Why do temperatures continue to rise every year? Why are we fearful of and denying immigrants the opportunity for a safer and better life? Why are we fighting war after war, destroying cultures, killing innocents, and creating hatred? Why is it acceptable for America to allow tens of thousands of its friends, neighbors, sons, and daughters maimed and killed from gun violence?
I’ve heard numerous explanations for these injustices, impending calamities, and tragedies: population growth, inequality, economic stagnation, terrorism, and climate change. And no doubt each is a contributing factor to the distress our planet and its inhabitants are experiencing. But we are not innocent victims; we are active participants by dismissing and denying the past, the present, and the potential of future devastating consequences. We are the problem.
I believe the underlying cause for our self-destructive behavior is our obsessive pursuit of happiness and security. Our Founding Fathers unknowingly set us upon a quest to acquire the grail of happiness. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It appears we’ve become addicted to the pursuit of happiness at the expense of life and liberty for all.
As our world became increasingly secure and abundant, our values and behavior shifted from focusing on community to self-gratification. No longer was it necessary to actively participate in our communities. By creating and empowering institutions to care for our sick, extinguish our fires, protect us from our fears, and fight our wars, we removed the need to work collectively for the social interest and well-being of our neighbors, communities, and country. The untended consequences of this shift are that we are no longer “We the people,” but “I the individual.”
This shift will not take us securely into the future; it is taking us back to when our planet was inhabited by tribes each fighting for resources and significance. Polarization and segregation dominate our distressed social, economic, and natural landscape, and as “tribes” fight for control, each tribe is diminished.
Fear is stoked by tribes for their self-interest. The NRA says, “Trust no one— trust only your gun.” This has resulted in the U.S. leading the world in guns owned, gun violence, and gun killings and suicides, while gun manufacturers reap millions of dollars in profits.
The primary goal in a world of tribes is winning even at the cost of your neighbors, community and country. This deception that happiness and security can be achieved through the suppression of the “other,” makes it impossible to focus on the real threats to our security and well-being.
We stand at the tipping point in our pursuit of happiness; we are experiencing the turbulent upheaval of our protracted infatuation with self-interest, which feeds resentment and anger. This is a time that requires thoughtful and inclusive leaders, not those who are infatuated and addicted to self-interest. Our planet thrives on interdependence, not on tribalism—it requires the best of all of us.
In his book The Wise Heart, Jack Kornfield eloquently informs us of the error of our desires and thinking: “We do not possess our house, our car, or our children. We are simply in relation to them. The more tightly we cling to the idea that we ‘own or possess,’ the greater the unhappiness we reap.” With this understanding we can live as stewards, caring for things yet not being trapped by the concepts of self and possession.
The trap of Make America Great Again is set and the bait is tempting. We are told that we only need to exclude, deny, punish, and isolate to restore our addiction to happiness and security. We are told that our Founding Fathers were wrong. It’s not life and liberty for all that makes America great—it’s life and liberty for me.
America has never thrived on these self-serving ideals. In fact, America was at its worst at these times. We were at our worst when we enslaved people, and we were at our best when we fought on the shores of foreign lands to preserve freedom and to defeat totalitarianism.
It’s human to feel resentment, anger, and fear, but we cannot allow these emotions to drive us over the tipping point. They are warning signals that we must open our hearts and transform resentment into gratitude, and anger into action that fights for the safety, respect, and equality for all. And we must transform our fear into courage by coming together instead of isolating ourselves into tribes. The choice is clear: we can be our worst enemy or our best friend. The human heart will never experience happiness by fighting its true nature — all hearts are connected. We are one heart.
Considering a Move to Management:
“He was a boy who loved to hear tales where the hero’s life was always one breath away from catastrophe.”
I was perusing possible gifts for my grand-kids this past Christmas when I read this line on the cover jacket of the book Spirits Princess and thought about how exciting and entertaining this book might be. What really captured my attention was the phrase “one breath away from catastrophe.”
