Fear Kills

Posted 07.23.2010

In case you didn’t see it, a report in the New York Times earlier this week offers a stark example of what can happen when the culture of an organization discourages open and honest dialogue. The article reports that in a study conducted earlier this year by the insurer, Lloyds, the crew of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico had significant and ongoing concerns about the safety of the rig. The Lloyds team was on board the rig about a month before it blew and conducted a safety survey and a number of focus groups with Transocean crew members over the course of several days.

Here’s the passage from the article that really hit home with me.


“Almost everyone felt they could raise safety concerns and these issues would be acted upon if this was within the immediate control of the rig,” said the report, which also found that more than 97 percent of workers felt encouraged to raise ideas for safety improvements and more than 90 percent felt encouraged to participate in safety-improvement initiatives.

But investigators also said, “It must be stated at this point, however, that the workforce felt that this level of influence was restricted to issues that could be resolved directly on the rig, and that they had little influence at Divisional or Corporate levels.”

Only about half of the workers interviewed said they felt they could report actions leading to a potentially “risky” situation without reprisal.

In other words, the crew felt safe in calling out issues that were in their immediate control, but feared reprisals from the leaders in the home office if they ran their concerns up the chain of command.

I have the feeling that the disaster in the Gulf will be fodder for leadership case studies for years to come.  All of the good leaders I’ve interviewed and worked with over the years consistently say that one of their goals is to create an operating environment in which people feel safe to speak the truth and share what is actually going on.  

REQUEST:  Perhaps, as a public service, we should all collaborate on a list of the behaviors that leaders need to exhibit to build an environment where it’s safe to speak up. Alternatively, we could come up with a list of what to do if you want to create an environment where people are afraid to say what needs to be said. In either case, I’d love to hear your thoughts over the next few days. I’ll write a post next week based on your comments and ideas.