Published in


Stay safe at work

Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer

Credit Safety and Health Magazine

There is a direct link between feeling safe and being able to play. Play is the proper root of creative work, of real innovation. But feeling safe and secure often feels like the rainbow’s end. We would like to explore gently with you the difference between the pious statements from HR and knowing that significant others in the organisation can see the value of what you and those around you do. Hen’s teeth, the latter.

Before we get started, let’s acknowledge our cultural ambivalence about play. Even our kids are supposed to be getting on with something, doing something useful. I think this is about security too. Is a child esteemed and loved and respected just for who they are? Or do they have to perform? And since Winnicott said there is no such thing as a baby,[1] that means that we don’t always feel esteemed and loved and respected as parents, that we think we must perform too.[2] Those are the inescapable roots, the foundations of our ability to just be, serenely.

A quick sketch. According to the legend, if you work for Semco in Brazil you are evaluated 360 degrees by your colleagues. If you are adding value you stay, if not you go, even if you are the boss. You can have a job on the same basis: walk in and demonstrate your worth inside six months. But when I was in Abu Dhabi helping reform the new Department of Transport, there was very French man in charge of project management standards who couldn’t get anyone to use his project management methods. According to him, of course that was why everything kept going wrong. He was in a French rage. There are environments where you can demonstrate your value, places with a natural transparency, and there are organisations where everyone’s efforts are spoiled.[3]

The very worst organisations are the supposedly high-powered ones, the big consultancies, the posh lawyers, the marketing agencies. Everyone is supposed to pull their weight every day[4] as individuals. To bring in income, to maintain client relationships to bring in income, to launch new products to start new income streams, to keep their billable hours above a certain proportion of their time, and not to make excuses. Does this add up? Never. Does everyone know it doesn’t add up? Yes, apart from some accountants. Is there anything to be done about the nonsense? Definitely not. So no-one can trust these organisations an inch and they work by corrupt and cosy deals.[5]

A culture of showing up?

My colleague Michael Jacobs is a mediator and trainer in matters of dealing with difficult situations at work.[6] One of the features of his view of the world, that I really like, is to talk about whether people show up. Whether they are actually present in any meaningful way in meetings and encounters. Michael knows from many, many organisations of all sorts how easy it is to drift through the days being busy in an anonymous, indistinguishable sort of way.[7] To do what is expected in a way that does not differentiate you from anyone else.

Michael’s context and background is seeing human pain. Couples squabbling over access to the kids. Neighbours beating the hell out of each other. It’s never about who is right, it’s about finding a way to get along on a basis that works well enough. Winnicott also talked about good enough mothering: children will thrive given good enough mothering. They don’t need more mothering once it is good enough. When Michael talks about people not showing up, his insight is that some of the difficulties that will ensue are not necessary and can be avoided with a modicum of courage.

I watched Bernstein’s opera Trouble in Tahiti about an American suburban family who really didn’t manage to say anything real to each other at all. Soul anguish all round, covered by platitudes and conventional values. Utter consumer emptiness. My experience, however, is that showing up is like belling the cat: a brilliant and effective idea for the mice to put a bell on the cat to warn them of its approach, but how to actually do it? When I try to do vulnerable and approachable and concerned with people who don’t want to go there, it just makes things worse.

Does work make people stressed and miserable? Often. Is there something they can do to make it less so? Often. Is it safe to try, to show up, to deal with issues? Usually not. Does that affect the work? How can it not? Usually ruins the work.

Another colleague, Chris, is a doctor working in occupational health. His typical assignment in the corporate world is to deal with people who are off sick long term with stress-related illness. If you have a breakdown because of work stress you will normally be off work for six months and it will probably affect you (negatively) for the rest of your life. Chris would like to advise corporates about what in their work patterns is making people ill, but people rarely want to know. His record is eleven consecutive holders of a particular post going off long term sick before anyone was prepared to look at what was wrong with the job.

Two worlds

There is a world of planned and organised effort that people generally get paid for and it is called work. There is something that sometimes happens that feels different: we are going to call it real work. It is real because it is engrossing for its own sake. It typically happens at the boundary of an organisation, perhaps with customers. It has its own logic that is incompatible and incommensurable with the other sort of work. It takes its values and its direction from the situation (and from the participants of course), not from any external framework or instruction.

