of contribution in the work they are doing.

People become the solution to safety as they experience being connected to the company’s purpose. Rather than needing to rigidly control people’s behaviour with rules and procedures, people contribute to safety and performance because they want to, and because they have something useful to give.

We call this approach Why-Based Safety. It brings together the latest safety research with cutting-edge ideas in human and organisational development, inside one approach that generates breakthroughs in both safety and productivity.

Why-Based Safety builds on the great work that has been done in the past, but also surpasses it. It is simply creating new context that we can all rally behind.

Why-Based Safety is a service of WhyNot Partnering, an organisation that works globally and was established to help organisations create breakthroughs in performance by connecting with purpose and enabling people to be and do their best work. Please click here to follow us on LinkedIn, to hear more about our work.

To read part 3 of this series, click here.

Rick is an organisational psychologist with expertise in personal and organisational transformation, leadership development, ontological design, strategy, assessment and diagnostics, and executive coaching.

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