“Safety third”. Sorry, what?!
Mike Rowe, from Dirty Jobs, popularized the Safety Third concept. Eye-catching, right? Who will argue safety is anything but first?
In a conversation with a mentor, I was challenged to consider ways to be a better (people) leader. I wanted to improve:
- Giving people autonomy and holding those accountable
- Being more human and more charismatic
In talking through these concepts he, again, challenged my thinking on what this would look like. To think of specific and practical outcomes, yet bigger. Eventually, we settled on these two goals of what I want to become:
- People-first leader
- Results-second leader
I purposefully wrote “Results-second” this way because I knew it would both agitate me (in a good way) and be awkward to say anything other than “results are our number one goal”. After all, a company has to be (or plan to become) profitable. A company much continue to exist. A company must drive results. Without that, it will fail and then fail all employees, vendors, and customers. Massive ripple effects. We see that, especially in recessions
Culturally, we have values statements such as “people are our biggest asset”, “our people matter the most”, and “our employees are always top of mind for us.” But are those statements true? How do our actions line up with our words? For some leaders and companies, yes, they are true. For many other companies, however….it’s a mixed bag.
Many say and act on “people are our biggest asset” because they recognize they can’t get results without happy employees. However, that is seeing people as the input to achieve the output (results). Effectively, we must do certain things to ensure efficiency with our biggest asset for maximum output. That mindset is thinking about “them” as property, plant, and equipment, not as human beings. We even use the analogy of people as “assets” — taking care of cars through regular maintenance such as oil changes, or caring for factories by keeping them clean and replacing machinery to avoid stoppages. Again, this mindset of “people are our biggest asset” while intended as a good thing, has negative repercussions. People have become replaceable cogs. Do we see people as souls, or as one-time-use disposable items?
Related but distinct, we decouple making money from being compassionate, generous humans. Our business culture seems to live under a dichotomy of “we need to make money” and then “I will become a philanthropist” to change the world for the better (this is similar to the mindset “I’m going to work ruthlessly hard now so I can have an amazing retirement” which is also damaging). Instead, we ought to lead integrated lives where we make money (perhaps being okay with less) and live our philanthropism daily. In the office. At the work site. In our commute. At the DMV.
I don’t have all the answers. Being a people-first leader is putting people first and results second. That is fine in great times but will be very tense in hard times. It will also be awkward in seriously stressful seasons such as when we are behind on a deadline and you are tempted to throw everything at it and begin barking orders at a faster and more sharp pace. That’ll help in the short term. Bryan Loritts, a pastor, has said “Anxiety is a fuel that helps drive further, but it is a dirty fuel. It will pollute your life and be bad for you long term.”
To be honest, I don’t know how I would react in these cases and I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I do know this is the road that must be pursued. If I truly believe humanity matters, there aren’t other options: there is no Plan B. We ought to care about our neighbors — even in a remote environment where your coworker lives on the other side of the planet — and put their interests ahead of results. Even ourselves. It’s not about “we need to care or pretend to care so we get the maximum out of people” but “we must care about people because that is a high and honorable good” because people are created beings. Virtues can be stated in good times. Virtues are tested and proven in difficult, trying times. Let’s continue to think and dialogue on what being a People-first, Results-second leader looks and acts like.
Mike Rowe’s point is that we truly do not believe in “Safety First” because we’d never take any risks; we take calculated risks for the intended outcome. Imagine if we always shied away from any risks because of safety. Would we ever fly on an airplane or send a shuttle to space? Now, imagine if we truly put people first and results second. What could this world become?