How many times in our lives have these words been meaningful? I can recall a few near-catastrophes in which I was literally one breath away from a serious accident. I remember sitting in my car after losing control on the first icy road of my driving career; I was one breath away from going down an embankment. I recall one summer backing up a dump truck loaded with gravel to fill in around the foundation of a home. There was a small rise of dirt, and every time I tried to slowly back up the rear tires would spin. After I pulled forward and gave it a little more gas, I found myself and the truck within a breath of tipping over into the foundation. I couldn’t dump the load or the truck would have flipped. Holding my breath, I slowly got out of the cab and embarrassingly enlisted a guy with a bulldozer who was working in the next lot to help rescue my truck and safe my summer job.
I also vividly and sadly remember sitting with both my Mom and Dad when they took their last breaths. Unfortunately, the full meaning of this word escapes our attention until we are present in these moments and realize that it is the essence of life and death.
I wonder how many times our accidents and injuries and catastrophes were literally one breath away form a different result? I suspect many more than we realize. Isn’t a near-miss really just a “one breath away” moment?
The Chaotic and Hectic World of Work
Todays’ work environments are filled with increased and competing demands and technological advancements and distractions. Multi-tasking has become a way of managing this new reality. Some say this new pace of work leaves them breathless.
In a recent meeting with a group of managers and supervisors, we explored the question, “Are there current conditions in our culture that might be creating the potential for safety issues?” Some concerns surfaced immediately: “We are in a state of chaos!” “Everybody has an agenda and thinks it’s the priority.” “We are driving our operators to distraction and increasing everyone’s stress levels.” “If this continues, it’s not if we will have an accident, it’s when and how serious.”
What if “one breath away” was not an expression of a close call, but a method or practice that could reduce chaos and prevent a near-miss from becoming an unfortunate reality?
The human factors that most frequently contribute to or are the primary reasons for accidents and injuries are complacency, stress, fatigue, distraction, and haste. Each of these has many root causes that would need to be be fully addressed. However, there is a scientifically proven intervention that can provide temporary improvement or relief from the effects of these factors and can prevent that critical moment form turning bad.
Complacency, stress, fatigue, distraction, and haste create the conditions for accidents because they steal one’s attention and focus away from the task at hand. To prevent this, we employ a simple, inexpensive, and effective tool that can bring one’s connection, respect, attention, and focus back to work.
The Power of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is an ancient practice the uses the breath to bring one’s full attention and awareness to the present moment.
The purpose of mindfulness is to create moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Over the last 10 years, mindfulness has entered American mainstream and business culture. Numerous companies offer mindfulness training to their employees as a benefit and as a tool for improving performance. One notable company, Google, offers its employees a course on mindfulness that is 50 hours long. It is the highest rated course in the history of Google.
The essence of mindfulness is breath, called mindful breathing. Research has shown that even one six-second mindful breath is effective at calming the body and mind and improving focus. This breathing tends to be slow and deep, which stimulates the vagus nerve, activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This system regulates our heart rate and blood pressure, which when lowered helps to produce calmness, increases awareness, and lowers stress. This moment of mindfulness can also help to temporarily offset the symptoms of fatigue.
The skill of mindful breathing is used by the worlds best athletes in all sports. Watch any world class golfer, tennis player, skier, track athlete, or baseball player, especially when hitting—they all employ mindful breathing to calm themselves and to better focus at the task at hand. If it works for professional athletes, shouldn’t it also help our workforce athletes improve their performance?
Choose Mindfulness over Mindlessness
Technology is revolutionizing workplace safety. From robotics that keep humans out of harm’s way, to man-down systems that send out alerts for employees in need of assistance, our workplaces are safer than ever. But there is still one area that is persistently and intimately connected to accidents and injuries that technology has not fully solved: the human factor.
The contribution of human carelessness or mindlessness to all accidents and injuries ranges from 50% to 90%. The ability to reduce the involvement of human factors can have a significant affect on an organization’s Return on Safety.
Although technology is rapidly creating solutions to safety issues, our hectic pace continues to thrive, increasing the chances that human errors will continue to significantly contribute to accidents, injuries, and near-misses. Organizations can fight this by creating the conditions for a mindful workplace.
