With Martin G. Moore

Episode #291

Real Leaders Keep People Safe: Physically, mentally, and psychologically

When I began my corporate executive career, the only concern leaders had for safety was to ensure that people working in dangerous environments didn’t get seriously injured or killed.

Then, there were a lot of businesses that didn’t even need to think about the word “safety”, because they were predominantly white-collar, office-bound enterprises.

For most of my senior leadership career I worked in industrial businesses:

  • Where people worked at dangerous heights, and in confined spaces;

  • Where big machines moved with velocity; and

  • Where, heat, energy, and dangerous gasses could combust with explosive force.

The world has moved on quite a bit since then. These days, what it means to keep people safe (and just how far your duty of care extends) has evolved dramatically. I’ve found that my grounding in the principles of physical safety leadership has been invaluable in meeting these evolving challenges.

These days, when we talk about safety, it’s normally couched as SHE (safety, health and the environment), and it covers everything from personal wellbeing, physical and mental health, and psychological safety, right through to ensuring a company leaves the smallest possible footprint on the communities in which it operates.

In this episode, I take a fly across the top of the safety domain, and talk about the role that you play as a leader in keeping your people safe — physically, mentally, and psychologically.



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Episode #291 Real Leaders Keep People Safe: Physically, mentally, and psychologically


When I began my corporate executive career, way back at the start of this century, the only concern leaders had for safety was to ensure that people working in dangerous environments didn’t get seriously injured or killed – and there were a lot of businesses that didn’t even need to think about the word “safety” because they were predominantly white collar, office-bound enterprises.

For most of my leadership career, I worked in industrial businesses: where big machines moved with velocity; where people worked at dangerous heights and in confined spaces; and, where heat, energy, and dangerous gasses could combust with explosive force.

The world’s moved on quite a bit since then, though. These days, what it means to keep people safe, and just how far your leadership duty of care extends, has evolved dramatically.

I found that my grounding in the principles of physical safety leadership have been invaluable in meeting these challenges as well. These days, when we talk about safety, it’s normally couched as SHE (Safety, Health, and the Environment). It covers everything from personal well-being, physical and mental health, and psychological safety, right through to ensuring your company leaves the smallest possible footprint on the world in which you operate.

In this newsletter, I take a fly across the top of the safety domain, and talk about the role that you play, as a leader, in keeping your people safe: physically, mentally, and psychologically.

I begin with a quick look at the very complex area of mental health. I’ll then cover the more subtle field of psychological safety. And I’ll finish by giving you eight rules of thumb that are going to help you to give your people the best chance of going home at the end of the day even better than they arrived at the start of it.


Things have really changed in the way we perceive and manage mental health issues in the workplace. As recently as 10 years ago, the topic of mental health was absolutely taboo. You couldn’t even talk about it in the context of work, and any leader who had the temerity to inquire about the mental health of one of her people would’ve been considered out of line.

It would have been seen as inappropriately crossing the boundary from work into someone’s personal life. And, in all likelihood, you would’ve been told to mind your own business.

It sounds ridiculous to say that now, doesn’t it, given the seismic shift we’ve experienced in the field of mental health in such a short space of time?! These days, mental health issues in the workplace are rife. People are quite happy to express their feelings of anxiety and stress, and openly discuss their inability to cope with life’s many pressures.

The boundaries between our work and personal lives have shifted, and leaders need to deal with the fallout.

I think that, overall, this is an incredibly good thing. And what constitutes great leadership hasn’t really changed. Even 20 years ago, the best leaders were those who were connected to their people, empathetic to their personal struggles, and unafraid to demonstrate their caring… so that leader is going to be fine in the new world of work.

But, there are a few things today that make this really tricky for most leaders. For a start, very few have even the most rudimentary training in the disciplines of psychology or mental health. And it’s difficult to know how to respond to any mental health issue that’s brought into the open, because it’s almost impossible to use the leader’s go-to toolkit: understanding and evaluating the risk.

So, instead, leaders just take an individual’s word for whatever they choose to express as being their reality. They accept it on face value, and then from that point forward, they handle the individual with kid gloves.

That would be an HR issue, right? Often, avoidance seems to be the winning strategy!

I want to make one really important point about this: as a leader, your duty of care extends to all your people, not just the ones who have explicitly declared a mental health issue. Not having the strength to deal proactively with someone on your team who’s struggling with mental health issues is, in my mind, poor leadership. Why? Because the impacts, the fallout, and the risk to every other team member can’t be ignored.

This is wickedly complex, there’s no doubt about it. But if you’re in a leadership role, your duty of care extends to ensuring that your people are supported, and the impact of the work environment on their mental health is minimized. You don’t get a free kick, and you can’t just fob it off onto HR.

I released a critical podcast episode some time ago, which deals specifically with the practical application of leadership techniques, in situations where one of your people is suffering from deeper issues. It was Ep.185: The Mental Health Minefield, and I genuinely believe every leader needs to listen to this one.

Strength, empathy, and a willingness to confront hard issues are prerequisites that, in the face of mental health issues, will keep your people – all of your people – safe.


