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What “One Word” captures your safety needs?

It’s an examination in self-reflection—for both top leaders and employees

March 4, 2014
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My friend and colleague, Dan Rockwell, introduced his blog followers to a little book that will not only change your personal life, but might have a demonstrable impact on your safety program.  One Word that will Change Your Life by Jon Gordon, Dan Britton and Jimmy Page,1 states the reason we fail to realize our annual New Year’s resolutions is due to how we measure our success. As the authors note, “We set to-do goals instead of to-be goals. Success is measured by what we accomplish instead of who we become.”

Think about it. In safety we set safety goals every year to reduce injuries by some arbitrary number. We become fixated on meeting the numeric goal — and never focus on what the people in the organization could potentially become. If we meet the goal, management is ecstatic. If we don’t meet the goal, management goes apoplectic and looks for someone to sacrifice at the stake, usually in the safety department. Managers never once think their behavior is what likely led to not meeting the goal.

Fact is, we over-complicate and over-explain what employees must do to meet the annual goal. People do not remember paragraphs or sentences from one day to the next. Why not consider an approach that people on the line might remember all year long and work to live by.  Why not consider an approach that people on the line might remember all year long and work to live by — adopt the “One Word” approach. So how does this “One Word” process work?

You begin by following two simple steps – 1) Unplug and 2) Ask.

To Unplug, find a quiet space where there are no distractions or interruptions. Then you are ready to look inwardly as to what your One Word is going to be.

Ask yourself three key questions to seek your One Word:

1. What do I need?  This isn’t about what you want, but what you truly need. What areas in your life need the most change and why?

2. What’s in my way?  What prevents you from having what you need?  This is all about barriers you think you are encountering.

3. What needs to go?  What are those issues you hang onto and don’t let go?  Now is the time to let these issues go.  Ask yourself; do you hold a grudge with someone? Now is the time to let this grudge go.

It is important to also ask yourself the why behind the word you have chosen. You know your circumstances better than anyone, so draw upon those circumstances to figure out why you need to pursue your One Word. Take your time defining the why.

Once you have decided your One Word, begin living out the meanings of your One Word in your daily life.  As with anything you commit yourself to, challenges will surface along with obstacles you may have or may not have anticipated. 

Prominently display your One Word in several places where you will see it every day. Share your One Word with friends and family so they can provide support.  Allow your family and friends to ask you how you are coming along.  Keep a journal writing down what you experience and learn. 

Finally, don’t treat your One Word as you would a New Year’s resolution. The One Word experience is not about getting something done, checking a box, and moving on to something else.  It is about the journey and what you have learned and experienced in the journey.  The authors encourage their readers to not carry over your One Word from one year to the next – No do-overs.  Let every new year bring to you a new
One Word.

Now, here is an approach for applying the One Word process to your safety program.

Reach out to your senior leadership team. Ask them if they would be willing to spend some quality time unplugged from the rigors of business and discover the One Safety Word for the organization.  Facilitate discussion of the three following questions:

1. What does our safety program need?  Almost everyone in management wants fewer injuries, but this may not be what they need.  Focus on the safety needs of the organization.

2. What is in our way?  Insights from your safety pro colleagues and folks working on the line would likely help management answer this question. 

3. What needs to go?  If management is looking for improvement, a number of historic activities may need to go.  Present what these activities are so management can converse about keeping or leaving them.

Once the One Safety Word is chosen, have each manager articulate in her or his words why they believe in this One Safety Word.  Capture this dialogue because it will become helpful later in clarifying the basis for the One Safety Word to employees.

With the One Safety Word in hand, promote it across the organization. Prominently display the One Safety Word where everyone will see it often. Display a poster at the front gate, show it as screen saver in your intranet, and show it in break rooms.

Now reach out to your employees. Ask them to find their personal One Safety Word that will create the potential in them to emulate the One Safety Word chosen by senior leadership for the year.

Ask everyone, including management, to keep a journal of their experiences and lessons learned living out their One Safety Word.  All of us are familiar with Safety Moments.  Over the years, I have found some of these moments to be close to torture.  The One Safety Word approach offers a platform from which everyone can share his or her experiences and lessons learned.

While driving around in New Orleans, I came up behind a brand new Jaguar XJ. What really caught my eye was the owner’s personalized license plate with his One Word – “Wonder.”  Made me think, I wonder what the owner wonders about?

The One Safety Word approach may seem a little strange, but what do you have to lose? Give it a shot. You may experience a transformation in the safety potential of your folks, not just meet some tired,  arbitrary number each year.


1   Gordon, J., D. Britton, and J. Page.  2014.  One Word that will Change Your Life – Expanded Edition.  John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, NJ.

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