Sustainable Safety Performance and Attention

Leading a Mindful Organisation

Most Safety Practitioners would agree that the key challenge in maintaining sustainable safety performance is the mindfulness of employees, particularly operators. People do unsafe things when they are impatient in doing what they do. When they do things just to get through doing them. So concerned with a result that to do what they do carefully is experienced as onerous and burdensome. People do not give adequate attention to doing things well. Doing things to do them well gets in the way. Because outcomes are the focus of their attention.

For many people doing anything at work is merely an expediency suffered through. To achieve an outcome, a business performance outcome for the boss and a remuneration outcome for the employee. We do things to achieve results. What is significant and therefore worthy of attention is the result. The process that we engage to achieve that result an expediency that we suffer through. The price we need to pay, to get the result.

The current Wikipedia definition of mindfulness is “the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences in the present moment”. This shift of attention into the moment is by definition the opposite of having a result focus, because it implies a shift of attention from outcome into process. Let me explain by way of metaphor.

Excellence, whether is concerned with safety or production, is the product of people doing what they do well and carefully. If we looked at a sport like cricket, for example. It stands to reason that the batsman will only bat well if he dedicates all his attention to the ball as it travels toward him and does his very best to engage that ball well. Batting well will require him to shift his attention from the scoreboard, the outcome, to the process of batting, to “giving attention to his experience in the moment”.

If we extended our batsman to be a metaphor for the average employee, then it becomes apparent that he is challenged in two very significant ways:

Firstly: he does not like batting and he does not consider batting a significant thing to do. It’s a mere expediency he has to suffer though to get a wage at the end of the week. His attention is therefore not on the process, on batting to bat well, his attention is on his remuneration. That’s what is significant to him. That’s his intent.

Secondly: because the coach is completely results-focused. He spends the entire match shouting at the batsman to watch the scoreboard. This is not helpful to the batsman. What would be helpful to him is tell him to stop looking at the scoreboard, the result, and to get his head into the game.

Therefore, if we wanted to achieve sustainable safety performance. We need to account for these two variables:

  1. Understand the conditions under which people experience intrinsic fulfillment from doing what they do. Where doing things well is an end in itself. We will refer to this as ‘Mindful Work’
  2. Understand the conditions whereby the leader (our metaphorical coach) enables people who are willing to commit discretionary effort in pursuit of doing things well. We will refer to this as ‘legitimate leadership’

Mindful Work

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described a state which he referred to as ‘flow’ which significantly resembles the state of mindfulness. He describes flow as ‘an experiential state of being, when extraordinary concentration, commitment, effort, interest and enjoyment are being experienced simultaneously’ in the course of doing something.

His theory was the product of a research project which investigated the experience of people who were recognized to be at the peak of their careers. Such as top surgeons, dancers, rock climbers, musicians and so on. He was at pains, however, to indicate that the conditions that produce this flow state are so generic that they can be applied to any activity, even something as mundane as brushing one’s teeth.

The implication is that this could be applied to any job. Even the most menial operating job, which would then create the conditions where the worker experiences ‘extraordinary concentration, commitment, effort, interest and enjoyment’ in the course of doing a job. Under these conditions the job is no longer something the worker has to suffer through to earn a wage but something which produces intrinsic fulfillment.

He describes the following 8 elements of the flow state:

  1. The goals are clear. What Csikszentmihalyi means by goals, is the standard that allows a person to assess whether the task is done well. It is therefore not concerned with outcome. It is concerned with criteria to assess process.
  2. Feedback is immediate. This clearly requires the person to be present, to be mindful in the moment.
  3. Perceived challenge and skill are matched. This suggests that the criteria applied to assess performance are defined in such a way as to require effort and attention for the person to be able to fulfill them.

It is clear that the above there points describe things that a person does. The other 5 points describe the product of a person committing to acting consistently with these 3 points:

  1. There is a feeling of focus or of concentration
  2. Everyday frustrations are removed from consciousness
  3. You feel you are in control of your life
  4. There is a loss of self-consciousness. No ego defenses
  5. The sense of time transforms

In Csikszentmihalyi’s view a person who experiences the above has an autotelic experience of doing the task. They find the activity intrinsically rewarding. The task gets done for its own sake, not just to achieve an outcome. Clearly, should this approach be applied to work the implications for safety performance would be very significant.

