Thought Leadership

I Smell Gas: An actively caring story with lessons for safety leaders

August 13, 2009

Last Saturday our rock ‘n roll band – “Magic Moments” – provided entertainment for the 50th reunion of the 1959 graduates of Dublin High School in Dublin, VA. The venue was perfect. We played our dance tunes from the 50’s and 60’s on the back-yard patio of a huge 10-bedroom farmhouse built in the 1800’s and nestled in the picturesque valley of rolling hills, farmland, and many massive trees that must have enriched the landscape for more than a century.

A Sudden Warning Mid-way through our second set and shortly after our female vocalist began singing “You’re No Good,” our talented saxophonist turned to face the band and yelled, “I smell gas.” When the music and dancing continued, Doug stepped on the dance floor, raised his arms, and shouted louder, “I smell gas!”

Now everyone stopped and assessed the situation. The owner of the farmhouse told us not to worry. It was from the tanks used for cooking the dinner. The partying resumed with optimal energy and excitement.

Just for Laughs After loading up our equipment in three SUV’s, the band members gathered to reminisce the evening events. I got everyone laughing aloud by poking fun at Doug’s I-smell-gas warning. I didn’t mimic his serious tone, but rather repeated the I-smell-gas phrase in a fun but sarcastic manner. Then our laughter got even more extreme when another meaning of “gas” was suggested, along with a potential human source.

A Set-Up The next morning Doug and I laughed again at his I-smell-gas interruption at the party. We joked about prior conditions that set him up to announce the warning, including the conversations he had with his wife about the radical architectural buttressing needed to keep the old farmhouse from collapsing. In addition, he had read my recent books on safety, courage, and actively caring.

Analogous to the experiences of most safety leaders, my friend was pre-conditioned to notice a safety-related hazard and to act on behalf of other people’s welfare.

A Serious Side Most instructive was our discussion of the consequences of Doug’s warning. Not only did we quickly dismiss his courage and continue partying, but we actually joked about his warning. Although Doug realized we were laughing with him and not at him, other people in similar situations might feel ridiculed for their safety-related leadership. In fact, no one thanked Doug for showing the compassion and courage to stop the party for a safety concern.

A Lesson and Question Interpersonal consequences following someone’s attempt to look out for the safety of others can certainly punish such actively caring – in other words, decrease the probability that behavior will recur. Question: What can we do to encourage the kind of actively caring demonstrated by my friend Doug, and how can we prevent the negative interpersonal consequences that can stifle such leadership?

Safety leaders have surely encountered events similar to the one I report here. Are there lessons from your stories we can use to cultivate a culture that sets people up to look out for the safety of others and rewards actively caring, even when a safety warning results in a false alarm?
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