When children play, they get engrossed: this is almost tautological. What happens to be engrossing is not given beforehand. Which children join in with which other children is also not given. And of course, all sorts of object get imaginatively repurposed. The game, any true game, develops in and of itself. Is work play and is play work? Well, playful activity is what discovers the reality of a work situation. The feeling of being engaged and in flow is unmistakable and is a sign that real work is being discovered. The other way ‘round: there is no way for this real engagement to be found via work instructions.

Different people in the same situation will experience it differently. They may have a different experience of what feels like real work. In an organisational situation the coming together, playing together, of people discovering compelling meaning in what they are doing together, is a higher order of play. There are situations where it can snowball and attract more and more people into the activity.[8] Conversely there are activities that are individually compulsive and engrossing that are more like addiction than work.

When we look at risk and safety these two worlds become more distinct. It is not possible to play in any unreserved way while maintaining a concern for what the organisation may think of the activity. The political dance of wondering how something will go down with this manager or that colleague is intensely destructive. It kills the curiosity and the energy and the excitement of finding out where the real work is. And when we are engrossed in real work the question of risk and safety does not enter in. In practical terms these states are completely distinct. Almost all HR activities, even though they claim to respect and amplify difference, in practice produce a dull conformity; this is easily observed.

Since we cannot be both engrossed in real work and aware of how compliant we are with the organisation’s concerns, one possibility is to rotate through these states. We can understand and be immersed in the real work, and then later do political work with colleagues to understand the status of what we have been doing.[9] As I write this, it feels as though there is a level of maturity required to do it successfully. Philip points out that most skunkworks situations do not persist over time: it is hard to plunge back into discovery when there is a less than warm reception for the product of that intense activity.

A brief test

Here are the OneTeamGov principles:

1. work in the open and positively

2. take practical action

3. experiment and iterate

4. be diverse and inclusive

5. care deeply about citizens

6. work across borders

7. embrace technology.

These are principles for working across silos and in a culturally new way. But are they real and possible to implement?[10] Is this belling the cat? Does publishing principles persuade senior management to allow and encourage activities that fit the principles?

My own answer is that this sort of initiative does not increase safety. For whistleblowers, remember, even legislation is not enough to protect them from vindictive responses from their organisations. It feels to me as though these principles put the individual in the firing line for exercising judgement about how far to take them, and that judgement is exactly what we are saying is not available when engrossed in real work. Real work is likely to encompass this sort of principles without paying attention to them.

Here is the negative case. A colleague was leading a “collaboration” workshop with workers for London Underground under the management of Bechtel. When asked about attitudes to collaboration, an older engineer said “look, I have been collaborated four times before, and I know if I don’t ‘collaborate’ I will be sacked”. These things need saying in our mealy-mouthed corporate environments. What is the difference in practice between “showing up” and “putting your head above the parapet”. This latter phrase is so commonly heard that it must represent something significant about the environment.

This question of unwelcome truth can be entirely in good faith on both sides. My mother once pointed out to me some elderly woman’s somewhat senile and difficult behaviour and said “You will tell me if I get to be like that, won’t you”. You can guess what happened when she did behave in a similar way and I did point it out to her.

An indicative case

We could talk about Buurtzorg[11], as people do, but we want rather to talk about community care in Monmouthshire. In Monmouthshire there was a very deliberate push to allow real work to be pursued without being stymied by what the organisation thought should be done. The staff involved were sheltered by a particular mid-level manager to a quite remarkable degree. For instance, the staff involved worked for either the council or the local health trust, but the health employees took their lead from their council colleagues, not from their health managers. These staff were completely cross-trained so that their contact with their client citizens could be as seamless as possible.

The ethos of this work was crystallised into a single slogan: right time, right person, right place.[12] For the citizens they were caring for (health and social care) and who were typically elderly, they would try to arrange contact at a place and time to suit the client and with the person that the client knew best and trusted. This is an unbelievably simple approach to enabling real work to happen. The earnest[13] that real work was actually happening was that all this was achieved while underspending the budget and having a reduced budget each year.

