“We have the best safety statistics in our industry; we just kill someone from time to time.” 

Throughout my career, I’ve heard variations of that statement from too many executives to count. They weren’t heartless or content as they said it. They were frustrated. Many had spent decades pursuing zero injuries, pouring time, money, and energy into the quest. But quarter after quarter, year after year, they’d look up and fall deadly short of their goal.

I know why.

You cannot get to zero by setting a goal of zero. A caring workplace free of incidents or injuries feeds off of extraordinary performance, and you can’t routinely create extraordinary results by focusing on what you don’t want. Think about it: when you make zero your goal, you become obsessed with errors, incidents, injuries, and other missteps by default. Over the last 30 years, I’ve come to realize it’s a misplaced focus that, while understandable, will lead to nothing but the same results over and over again.

To get to zero, you must learn to work beyond zero.

What is “beyond zero”? Think of it as the other side of zero, an ideal environment where people are cared for and protected at work, and deaths on the job simply do not happen.

Working beyond zero begins with one leader. That leader needs a grand vision, where exceptional business performance is achieved while caring for people––and that care is self-evident, foundational, job one, nonnegotiable, expected, and even unremarkable. Of course we competed the project with no one harmed––what did you expect? That is your mentality.

You cannot generate a beyond zero mindset by targeting zero. A “zero goal” acknowledges that zero, although desired, has yet to be achieved. This is leadership by hope: We hope to hurt no one. We hope to reach zero someday.

To put it bluntly, leadership by hope is not enough.

Imagine your child has been invited to participate in a school field trip where she will spend several nights at a lakeside camp. You sit down with the school principal, seeking assurance that your child will remain safe. The principal looks back at you and says, “We can only hope that’s the case. We’ll do our best, but stuff happens––it’s the cost of business. I cannot give you any guarantees.”

Would you let your child go? When I received a similar answer from my daughter’s principal when she was in fifth grade, I sure didn’t.

My decision to keep her at home was not because the principal, teachers, or counselors were bad people, but because when it came to bringing my little girl back unharmed, the leaders’ collective mindset was insufficient. I’d never turn my child––or anyone else I care about––over to someone who is unwilling to stand up and be accountable for her welfare.

So what is the vision you have invited your people to join you in creating? Does it shoot well beyond zero? Do you expect and declare that no one will be harmed on your projects? If not, you can work tirelessly to generate great statistics––and you will. But you will also continue to kill someone from time to time.

Looking for another helpful leadership read? Check out my latest contribution to the Business Journals: “4 Ways to Manage Fear in Your Organization.”