If one considered Csikszentmihalyi’s first three points one could rephrase the to do part of this into two core issues:

  1. Be very clear about the criteria for doing this task well
  2. Do the very best you can to do the task consistently with these criteria.

While this may sound simple enough. It requires a revolution in the inner experience, in the attention of the person who is doing the job. Let’s say, for example, that we observe two people walking up a hill, one named Joe and the other name Fred. Joe is walking up the hill in order to get to the top. It means that the walking is the means which he employs to achieve a result.

Fred, on the other hand, takes great pleasure in having a good walk. However, he cannot have a good walk if there is not a bit of a challenge, a top of the hill. What is apparent when one contrasts these two activities is the following: While the walking is exactly the same, Joe and Fred have inverted means and ends. For Joe the walking is the means and the end is the top of the hill. For Fred the top of the hill is the means and the end is to have a good walk. What is significant for Joe is the outcome. What is significant for Fred is the process. Joe’s attention is on the outcome.

Fred’s attention is on the process. What Csikszentmihalyi’s work demonstrates, is that it is the Freds of the world who consistently produce the best outcomes and who find joy in doing what they do.

One could be tempted to try to find some benevolent purpose to the work being done. So that one can designate it as significant. My colleague Poena Prinsloo said that the work of a mining crew is as important as a person driving a Formula One racer, because of the inherent danger in the task. However, is very important to stress that Csikszentmihalyi’s insight does not require the work to be of any great social significance. The most mundane and apparently monotonous work can produce the flow state, even if it is not earth shatteringly significant. Csikszentmihalyi’s point is that what makes something significant and worthy of careful attention is a choice, and once that choice is made the doing of the work transforms worker. In that sense the real product of the work being done is the worker himself. The work becomes, in E. F. Schumacher’s terms, good work.

If we wish to have sustainable safety performance, we need to create the condition where the worker accepts the responsibility to do things to do them well. That task should not be that difficult if the worker discovers a deep existential fulfillment and joy from doing so. Leaders can enable this by clarifying the worker’s process and coaching the worker to perform to the standard of the process. While this sounds very straightforward doing this requires an immense rework of how the leader sees his or her role.

Legitimate Leadership

Leaders define what is significant in organizations, what is worthy of attention. It stands to reason, then. That if the leaders of an organization are fundamentally results focused. Then not only will the worker’s experience be insignificant. But indeed, the worker himself will not be seen to be significant. The worker is seen to be a means to achieve a result. Under these conditions it would be very unlikely for the worker to see both himself and his experience as other than a mere expedient in the pursuit of results.

I have asked many thousands of leaders over the years to define the word leadership. With very few exceptions, they would come up with a definition that could be reduced to the following:

Leadership is about achieving a result through people.

What is important about this statement is that it designates the person to being the means and the business result or objective to be the end. To indicate the significance of this consider the following thought experiment:

There are two people working for me, Joe and Fred. I am very experienced in the job they have to do because I did that job in 1990. I say to Joe: “Joe, in 1990 I did what you have to do now and what I did worked. Go and do what I did.” In the Fred case, however, I say “Fred, in 1990 I did what you have to do and it worked, It may be helpful to you, take a look at it.” The question is which one of the two would be more engaged and willing to accept my direction, Joe or Fred? Clearly, it would be Fred.

In accounting for the difference between the two interactions. One could say that the difference between them was that I was rude and autocratic with Joe and more inclusive and democratic with Fred. However, the difference is deeper than such a purely behavioral distinction. If one examined the interaction from the point of view of my intent the following becomes apparent:

Because I am using Joe as my means in order to achieve a result. He experiences that I am there to get something from him. If we assumed that in the Fred case I was being absolutely sincere. It is clear that we could have a different outcome from what we had in 1990. In fact, that outcome could even be a disaster. In this case, my intent is to teach Fred something. To give to him.

In the Joe case I am using the person as my means to get the job done, in the Fred case I am using the job as an opportunity to teach him something. If we define leadership as “Achieving a result through people,” then clearly we are describing the Joe interaction. It should therefore come as no surprise that the worker is disengaged, that all things that are done are an expediency in the pursuit of achieving a result. In fact, people themselves are seen as resources in the pursuit of achieving a result.