Let me take you back briefly to the principles above. One of the more surprising things I learned about this work was that they employed a nurse whose job it was to spring any client of theirs who had to go into hospital. At the earliest possible moment, such a client would be returned home and cared for there. That seems to touch on several of the principles. I am sure, though I was not told, that such interventions needed negotiation and trust by middle management far beyond the norm. Actually caring deeply about citizens was only possible with some real work.


Philip has a really useful riff here about legibility. The problem with real work from an organisational or senior management perspective is that it is not legible. [14] It cannot be understood because the context which calls forth the real work cannot be understood from there. So, for example, why different citizens of Monmouthshire in nominally similar circumstances received completely different treatment at very different cost cannot be understood.

There is also the reverse legibility. Can a frontline staff member understand why the policy environment is the way that it is? Can they understand the spirit of the law, so to speak? In terms of the principles listed above, can someone actually implement them with some expectation of safety? Doubtless what my mother was actually communicating to me about senility was not what she actually said, and doubtless there was some mischief in my literal interpretation.

The two worlds will continue to exist, because real work is inherently engrossing and leaves the legible world of over-management behind, and because the desire to measure and monitor and evidence seems to be persistent. What we might be able to get better at is protecting the real work that needs to be done.

[1] He also said that play is the key to emotional and psychological well-being, regardless of whether you’re a child or an adult…

[2] On Twitter, just now, was a dad looking to help his daughter find a job after she had been sacked for having blue hair: really, in Brighton, of all places.

[3] Sometimes, when a team or organisation rejects one person’s efforts, it’s not because they’re not needed, but because they were unskilfully presented. Think of an annoying teammate who finally got pushed out, only to be replaced by a hitherto pleasant person who has taken up a similar refrain. That’s a sign of a role that needs to be played.

[4] Speaking pseudo-statistically, sampling a process every day will reveal more noise than you might expect, if you haven’t allowed enough time for the average to dominate. (Not that the average is the thing, per Taleb, but I think he’d agree that longer periods of time can allow for the results to better match.)

At Beeminder, we encourage people to measure their weight every day, so that the random-seeming spikes and drops become less important than the trend. Contrast to weighing only once per week; imagine having a random ‘up’ day on that occasion, in the midst of an otherwise downward trend…

[5] Carillion, anyone? In light of the imminent UK local elections, I received a flyer alleging cosy ties between property developers and the incumbent councillors.

[6] And in your divorce, should you need one…

[7] It’s so easy in a large organisation to conclude that your contributions don’t make a blind bit of difference (nor the absence of your contributions!) and to ‘check out’ or focus on more manageable trivialities, a.k.a. bikeshedding. That’s the opposite of showing up…

[8] Google famously had its ‘20% time’, one day each week for their employees to work on side projects. Less famously, they muddied this relatively pure and undirected play with corporate approbation for being associated with ‘successful’ side projects, leading to a snowball of people wanting to work with you on something that might turn out to be the next gmail. Even less glamourously, often the 20% was expected to be time spent on top of your 100% full time job... which ironically might be compatible with the notions of real work and play!

[9] In computing terms, this is ‘context switching’, moving from one perspective to another and operating accordingly. As you might guess, it’s computationally expensive and to be avoided. Consider the time it can take to regain full awareness of context after a simple interruption.

[10] The test of corporate taglines/missions/values seems relevant here: would anyone claim to do the opposite?

[11] I did take lessons from a native Dutch speaker on the pronunciation!

[12] Such a slogan might be helpful in maintaining and protecting the boundary between worlds

[13] Yes, ‘earnest’ is also a noun. This co-author had to look it up.

[14] Indeed, there’s an entire post to be had about the unhelpfulness of legibility and whether the corporate drive for efficiency drives out those behaviours that have reached the ‘unconsciously competent’ phase of learning with all its (literally unspeakable) subtleties. Conscious competence becomes the gold standard. Our colleague Ivo talks about ‘requisite inefficiency’.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Aidan Ward

Aidan Ward


Smallholder rapidly learning about the way the world works