The term psychological safety was first coined by Amy Edmondson at Harvard Business School. She defines it as:

The shared belief, held by members of a team, that it’s okay to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes, all without fear of negative consequences.”

This concept applies to a group, and it’s a key factor in team culture.

There’s a range of benefits to a culture where people feel psychologically safe, as you might expect:

  • Individuals are more motivated, because they can see their contribution makes a difference;

  • Decision-makers are able to make more astute decisions, because they have higher quality inputs;

  • Continuous improvement occurs more readily, through individuals learning from their mistakes and sharing it with the team.

Low psychological safety creates worse outcomes at both the individual and team level. I think it’s important to understand what a team culture is like when psychological safety is absent.

One of the tactics employed by the most radical labor union agitators whom I worked with was to reduce psychological safety for the workers. I’m sure they wouldn’t necessarily concede that this is what they were doing, but they would intentionally instill fear into the workforce, by perpetuating the myth that “management is out to get you”. That would tap into people’s fear response, so that they’d seek the support and protection of the union.

In my mind, this is a pretty dodgy recruiting technique, because it preys on people’s worst fears. And that might be an extreme example but, remember, there are plenty of bad leaders out there who get exactly the same outcome for their own teams, because they don’t create psychological safety.

In the absence of psychological safety, people are afraid to speak up, for fear of having a target painted on their back. They’re afraid to make or admit mistakes, because they feel as though the weight of punishment will be disproportionate, and they’ll be scapegoated. And they don’t want to share information because it’s every person for themselves.

And, apart from anything else, your people just burn a huge amount of energy and effort on all the wrong things – like trying to make sure they don’t fall foul of their boss, whom they don’t feel safe with!


As is the case with mental health, psychological safety is a complex topic, because there are so many factors in organization and team culture that contribute to it. So, you could be forgiven for taking the easy way out and just leaving your people to their own devices, letting them decide what they need to feel psychologically safe.

This misses the point, and it can be incredibly counterproductive.

When we talk about psychological safety, it’s easy to nod in agreement and to not question it, because it sounds like it should be true. Like all conventional wisdom, it’s easy to misinterpret or oversimplify the principle. So, the weak leader thinks to himself, “I won’t criticize my team, and I won’t hold individuals to account because I want them to feel psychologically safe. They need to know that it’s okay to fail no matter what.

Well, let’s just back up the truck for a minute. Let’s think about what psychological safety isn’t (and Amy Edmondson herself would be the first to agree with these misconceptions).

First up, psychological safety doesn’t imply that you have to be nice to everyone.

That’s always going to feel completely disingenuous. I’ve seen teams where a leader sets out to ‘kill her people with kindness’ and it completely backfires. Individuals feel insecure and frightened, because they know that there’s a huge gap between the reality and the saccharine-sweet messaging that they get from their leader. And they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, because they know: a contrived culture that pays lip service to performance simply can’t last.

The second misconception is that psychological safety doesn’t imply that everyone feels comfortable, all the time.

In a safe environment, there are lots of robust conversations. Why? Because people feel secure engaging in them. There’s a tension in decision-making, because everyone wants to achieve the best outcome, even if it means they don’t necessarily get their own way. And sometimes, support and comfort don’t travel hand in hand. Often, the very best thing you can do to help someone is to be honest with them, in a way that preserves their dignity and their self-esteem. But even though that might be the best thing for them, it’s rarely comfortable.

The third misconception is that psychological safety doesn’t imply that people aren’t held accountable for their choices. Unconditional support should be reserved for our families and close friends. As a leader, your support should be conditional, upon a few things, like:

  • Did the individual follow your guidance?

  • Did they act with the right intent?

  • Did they observe the company’s values?

  • Did they behave morally and ethically?

Well, if so, happy days! But if not, they shouldn’t be able to hide behind the veil of psychological safety and expect to face no repercussions for decisions they make of their own free will. Individual accountability still has primacy, even in the safest of safe places.


Just before I give you my eight rules of thumb for leading safety holistically, I do want to talk briefly about physical safety. This is one of the most difficult areas of leadership, because it is so absolutely unforgiving. If you make a mistake with a customer or a supplier, or if you make a bad commercial call, it’s no big deal – it’ll cost you some money.

But a mistake in the safety arena can cost people their lives.

I was incredibly fortunate, during my corporate career, to be able to say that no one was seriously injured or killed on my watch. But if it weren’t for a decent measure of luck, there were a couple of occasions where that wouldn’t have been the case.

I’m not going to go into any of the gory details here, but what I will say is that, if something happens to one of your people, it never leaves you. There are a few times in my career where a deal didn’t pan out the way we thought, and we lost some cash. And when I look back now, I couldn’t even tell you to the nearest $10 million how much that was. But the leaders I know, who’ve had people in their teams killed or seriously injured on their watch, can remember every minute detail, as if it were yesterday.

If you look at my LinkedIn profile or my website, you’ll see the headline from my time at CS Energy: during my tenure, we increased EBITDA earnings from $17 million to $441 million.

