Can we have some safety please?

I was engaged by an industrial company to provide leadership courses for their junior and senior managers. About a month before one of the leadership courses, I was asked to meet with the HR director at the company’s head quarters and was told that the company had experienced quite a few industrial accidents that involved fatalities. The trend was disturbing and despite repeated ‘requests’ from top management, an onslaught of powerpoint presentations by safety officers and the leadership, not to mention intranet publications about the need for safe behaviors, the safety record was barely improving. I was told that something was wrong with the safety culture and it was imperative that I spent a morning on this subject in the course. “Please design a session so that our employees understand the importance of safety.” What to do?

Safety was seen as a mechanical issue

I realized that the executives with all good intentions had turned safety into a two-dimensional rational issue. When I visited the Corporate Safety Director, he proudly showed me several dozen colorful slides with all sorts of graphics, charts, statistical data and bullet points of safe behaviors that would help reduce the lost time injury rate and fatalities. And of course he would be a guest speaker in the course, so he could impart his insights.

I came to the conclusion that the company was world-class in discussing safety as a rational mechanical issue. Just practice these behaviors as specified in the powerpoint and safety in the workplace will improve.  I realized however that there were systemic reasons that safety did in fact not improve. My assumption was that there were all sorts of incentive systems that elicited the opposite behaviors. Pressure to produce the sales promised versus adhering to the maintenance schedule that kept things safe was one system that I assumed played a role. Another assumption I had was the notion that bonuses from managers were attached to the lost-time-injury rate and this would deter employees from reporting injuries which meant that accidents could not be analyzed to prevent them, thus making the workplace less safe.

Changing these systems was not under the control of the junior managers who were going to participate in my leadership course. Rather, this would be a topic of dialogue with top management but I was not engaged to do that. Thinking this through I went back to the notion of the beautiful powerpoints, betraying the mechanical two-dimensional view of safety and I decided that the best I could do was to give safety a human face. Since the company had a disturbing rise in accidents, I wondered how I could use these accidents as a means to make safety more human and my hope was that this would then lead people to open up about how they could and should work on improving their safety behaviors.

The courage of HR

I asked HR if I could have two managers who had dealt with an industrial accident under their watch in which an employee had died so we could invite them as speakers for our course. I was pleasantly surprised when HR quickly arranged introductions. I felt that what I was going to do was risky. But the two HR managers were intrigued by my suggestion and were willing to give it a try. When I met both managers they readily agreed to tell their story about what it was like to have to deal with an industrial accident. They felt they had an important message to share. As one of them put it to me: "I don't wish anyone in this company to go to the partner of one of their workers and explain that their partner will never come home because of an accident at work." Both managers also agreed not only to tell their story, but also to not use any powerpoint.


On the morning of the safety session in the leadership course, I arrived early in the room and moved all the chairs of the participants in front of the tables so that they were seated in a circle. Instinctively I felt everybody should be fully exposed to the story: Head, heart and body. I did not want anyone to be able to hide. When the participants came in that morning they immediately realized that something special was going to happen, simply by virtue of the different lay-out.

Both managers told their story. One of them used two slides after all, but to my relief they were photos. One photo of the name badge with a photo of the employee who had died and one slide with a photo of the horrible accident scene. The other manager told his story and then showed a video of the funeral. Both stories were authentically shared. The managers showed emotions when they relived their ordeal. Their personal lessons flowed naturally from their stories and their appeal to the participants to not become a manager who has to go to a partner of an employee and tell that their partner will never come home again was impactful. Occasionally a question was asked by one of the participants.  After an intense 90 minutes - much longer than I had anticipated - we adjourned for coffee. I will never forget how tangible the emotions were in the room. Some of the participants had tears in their eyes. Conversations were muted.

The power of dialogue

The Corporate Safety Director, who had earlier shown me the library of slides that he wanted to use, had attended the session from the beginning. I had asked him to present after the coffee break and to limit his slide presentation as much as possible. The HR manager had already told me that this was a futile request. However, we both were in for a surprise. The Safety Director approached me somewhat nervously in the coffee break and he told me that after what had transpired - he was referring to the emotions in the air - he felt he could not do his presentation anymore. I suggested that a few slides would be fine, after all, we all needed a bit of distance from these two emotionally laden cases so we could put it in perspective. And perhaps he could ask questions and even create a dialogue. He said he would try, but it was clear that even he realized that a different approach was now needed than just showing the corporate story on slides.

After a longer than usual coffee break, the Corporate Safety Director entered the circle. To the amazement of the HR manager and myself, only 12 slides were used, but over and above that, it became a highly interactive session. The HR manager claimed he had never seen that before with this executive. The Director referred back to the stories, asked questions and various participants spontaneously offered their help to the Corporate Safety Director. They felt that the storytelling had been so powerful that they wanted to help the Director with capturing more company stories on safety and find a way to use these to raise awareness for better safety behaviors. The Safety Director readily agreed and appointments were made to meet after the course was over to talk about this further. This was an unexpected turn of events and as a workshop facilitator, I could not have wished for a better outcome.

Emotions in the boardroom

Fast Forward 18 months. At a board meeting the lights go out and a 20 minute video is shown consisting of interviews with people from around the world working for this company who had been involved in industrial accidents. It is the first time that board members see the video - and some had tears in their eyes when the lights went on. A group of participants in that leadership course had received a budget, were sponsored by corporate top managers and had captured stories of safety accidents at the company. These stories were presented through interviews with people who had survived accidents and the video ended with a call for action by top management. In a carefully orchestrated process this video found its way to each of the company’s sites where discussion sessions were organized to start a conversation on how safety could be improved.

Safety had been given a human face. It was no longer just a chart on a piece of paper or on a colorful slide. Instead, it was something that had come alive.


Did the safety record improve? Yes it did, but I cannot claim that this was due to this video and that single intervention in the leadership course. Too many others things were done as well to improve the safety culture in this company. However, no one disputes in the company the importance of that session that caused an unpredictable sequence of events that had markedly influenced the safety culture of the company. Not only did safety become meaningful through the power of storytelling, but the emotions from that morning in the workshop traveled all the way up to the boardroom and led to a renewed commitment that went far beyond the creation of powerpoint slides.

Emerging practices

My approach to the task of “Please design a session so that our employees understand the importance of safety” had been informed by the Cynefin Sensemaking framework. The company's executives had approached the challenge of improving safety as a well structured ordered problem. They saw it as an engineering problem with clear connections between cause and effects. However, I saw the issue as a very complex challenge in which company (incentive) systems, people, education, and the realities of everyday life all form a complex whole. To make a positive difference in such a complex situation you need to start with a probe and work with whatever emerges. In this case the probe was a session in which I asked two managers to share their story. What emerged was totally unpredictable for me, for the HR managers involved and the participants. And that is where the real challenge lies for workshop facilitators and executives alike: To become comfortable to find a next action step through the interactions, rather than planning everything in advance and PowerPointing this into the company. The latter gives a false sense of control and the former is an invitation to an exciting adventure.

From "tell & explain" to facilitation & interaction

For me this story shows what you can achieve if you switch perspectives from seeing a problem as structured and ordered to a complex unstructured problem, from a deliberate tell & explain style of leadership to a much more facilitative and interactive style of leadership. No one could predict what would happen as a result of that session. You can predict that something will happen and you then have to be ready to take that something to the next level. That is exactly what the company executives did and why this story has such a good ending.

Watch a short video about the Cynefin Framework and also visit the website from Cognitive-Edge with more information about the framework.

Boudewijn Bertsch


This is a revised version of a blog contribution published on February 16, 2008 at Cognitive-Edge