Anker & Marsh

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Dr Tim Marsh PhD, MSc, CFIOSH, CPsychol, SFIIRSM is MD of Anker and Marsh. Visiting Professor at Plymouth University he is considered a world authority on the subject of behavioural safety, safety leadership and organisational culture.As well as many of the world's most recognisable industrial names Tim has worked with diverse organisations such as the European Space Agency, the BBC, Sky TV, the RNLI and the National Theatre in his 25 year plus consultancy career.He has key noted and chaired dozens of conferences around the world including the closing key note at the Campbell Institutes inaugural International Thoughts Leaders event in 2014. He has written several best-selling books including Affective Safety Management, Talking Safety, Total Safety Culture, the Definitive Guide to Behavioural Safety and Organised Wellbeing. Previously he led Manchester Universities ground-breaking research team into behavioural safety methodologies in the 1990s.
December 21, 2023

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THE TIM MARSH BLOG

Tough guys don’t dance: taming the C-suite

Tim Marsh reminds us that not everyone in your organisation is singing from the same hymn sheet.

Thirty-odd years ago, my first job as a psychologist was looking at suicides in the army. Like today, the adverts promised nothing but fun and adventure with anyone showing willing pretty much signed up for basic training there and then. In those more rough and ready days it could be a brutal way to find out you weren’t suited to army life – see, for example, the fate of Pvt Leonard Lawrence in Kubrick’s excellent Full Metal Jacket.

At a recent event, I met some former soldiers and I was reminded that my sympathy and concerns are those of a civilian who’s never been shot at. There is of course a valid argument that frankly, the sooner those unsuitable people are vetted the better as, in due course, finding yourself in need of a calm and professional focus from someone with the wrong mind-set could easily cost you your life.

CREDIT: Tatiana Balletti/Unsplash

What is certain is that people who have learned to risk and take life (and sleep soundly later) have a very specific mind set. Though some will be born ‘ice cold’ by nature, what we’re talking about typically is people who have learned to be comfortable doing what needs to be done to achieve a certain aim. Casualties along the way are always regrettable but go with the territory.

So much, so bleedin’ obvious, I’m sure you’re thinking! However, it set me pondering about C-suites and one of the key reasons why many organisations have excellent safety but average wellbeing – and what the wellbeing, health and safety world (W H & S) world can do about it. This isn’t an article on the vital importance of talking, however, it’s about people who simply don’t hear music the way the W, H & S world does.

Remember who you’re talking to

C-suites, it is often (allegedly) reported, consist of full-on sociopaths!  However, whether sociopathic or not, many are certainly able to do things and make tough decisions that impact badly on staff but still sleep soundly at night. Again, usually, because it’s simply their job and ‘collateral damage’, to use a forces term, goes with the territory.

It was after the event – as all the speakers mingled – I was reminded of a truth I thought worth discussing. As we chatted, one of the ex-soldiers complimented the audience on their interest and positive attention and I replied: “That’s standard for a safety crowd…we’re a self-selecting group who tend to be interested, caring and positive by nature.” (And a quick cross-reference to an exercise in the Emotional Intelligence sections of our human error training that ends with the line: ‘So remember, whoever it is you’re talking to they are not you’).

Why is this important?

Most of us are aware – and have been for quite a while –  that the key to getting organisations to invest properly in wellbeing/mental health processes (not just initiatives) is to stress (and formally cost) the win-win nature of doing so, well. For example, engaged employees leaving less frequently; showing higher levels of discretionary effort; lower absenteeism and presenteeism; the financial benefit list goes on. It is a proven win-win.

The trouble is this move to enhance wellbeing and minimise mental health issues caused or exacerbated by work is going more slowly than it should be. The backlash, articulated by Dame Carol Black and others, against a clear trend in organisations to see mental health first aiders as a magic bullet is an excellent illustration of the lip service many companies give it.

In the UK there are few leaders (sociopathic or not) who don’t know that accidents are bad for business. They are aware of investigations, disruption, morale, fines, legal and time costs, publicity, but, to date, wellbeing consequences simply aren’t even close to par with this.

Almost everywhere I go when working I’ll see a sign describing Zero Harm as the aim. But we really need to challenge this by actually defining harm. However, at this point, when talking about the ‘slow violence’ of ‘bad work is bad for you’, it’s so often over to genuine vision and values. In short, the reason that so many companies still give this approach lip service is simply because, broadly speaking, they can.

Two calls to action.

We, in the W, H & S world, need to always remember that many people – especially successful and influential people – do not see the world the way we do. Nobody will argue with us when we exhort, “…and, of course, it’s the right thing to do.” So, they’ll smile, nod, probably agree with us, but then not do anything about it. I’m not the first person to say this, I know, but we have to remember that unless we make huge efforts to speak their language, they may well be polite but not persuaded.

We need to always lead with the win-win. If only by pointing out that people having bad days, distracted and fatalistic as they tend to be, often have worse interactions, make worse decisions and have more incidents.

Secondly, as well as articulating this ‘win:win’ investment opportunity, we really do need to support efforts for tougher regulation and legislation. Ironically, it’s just the eternal truth that it needs to hurt them too.

If I’d gotten into a heated argument about Brexit or some such with one of those ex-commandos and ‘gone’ for one, I’d have ended up in hospital! Sadly, no matter how passionate, well-intentioned and plain right we are, when we attack the c-suite from the wrong angle the consequence can well be that colleagues will end up in the next bed.

We, in the W, H & S world, are nearly always moved by good music. Others, however, just find it a distraction from the spreadsheet they’re working on.

The title of this article refers to a town in America that could lay claim to the world’s best whale-watching excursions. Can you name it? A book to those who can. Comment below…

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Mark Tucker
Mark Tucker
5 months ago

Would that be Provincetown then?

tim
tim
5 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

It certainly would Mark … the literary world’s Stormin Norman on top form! Please let me have best address ([email protected])

Ian Lister
Ian Lister
5 months ago

Nantucket?

tim
tim
5 months ago
Reply to  Ian Lister

Sorry Ian. Provincetown is where the novel is set (and where it written by Normal Mailer).

Javier Gaspar
Javier Gaspar
5 months ago

Inspirational, engaging, and humorous as always.

tim
tim
5 months ago
Reply to  Javier Gaspar

Thank you Javier – that’s very kind of you.

Paul
Paul
5 months ago

Another good article Tim. There are clearly genuine cases where businesses need to make changes in how they operate to alleviate mental health pressures on employees. I think for the most part employers try to be considerate of their employees. I think the big challenge is determining the legitimate cases where employees need some sort of help as opposed to those that now use the mental health banner as an agony aunt for the triviality of life. This is where I see the C-suite getting irritated. The number of hours, and therefore cost, given looking into the daily grind (internally… Read more »

tim
tim
5 months ago
Reply to  Paul

Thank you Paul. I think we can both agree that good work is good for you – and the building blocks of ‘good work’ (quality and respectful two-way dialogue for one) are good for business and just a sound investment. (Spurious claims tending to be low in a strong caring culture for example).