On a trip to Zimbabwe, I discovered the secret to exemplary safety performance and the key to a happier, healthier and more meaningful life.

When preparing for a visit to run our popular Total Safety Leadership programme – certified by the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management (IIRSM) – for one of our consulting clients in Zimbabwe, I learned that the country has 16 official languages.

Working as an international consultant, I’ve led projects in more than 120 countries now, and in the last year alone visited 55 different countries. It’s always a challenge communicating across geographies and cultures, especially when delegates don’t use English as often as I do.

So, after three flights and a long car drive through the bush, arriving at the client’s site I was relieved to hear that English was one of their 16 languages.   

My few days running the programme were sublime; the site was an incredibly efficient platinum mine deep in the south western part of the country, perched on the edge of the beautiful Matobo National Park (known for its incredible rock formations and Stone Age cave art). A people so vibrantly happy, filled with energy, and deeply committed to learning as much as possible made our few days together a real delight.

Several times during our programme I had a strong inclination that here I might actually find the secret to life.

Zero accidents, one life

A recent study by a leading global consulting firm revealed that, while workplace fatality rates have dropped significantly in many countries around the world, the total recordable incident rates (TRIR) have remained static for the majority of organisations. While on one hand there’s progress, on the other it’s abundantly clear: the way we’re working isn’t working.

In Zimbabwe, the leaders at the platinum mine, like many of our clients, had made solid progress in workplace safety, and were now keen to understand how to reach the ultimate goal of zero injuries and ensure that their workers go home every day without harm.

In my book From Accidents to Zero I introduce the concept of creating safety – a philosophy and approach designed to be the lever that shifts organisations off the performance plateau and on towards safety excellence. At the outset, creating safety requires a mindset shift away from the traditional approach to safety – that of preventing accidents.

Could mindfulness – being in the here and now – be the secret to happiness?

At its heart, the creating safety approach centres on three things:

• Impactful leadership;

• Mindful safety; and

• A focus on the inputs to exceptional safety performance.

In other articles for this magazine I tackle the subjects of leadership and the inputs to performance, so here, inspired by the time spent with my Zimbabwean friends, we’ll look at the idea of mindful safety.

All in the mind?

In 2012, there were 477 scientific journal articles published on the topic of mindfulness. Today, a Google search of the term returns over 12-million results. Despite frequent mention in popular newspapers, magazines and an array of new book titles, mindfulness is not, in itself, a novel idea.

Around the beginning of the third century AD the Anapanasati Sutra of Mindfulness stated that: “When walking, the practitioner must be conscious that he is walking. When sitting, the practitioner must be conscious that he is sitting. When lying down, the practitioner must be conscious that he is lying down. No matter what position one’s body is in, the practitioner must be conscious of that position. Practising thus, the practitioner lives in direct and constant mindfulness of the body.”

More recently, philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh, in his elegant little book The Miracle of Mindfulness, recounts the story of being mindful, and its benefit to those around us:

“There was once a couple of acrobats. The teacher was a poor widower and the student was a small girl. The two performed in the streets to earn enough to eat. They used a tall bamboo pole that the teacher balanced on top of his head while the little girl slowly climbed to the top. There she remained while the teacher continued to walk along the ground. Both had to devote all their attention to maintain perfect balance and prevent any accident from occurring.”

One day the teacher instructed the pupil: “I will watch you and you watch me, so that we can help each other maintain concentration and prevent an accident. Then we’ll be sure to earn enough to eat.”

But the little girl was wise and answered: “Dear master, I think it would be better for each of us to watch ourselves. To look after oneself means to look after both of us. That way I am sure that we will avoid any accidents and will earn enough to eat.”

A simple definition of mindfulness is “being in the moment” and focusing on the here and now.

It’s all in the mind!

Let’s go back to our safety leadership programme at the mine in Zimbabwe. Over a smile-filled lunch one day I ventured to ask my hosts what made them so happy. A deep intake of breath gave way to a smile that illuminated our table.

Pano!” said my client, grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat.

