There is something disturbingly negative about safety. And I believe there are three main reasons for this.

The first reason is that safety is connected to unwanted outcomes. When most people think about safety they think about (the need to prevent) incidents, illnesses, injuries, disasters, breakdowns, losses, damage and other negatives. So, when we talk about safety, which is something we desire, we bring up the things that we don’t want to happen.

Second, the way we talk about the things that we don’t want to happen is to talk about the usual suspects of how we believe these come about. Errors, mistakes, lapses, violations, breaches, short-cuts, rule-breaking behaviours, malfunctions, sub-cultures, drift, non-compliance, risks, hazards, dangers, slips and many other similar words make up the vocabulary of such mechanisms. So, the way we talk about the things we don’t want to happen, is to talk about other things that we don’t want to happen.

Third, to ensure that neither the triggers nor the ultimate bad occur, the field of safety has a large suite of tools and managements practices at hand to ensure that performance does not deviate into unwanted territory. Procedures, checklists, reminders, barriers, surveillance, best practice, standards, observations, investigations, commitment rituals, mock courts, gap analyses and many other tools and practices are intended to keep problematic behaviours and decisions within desired boundaries.

Collectively, it’s not a constellation of concepts that radiate possibilities for creating a better functioning world. The world of safety is constructed as a world of problems. The ‘objects’ that are understood, managed and talked about are viewed through a deficit lens – only when we have eliminated all deviations, addressed all the deficits, can we finally arrive into the promised land of safety where nothing bad happens. And this economy of deficits has a number of negative consequences for how safety is practiced.

The most important contribution the safety profession can give is, from a deficit management perspective, to point out and correct when things or people deviate or otherwise do something wrong. Put differently, the best compliment you can get from a safety professional about the work you’re doing is that you’re doing nothing wrong.

Judging from the many safety professionals I’ve met over the years, I have no doubt that they share a strong commitment, passion and vision for the preservation or even betterment of human life. Yet, this current approach to ensure safety, seems to have a life-constraining effect in the way it relentlessly points out human shortcomings. It is effectively a suppression of possibilities, an inability or disinterest in learning new things, a belief that the solutions developed for yesterday’s organisations are what will create future success – a discarding of the potentials of what people and organisations can and do contribute with above and beyond doing something wrong.

What is badly needed then, is to develop ways through which we can invite people into more valued ways of being and contributing, to find new ways for organisations to see their employees as assets or resources for sensing, contributing, analysing, creating and adding to well-being, welfare, and to ensure that things go right across varying conditions.

To do this, we need to broaden our gaze to include the things that we want to happen, and sometimes already do happen. We need to include a more appreciative lens. Unfortunately, after years of focusing on what is unwanted, appreciating possibilities and contributions can be difficult.

Below are a few ideas that have been helpful for others in broadening their appreciation for what goes on at work to also include possibilities:

Change the definition of safety. Safety is more than the absence of negatives – it is about the presence of a capacity to enable things to go right across varying conditions. Defining safety this way is not a pop-psychological trick of (over)belief in confirmation bias. Success is difficult. It is not a whimsical walk in the park where nothing bad happens. Success requires disciplined assessment of what needs to happen, where sensitivities lie, and where conditions can be improved. It involves asking questions about what has to go right? What do people do to make things go right? What do people need to be able to deal with the varying demands of the workplace? Where are the challenges going to be? Where can we learn about how this can be done well? It is about building robust, resilient and adaptive practices that can enable people to work toward achieving the purpose of the organisation. (For more information about this change in definition, I recommend Erik Hollnagel’s book ‘Safety I and Safety II – the past and future of safety management’)

See people as a source of insight. Every single employee is a sensor for what is going on within and without the organisation. They have experienced both good and bad performance. They know where resources are stretched thin to meet demands and when challenges have or are likely to occur. People are the recipients of trouble and the inventors of ways to overcome and adapt. As a bare minimum organisations can listen to what people have to say in order to understand more about what is actually going on (rather than simply measuring and enforcing what should be going on).

Ask better questions. Traditional safety investigations and observations rarely generate any new insights for how work could be organised differently. The reason for this is that investigators set out to correct, and not to learn. In order to learn, judgement of any difference between what should be and what actually happens need to be suspended in favour for asking open ended questions that can allow organisations to surprise themselves around both good and bad performance. For example:

  • When do/did we have our best performance here? What happens then?
  • When is your work difficult?
  • What changes over the last year did you find really helpful and you consider steps in the right direction and we should do more of?
  • If you could invest $50,000 in making this a better place to work, how would you spend it?

Allow solutions to be challenged. The biggest threat to safety is not the non-compliant workforce. The biggest threat comes from our belief in uniformity, authority and external expertise. The world is constantly evolving, it is complex, competitive and often surprising. Only by inviting (organised) dissent do we stand a chance to improve, innovate and overcome. An organisation interested in betterment allows solutions to be challenged and improved, even when they are not broken.

An organisations that knows how to appreciate and harness the possibilities and the many contributions that happen everyday in order to enable positive outcomes is well equipped for the future. They may not know how to tackle every possible scenario that will come their way. But they know that somewhere in their organisations they are likely to have what is needed to understand, improve, create and innovate.