To create a mindful work environment in which employees feel motivated, comfortable, and encouraged to practice mindfulness requires management’s active involvement in setting expectations and creating new norms that might be contrary to the existing organizational culture. Management must be active role models – they must be believers.
How to create a mindful work environment
Implement it mindfully. This is not a program. Mindfulness is a respectful approach to work and life.
Take the time to educate leaders and managers on the history, science, and research behind mindfulness, how it works, and why it contributes to improved human performance. Invite an expert on organizational mindfulness to conduct a training session to assist with the process and to demonstrate mindful breathing.
Institute a moment (six seconds) of mindful breathing before and at the conclusion of all management meetings for one month. Take notice if the climate of the meetings changes. Ask managers if they notice a difference
Once managers become comfortable and notice the affect it has on the tone and results of the meetings, ask managers to introduce the same practice in their meetings. First, have them explain the Why, have them share their experiences and invite their employees to participate for one month. Ask for feedback after that time.
Remember, this is just a six-second breath before and after meetings and when starting and stopping a task. This not mediation—it is one mindful breath that signifies one’s respect for their work and themselves, which will create a safer and healthier organization.
Before long, mindful breathing will become a standard operating procedure (SOP), not because it is mandated, but rather because all employee will notice the benefits and improvements it brings to their work and life. A mindful breath won’t change the hectic and demanding world we live and work in, but it will reduce our mindless approach to the task at hand and it just may be the breath that prevents an accident or injury.
“Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.”
~ Stephen Hawking
The politicians, pundits and journalists who are against the Iran Nuclear Agreement focus on one point: it’s not perfect and could be better.
Most of us know from experience that humans are not perfect. Isn’t it unrealistic to expect that any agreement created by imperfect beings be perfect?
We are not in a position to force capitulation. Negotiation is a process that creates a path forward in which each party retains its dignity, propelled by the desire to give up something of personal value in order to gain something of greater value for everyone. Agreements are never perfect.
If Congress thwarts this agreement, what are the alternatives? We could continue and even increase sanctions, but our allies will not stand by our side, and if we are the only country applying sanctions the effects will be minimal—not a perfect alternative. Fifty years of embargoing and sanctioning Cuba has shown us that these alternatives can and will cause increased defiance. We imposed strict sanctions on Russia, yet Putin doesn’t seem a bit inclined to return Crimea.
We could also go to war, but we all know how imperfect war is. We only have to look at recent history to remember that in modern war there is seldom a clear winner and the costs are staggering and tragic. Consider:
No winner emerged. Instead, Korea remains divided and the North retains the capability of making a nuclear bomb(s). The war was waged at a great cost in terms of money and lives.
Objectively, North Vietnam, the communists, achieved their goals of reuniting and gaining independence for the whole of Vietnam, and it remains under communist rule today. The U.S. dropped more than 7 million tons of bombs—more than twice the amount that was dropped on Europe and Asia in World War II—and we lost more than 58,000 young lives. Not a perfect solution or result.
The aftermath of the Persian Gulf War appeared to be a victory, but what we learned is that the victory was hollow. Saddam Hussein was not forced from power and the region became less stable. Many believe that this war helped to make Al Qaeda a force that would later strike our homeland.
The initial stage of the war was a raging success—the banner proclaimed “Mission Accomplished.” Yet, the war created eight years of sectarian violence, 4,900 American lives lost and many more severely injured, and it amounted to a trillion dollar debt from which we still haven’t recovered. Iraq is still incapable of defending itself, and it gave rise to ISIS.
We need to ask ourselves if an imperfect agreement that may produce peace and diminish the potential of a nuclear Middle East is a better risk than the alternatives. Or are we willing to put our country and the world at risk by pursuing alternatives that have a dismal and tragic record. Can we afford to risk isolating ourselves from our allies, countries critical to solving the world’s most urgent problems? Are we willing to once again shed the blood of our youth by waging war?