Seeing my confused look, my new friend explained that pano – pronounced pah-noo – is a word from the Shona language (one of those official sixteen) which simply means “here”.

One of the group in the class explained to me: “When we are in class with you, professor, we are here. When we are at the table eating, we are here. When we are at home with our family, we are here.”

Immediately I was taken back to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh – my client was reminding me of the importance of mindfulness, of being here, now.

So how do we get to be “here”?

In his best-selling book and million-times-watched TED talk, Simon Sinek explains why some people are significantly more inventive, pioneering and successful than others. I don’t want to give the game away here, but he reckons it’s because these people start with “why”.

While Sinek’s book is directed at busy professionals, his thesis stands up when we think about safety, too. We’ll get to that, but first let’s understand his perspective.

Sinek reckons that most folks know what to do – a company is able to describe the products it makes, and workers are able to describe their job functions. Some organisations and people know how to do what they do, in that they have a certain unique selling point (USP) or value proposition that sets them apart in what they make or do.

However, the missing detail for Sinek is the “why”. He argues that most organisations and leaders today cannot clearly articulate why they do what they do.

Now, let’s flip this from business into the topic of this article. Most organisations probably know what to do to improve workplace safety (have a robust management system, comply with rules and regulations, conduct risk assessments, train employees, investigate the cause of accidents, and so on). It is also very likely that they have a pretty good idea how they should do these things, too.  But are they really clear on the why?

Sinek introduces what he calls The Golden Circle, a concept inspired by the golden ratio – a mathematical relationship that has had architects, artists, biologists, naturists and many more in rapture since the start of time.

Leonardo Da Vinci believed that the golden ratio provided a formula for proportion and beauty. Pharaohs used it to build pyramids. And nowadays, even global drinks behemoth Pepsi adheres to it in its classic logo design.

The concept of The Golden Circle is much simpler than complex calculations – Sinek advocates that we must start from the inside and work outwards. We must start with why.

Don’t start with what!

Most leaders don’t start with why. They start with what. Performance-driven leaders concentrate on the output: what needs to be done, and by when. Some leaders add in the how – explaining to workers exactly the way they expect the task to be done.

Whether this method increases or decreases motivation will, of course, depend on the culture within the organisation, and the degree of trust placed in the leader by their team. The smart leaders though, sidestep the what and how, and begin by explaining why what the workers do, and how they do it, is important.

In the knowledge era, galvanising understanding – of both the importance of specific tasks or roles, and of the contribution of an employee – is vital to creating and sustaining a culture of care. The latest research supports this assertion, showing three key benefits for an organisation and its leaders:

Increased motivation and productivity – committed, focused workers have more energy and can perform better physically and mentally. They’re also more alert and efficient.

Strong morale and enhanced teamwork – focusing on the why helps people to engage with others around a shared purpose or interest, which, in turn, helps build bonds of friendship and boosts team spirit.

Decreased feelings of pressure and work-related stress – as the trend for information overload continues and the world of work gets smaller and faster, enhanced focus and a feeling of personal value can help us all manage stress and boost resilience.

Now think about these three benefits for a moment. If your workers were more motivated, happier at work, feeling less stressed, and there was a greater sense of team spirit, what do you think the outcomes might be in the workplace?  Don’t skip this question. Pause for a moment, be mindful, grab a pen and notepad and jot down your thoughts. Now you’re finding your why.

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that, in a family environment, if there is one person who practices mindfulness, the whole family will benefit from this and become more mindful. The presence of the member who lives mindfully serves as an active reminder to the others in the family to live in a mindful way.

In a similar way, when one person in the workplace works with safety mindfulness, this can serve as a powerful reminder to his or her colleagues, too.

So, where are you right now? Here? Pano?

As my Zimbabwean friends would say, “uno ndiri kufunda pano.” Now we are learning here!


Join Prof Sharman online now in the IOSH certificate in Behavioural Safety Leadership. You’ll benefit from fantastic learning, video tutorials with the professor and other thought leaders, and a global qualification to boost your career.

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