But I’m equally proud of the improvements we made in safety. Over that same time period, the safety statistics improved massively. Our lost time injury frequency rate (LTIFRⁱ) reduced from 4.1 to 0.6. To translate, this effectively means that, for a certain number of hours worked across the company (say, 2,000,000 hours) instead of seriously injuring eight people, as we did in 2014, we only injured one person in 2018.

That’s seven people who avoided serious injury each year, because we made the environment safer for them to work in.

Now, of course, a lot of work goes into this from a lot of people, but the standard and expectation is set right at the top. And it means you have to sometimes make really difficult decisions – like removing leaders who aren’t strong enough to do what it takes to keep their people safe. I did that more than once.

I can tell you, without fear of contradiction, that I put at least as much effort and commitment into making CS Energy a safer place to work, as I did in the turnaround of its commercial and financial performance.


Here are eight rules of thumb for keeping your people safe: physically, mentally, and psychologically:

  1. Don’t tolerate reluctant leaders. Every leader has a duty of care, and if you’ve got leaders in place who aren’t prepared to step up and keep their people safe by holding a standard, then they shouldn’t be there. You can’t afford to put someone else at risk because you have a leader who’s not willing to exercise their duty of care. This is where you have to start.

  2. Be really clear about what you want. If people are confused or unclear about what you’re trying to achieve or what you expect from them, then they can’t be blamed for not doing what you think they should. Communication is all-important. When you’re communicating well to people about what the expectation is around their safety, they’re more likely to act safely.

  3. Be empathetic (but of course, don’t be sympathetic). You need to connect with your people so that you can put yourself in their shoes, and see the world through their eyes. That’s what empathy is. The more empathetic you are, the better you’re going to understand each individual who works for you. But empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is when you start to feel sorry for people and make concessions for them. So for example, with someone behaving unsafely, you might say to yourself, “Oh, well, I know they’re going through a divorce, so I’ll overlook that.” No! That’s how people get hurt.

  4. Be clear on the relationship between processes and behaviors. This relates directly to physical safety, but it’s an important concept, more broadly. I’ve worked in organizations where most of the rank and file workers say, “Processes keep us safe. We will follow the processes, and if the processes are wrong and we get hurt, then it’s management’s fault because the processes should have been better.” That’s an incredibly dangerous way to look at things. Processes are fine, but they don’t mean you can ignore the risks, behave without applying your judgment, or adjust for the conditions at hand. As a leader, you need to be really clear about the fact that processes are necessary but not sufficient. Every individual needs to step up and think about the risks that they’re managing at any point in time.

  5. Create a ‘no blame / no excuses’ culture. This is the best way of describing the type of culture you want your team to have. You want people to be creative, to try things, to show some initiative, to go above and beyond. And when they trip over or make a mistake, as they invariably will, you want that to be a learning experience, not an opportunity to cast blame. You want your people to instinctively say, “I’ve got this. This is mine. I’m going to get on with it! “, because they know that they’re safe. If something goes wrong, it’s learning, it’s not blaming.

  6. Don’t over-function for your people. It’s so easy these days, when we see someone who’s a little bit weaker in the team, to cuddle up to them, to help them, and to over-function for them – to just say, “It’s okay. I’ll look after it. You don’t have to do your job. I’ll make sure your job gets done, because I’m being kind to you.” Kindness is an incredibly important factor in leadership. But if you over-function for someone, you’re not doing them any favors. You are stifling their growth. You are allowing them to become weak. And if the day ever comes when they don’t have a job with you, their next boss may not be so forgiving.

  7. Give your people autonomy and empowerment (but do so inside clear guardrails). You want your people to feel as though they have some control. They’ll be really reluctant to go out on a limb, if they feel as though they can’t control the outcomes. There are so many ways that you can steal your people’s autonomy and empowerment, so make sure they’ve got clear guidelines for where they can go, and then let them get after it. Focus on the what, not the how – let your people decide that.

  8. Hold every individual accountable for their choices. They have to meet the minimum acceptable standard. If you want to keep your people safe, you have to set a standard that you won’t allow to be contravened. This sets the floor for people’s behavior and performance. You can’t let people dip below the minimum acceptable standard, or all sorts of chaos breaks loose. And just remember, people don’t watch your lips – they watch your feet. It doesn’t matter what you say about the standard you are setting, it’s the standard you enforce that matters. This is about making sure that every individual is accountable for the choices they make.


Every leader gets to decide how deliberate and conscious they’ll be about keeping their people safe. But many choose to ignore this question altogether, and some don’t even know that it’s a question they should be asking: “It’s not my problem. I can’t really influence it, because there are too many things that are outside of my control.” With all the pressures a leader faces, it’s no wonder that this doesn’t factor highly on the daily to-do list.

It’s really not until you’re blindsided by an unexpected event that you’re forced to examine the safety of the environment you are providing for your people. Safety is the stalking horse for anything else you want to change for the better in your team. It’s one of the true virtues of leadership that shouldn’t be tarnished by petty politics or point-scoring.

Improving safety should be an area where everyone, from the chairman of the board, down to the frontline workers, is aligned on. And if you show your people that you’re prepared to invest in their physical, mental, and psychological safety, it helps to build trust.

Once you have trust, there’s not much you can’t do.



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