Writer Archibald McLeish said, “There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience and that is not learning from experience.” We have a clear choice. The Iran Nuclear Agreement has risks, but experience has shown that the alternatives are much more costly in terms of world standing, capital and human lives. All our options are imperfect and risky, but the greater risk here is repeating the past when we have a chance to take a risk for peace instead.
Have you been in a near-miss human collision recently? This seems to be happening to me more frequently these days.
When it happens, I’m typically in an airport, at a mall, or on a sidewalk, and notice I’m on a collision course with another person absorbed in their smart phone. Not wanting to create a scene or cause harm to myself or the other person, I change course. As I do, the other person notices my movement and momentarily looks away from their phone, only to reengage, heading toward the next collision.
These incidents got me thinking about our extraordinary capacity to notice. We humans have been blessed with five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, which help us to fully experience and understand our presence in and connection to the space we occupy. History, anthropology, and other sciences validate that human survival was based to great extent on our ability to notice when we were in danger and when we were safe. Noticing and then avoiding danger allowed us to flourish.
Noticing is still a significant factor in our safety, engagement with work and life, and survival. It matters if you notice that you are about to collide with a fellow citizen as you’re walking. It matters if you notice that your child is sad. It matters if you notice a bicyclist is sharing your road. It matters if you notice a co-worker is using a ladder that is not tied off or has not locked out an energy source before working to fix the problem. And it matters, as a leader, if your employees are happy and engaged or frustrated and on autopilot.
There is no doubt in my mind that using our senses to notice creates advantages, improves our safety and engagement, and generates a fuller understanding of our world. This exceptional capacity that can provide so many benefits, however, is being threatened by our technology, self-absorption, and isolation from the experiences of those around us.
Each time we turn off our capacity to notice, we become vulnerable. When we become so self-absorbed we don’t notice the homeless person in the shadows, or isolate and embed ourselves so deeply in our homogenous groups we don’t notice social injustice and inequality, we become vulnerable.
We are vulnerable because we’ve loss the opportunity to connect and understand. Our five senses are pathways into our hearts and minds, where our shared human experiences are stored. If we miss the opportunity to notice, we miss the opportunity to understand, connect, and make a difference in the lives of others and ourselves.
To be and feel noticed meets a deep human need. Have you ever longed to be noticed by someone, maybe a teacher, a coach, a parent, or a boss? When that moment of being noticed happens, you are infused with good feelings. If you feel unnoticed, unpleasant feelings and actions arise. Children misbehave when they go unnoticed, and workers languish and under-perform. Recently, our country has experienced riots and demonstrations by people struggling to have their plight noticed.
Noticing is a powerful capacity we all possess, and it offers wonderful things. It can change a friendship or a working relationship—it can change the world. It is a gift to notice someone, and especially to oneself, because you are now more present and in tune with your world. What we notice and don’t notice defines who we are in that moment as well as provides us the opportunity for change.
Noticing can be uncomfortable and exhilarating. The act of noticing will open you up to your sixth sense (s) - your emotions. You may notice that you are feeling sadness or anger or joy and awe depending on what you are experiencing. Emotions increase the power of noticing by adding clarity and texture.
Martin Luther King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I like to paraphrase his quote to say that our lives begin to end when we lose our ability to notice the things that matter.
Normally, you assess an organization’s safety culture by observing how employees translate the company’s principles, values, attitudes, and goals into their behavior and decision-making.
This seems like a pretty straightforward method, but beware of drawing conclusions based only on observations—you’ll fall into the assumptions trap.
I’ve fallen into this myself by relying on direct observations and reports consisting of data based on observations, and I suspect I am not alone. The assumptions trap is a consequence of the way in which the human brain forms patterns to help us manage a complicated life more efficiently.
Patterns feed our assumptions. They help us react, predict and make decisions regarding situations without having to assemble and sift through all of the details of what we are observing. The problem is the brain has no investment in making distinctions between fact and fiction. It takes in what it sees, dismisses what doesn’t fit, and draws a conclusion as expeditiously as possible. It will even add in data to fill any gaps just to complete the picture to fit the established pattern. This works very well when we need to slam on the brakes to avoid a child who darts into the road. However, this process has limits when used exclusively to assess or make assumptions about the effectiveness of a safety culture.
