Safe Spaces: Books@Work on the Shop Floor

Safe Spaces: Books@Work on the Shop Floor

Imagine yourself on an operating table. It’s a routine procedure, but you have to get it done. You choose the best doctor and the best hospital and you trust the system to deliver perfect care. It’s the last procedure of the day and the – very human – doctor is tired. But you’re comforted by the nurses and other healthcare professionals in the room: the system will protect you.

Or will it? In an eye-opening study, over 90% of nurses confessed an unwillingness to speak up in the face of physician error – even if a patient’s safety is at risk.

This is not a healthcare problem. It’s a hierarchy problem. In organizational cultures with rigid ladders of authority, speaking up is hard. And in compliance-driven cultures, individual judgement is supplanted by rules and checklists. When your boss’ boss’ boss is taking a visible risk, are you going to challenge him? Fewer than 10% of employees across industries say yes.

The safest companies are those that can replace a culture of compliance with a culture of dialogue, where candor is valued regardless of its source, and where not speaking up is more negatively perceived than speaking up. A culture of dialogue nurtures your ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and invites debate and disagreement to surface better answers to seemingly intractable challenges. In short, your physical safety depends on your psychological safety – to blow the whistle in the face of foul play.

FME Big Read_cranes

Participants at our Fairbanks Morse Engine “Big Read”

This seemingly simple prescription is, in fact, incredibly hard. For compliance-based cultures of silence, undoing established behavior patterns takes time and patience. But more importantly, it’s not a one-time fix. Playing your part in a culture of dialogue is more than a skill – it’s a muscle. And every athlete will tell you that muscles need conditioning to stay strong. They need to work in the game, but more frequently, they need to work in practice.

Enter Books@Work. In early January, we partnered with two subsidiaries of EnPro IndustriesFairbanks Morse Engine and GGBearings Inc. – to work the dialogue muscle as part of a company-wide safety kickoff event. A multiple-time winner of America’s Safest Companies Award, EnPro’s commitment to safety, excellence and respect is evident across its global operations. These first-time “Big Read” Books@Work events provided a different approach to continually renewing these critical values.

In each company, we distributed a short story to the assembled associates: nearly 400 employees at FME and just under 300 at GGB. We read the story aloud and broke up into small groups to share thoughts and reactions. The ensuing discussions were energetic and engaged, surprising and rich, featuring voices and viewpoints not often heard in day-to-day work.

At FME, through Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ iconic story “The Most Handsome Drowned Man in the World”, the group discussed the impact of a single, random event to unleash a community’s transformation, the respect we offer others, and the potential change we hold within ourselves. At GGB, William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force” inspired conversations about taking “justified” risk and the varying balance of safety and necessity held by individuals with divergent levels of relational power.  

These stories – and countless others – provide a unique opportunity to grapple with larger issues related to communication, culture and the human condition. They provide a safe space within the confines of the narrative to explore controversy, nurture debate and invite diverse perspectives and conclusions.

As Erin Rafter, EHS Regional Manager at EnPro shared of GGB’s Big Read, “People who don’t normally speak up opened up in remarkable and respectful ways, sharing thoughtful ideas and baring vulnerabilities you didn’t know they had. It reminds you that we have this environment of deep caring, and how important that is.”

When we discuss sophisticated literature together, we begin to see each other clearly. We understand that our boss is more than a boss, but a human being with hopes, fears, strengths and weaknesses. A safe environment of free and open dialogue encourages colleagues to discuss the undiscussable, to constructively critique their managers – or for that nurse to speak up when the doctor has read your chart incorrectly.

Malcolm Morley, Safety Is Your Business, 1971, [Fair Use] via

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.