I help my clients produce unprecedented performance in their organizations, often in safety. Safety is a challenge because many leaders relate to safety in a way that actually impedes protecting their people and operations.

Their mistake: most leaders see safety as binary––black or white, safe or unsafe. That’s simple. That’s easy. And it’s wrong.

Safety is gradient. Safety is made up of variables, each distinct and requiring its own approach in order to maximize performance.

Safety is also complex. Its nuances make it one of the most difficult areas of business performance to manage. In order to help my clients successfully navigate safety, I break it down into three categories. This post will examine the first classification: More-safe.

More-safe safety

More-safe represents a behavior or situation wherein an organization’s agreed-upon “safe way” is met or exceeded. For example: if a team entering a confined vessel follows the safety permit to the letter, that group falls into the more-safe category. An individual who takes precautions beyond those demanded by a recognized procedure would as well.

The vast majority of safety-related behaviors and situations fall in the more-safe classification. Dr. W. Edwards Deming asserted that the percentage is in the high 90s. My experience leads me to agree with Dr. Deming, but I’ve also found that most people overlook or ignore more-safe and focus on the other two categories––an unfortunate pattern for several reasons.

First of all, while most people behave more-safe approximately 95% of the time, the feedback they receive is almost exclusively about the other 5% when they are behaving in a way that falls into one of the other two categories. It’s an unfair reality, and understandably, people typically process the way they’re treated as unjust.

While visiting a plant several years ago, I came across a team of mechanics working. When I asked one of them what her role was, she said, “I’m the safety watch.”

“Oh really?” I replied, interested. “So you’re looking out for the safety of your teammates?”

“No, no,” she answered, without hesitation. “I’m looking out for the safety man so I can warn everyone he’s coming.”

Because the feedback received is unfair, people tend to then view safety as something negative and typically unpleasant. The supervisors and others giving the feedback are usually disrespected, avoided, and ignored. Think about it: do you listen to someone who never notices what you do well but always seems to notice and harp on what you do incorrectly? And so, safety is trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy, focusing on failures that do unfold but only account for a minute fragment of actual results.

There are managers and supervisors who approach safety differently and are working to change its dysfunctional culture. These enlightened leaders give feedback that praises the 95% of more-safe performance their teams produce. They go out of their way to acknowledge those positive behaviors and situations. Unsurprisingly, these supervisors are highly respected and even well-liked. When people see these women and men coming around the corner, they know that more often than not, the conversation will be pleasant, and even if correction is involved, they’re willing to explore and reconsider their actions because they are being confronted by someone seen as fair.

Parents, this is a realization worth having on the homefront as well. One of the most common complaints I hear from parents is that their son or daughter doesn’t listen and even avoids them. I encourage them to spend one entire month intentionally looking for everything their child does right or well. “Tell them what you notice,” I say. “Tell them what they do well, and what you like and appreciate about them.

“But,” I add, “During that month, you are not allowed to point out or speak about anything they’ve done wrong or you disapprove of––unless it’s absolutely life-threatening. You have to balance the books with your child. If you do what I suggest, I promise you’ll never regret it. You’ll have an entirely new and much more positive perception of your child, and they just might start to listen to what you have to say.”

Most parents I offer this advice to reject it. But those who don’t and decide to follow it have told me things like, “I never realized what a great kid I have,” and “This exercise saved my relationship with my son.”

Parenting well and strong workplace leadership rely on overlapping strategies––it’s a concept we’ve discussed several times here in the All-In Blog and in my book, Heretics to Heroes.

In my next posts slated for January, I’ll share the other two safety categories with you and explain how to approach them both. Until then, I encourage you to invest your time actively looking for the more-safe actions of your people and others who you want to have a coaching relationship with. When you do spot more-safe behavior, point it out to them. Let them know you appreciate it. There is nothing that will have a more positive effect on relationships and performance than a supervisor or parent who does this consistently and well.