David McLean, Chief Operating Officer for Maersk, expressed this realization in his article “The Importance Of Process Safety & Promoting A Culture of PSM.”
“We were all very good at measuring personal safety performance, i.e. slips, trips, and falls, and this is very tangible, but did a good personal safety record mean we had a safe operation? Clearly not, as several major accidents had proven.”
Avoid the Assumptions Trap by Engaging in Conversations
“Can you hear me now?” was the key refrain from a Verizon commercial a few years ago. If you listen, you can hear employees using this same refrain in regard to their relationship with their managers.
“They never listen to us, and when they do, they don’t hear what we are saying,” I’ve heard employees say. “They already have their minds made up.”
Consider for a moment that managers spend 75% to 90% of their time in conversations! Who are they having these conversations with? And are they really listening or just filling in the gaps of existing beliefs and patterns? To understand and know one’s culture you must listen to it—not just to the words but also to the emotional texture of the words. A safety culture is created, nurtured and sustained by the breath and quality of the conversations that take place and the ones that don’t.
“What people say and what they withhold matters,” said David Arella, founder and CEO of 4Spires. “Language trumps control. How the communication is initiated and conducted is often more important than what is communicated. An organization is a network of person-to-person work conversations during which information and energy is exchanged. Like cells in your body, the quality of these work-atoms determines the effectiveness of the whole. Attending to and influencing work conversations can help transform culture and improve collaboration.”
The true nature of a culture is revealed through its conversations. If you want to understand your culture before making assumptions about your culture’s strengths and weaknesses—what motivates employees and what’s in their hearts and minds—you must engage in open and honest talk. Conversations can help give meaning to observations.
Culture is made up of layers of conversations that are constantly vibrating and emitting information. Learning to notice and listen to these waves of information is a critical culture competency. It requires that leaders be committed to moving through the casual and superficial noise in order to gain insight into the organization’s authentic culture and discern what is really motivating employee performance.
Don’t Use Data: How to assess your safety culture more effectively
Edgar H. Schein, PhD, considered to be one of the foremost experts on organizational culture, believes that if you want to access your organization’s culture, bring together a group of employees who represent each part of the organization and provide an opportunity for them to dialogue about their issues, concerns, and the strengths and weaknesses they experience and perceive in the safety culture.
Here is a simple but effective model to help organizations assess and transform their safety culture. It calls for leaders, managers, supervisors, and employees to engage in authentic conversations in which each can express and share their concerns and build the trust required to move forward.
Leaders frequently expressed that they had reservations about engaging in these conversations, particularly those that reached below the surface. They preferred to use a survey (hard data). But after working with this model, not only did they obtain the data they wanted; they gained the commitment they needed from employees to work toward common goals.
The following questions can help assess if your have a culture that values conversations or if it is reliant on assumptions and patterns.
· Is it like pulling teeth to get employees to talk in meetings?
· How often do safety leaders practice walking and talking about the site?
· Is the word stupid—or a similar insult—ever used to describe safety incidents or the employee involved?
· What emotion(s) best describes the mood of the safety culture? Frustration, boredom, disappointment—or excitement, curiosity, and passion?
· Do managers abhor meetings and feel that they are a waste of time?
· How often have employee safety recommendations been implemented?
This self-assessment will begin to give you an indication if the conditions of your safety culture are conducive to meaningful dialogue; if it encourages open and honest conversations or stifles it.
A word of caution though: Just because employees may be reluctant to engage in conversations doesn’t mean they don’t want to be heard. Their behavior may be more about their lack of trust, fear of blame, or a result of previous conversations that resulted in a negative experience.
A positive safety culture is a repeatedly observant one, not just of behavior but also of its tone and content. Safety leaders would be well served to develop a practice of deeply listening and observing before making assessments and judgments.
Contact Tom Wojick for more information on how to introduce conversations into your culture
Time: April 26- 28, 2011