If we wanted to create the condition for the employee to be engaged. To commit discretionary effort to do things well, then we have to be very clear with what the Fred interaction implies. If I meant what I said to Fred. It would be clear that I am using the job to teach him something. Enabling Fred is the end, the job is the means. If we transposed that logic to our definition of leadership it would not say

Leadership is about achieving a result through people,

It would rather say

Leadership is about achieving people through results!

While this inversion may initially sound bizarre, it makes absolute sense if one looked at the example of the relationship between a coach and a team. If the coach said to the team that he was the one producing the result and that he was using players to that end the players would be very disgruntled with him. He would be making a fatal error. He was not the one producing the results, that’s what the players are doing.

This does not mean that the coach has no interest in the game that’s being played or the result. He goes to the game, watches what is happening on the field, looks what’s on the scoreboard and uses that information to coach the player. Not using the player to get a job done and achieve a result, but using the game and the result as his means to coach the player. He does not achieve results through people, he achieves people through results.

This inversion of means and ends is what creates the condition for the employee to commit discretionary effort to doing the job well for two reasons:

Firstly, as a leader you cannot expect your people to be there to give to you if your intent is to take. Secondly, it is consistent with the shift of attention from outcome into process. That we described as the key requirement for achieving mindfulness in doing a task. The leader cannot expect people to give attention to doing things to do them well if the leader’s principle focus is on results.  A coach who is trying to enable excellence in the player would not direct the player’s attention to the scoreboard, he would direct it to the game.


In short, you will not get people to change their view of their walking from

‘I am walking to get to the top of hill’


‘The top of the hill is my means to walk well’


If the bosses they work for do not change their view of leadership from

‘Leadership is about achieving a result through people’


‘Leadership is about achieving people through results.’


Why Inverting Means and Ends Constitutes Legitimate Leadership

In order to help people explore the issue of legitimate leadership. It is useful to ask them which of the following two bosses have real power. The boss they would work for because they have to, or the boss they would work for because they want to. Invariably they would answer the boss that they would work for because they want to. If you asked them why they think this person has real power. They would say it was because this person had the loyalty and commitment of their subordinates. If you went further and asked them to describe this boss. They would typically provide a list that would be consistent with the following:

Invariably a typical list of these criteria would contain two core themes. The first theme has a kind and soft feel about and could therefore be comfortably contained by the word Care. The second theme has a harder edge, because it includes ideas such as honesty and fairness. Elements which clearly may not have pleasant consequences for the subordinate. If you asked people why they would want this harder element. Despite the fact that it may not be pleasant for them. They would say it was because it gave them an opportunity to Grow .

It makes sense that people would assign legitimate power to a leader who is in the relationship to care for them and grow them. Because the first relationship we have with another person is with our parents. and in so far it is a first relationship it is a principle relationship. In this relationship the job of the big one for the little one is very specific. It’s care and growth. This suggests that any relationship of power, if it is legitimate. The aim of that relationship is the care and growth of the subordinate.

Further to this, a boss who is there to care for and grow subordinates is fundamentally there to give something to them rather than to get something from them. That boss’s intent would therefore be consistent with the Fred interaction we spoke about before. She would not be there to achieve a result thorough people, but to achieve people through results.


This idea of achieving people through results implies a passionate commitment to enable people to transcend their own mediocrity. As the growth categories suggest, this may not always be pleasant for the subordinate. A useful metaphor for the idea of growing or empowering people is to consider the idiom that proclaims. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, empower him to fish and he will feed himself for the rest of his life”.

When one considers what this empowering the person to fish would imply, it would firstly include the Means to fish. Such as, the rod, reel, line, bait and the license to fish. It would secondly include the Ability to fish. In other words, to teach the person how and why they should fish. However, should you attend to these requirements comprehensively, but then say to the person that if they did not catch a fish you would provide them one from your own store you would still not engage their will. People fully empowered to fish are also fully accountable for fishing.

This implies that empowering anyone to do anything means to give them the means, ability and the accountability to do what is required of them. It stands to reason that the leader cannot do this while his attention is on the scoreboard or the result. In a sense, he has to get his attention into his own process. The subordinate requires Ability and accountability, In order to be able to identify the means.

Leave a Reply