Learning to be vulnerable at work decreases workplace accidents.

I’ll admit it, this story had me scratching my head. I’ve spent a lot of time working with companies in tough safety environments. When I think of safety programs I think of systematic, uncompromising, and exact safety measures. I think of the men and women I’ve met in manufacturing, or those who move freight in warehouses and over the road, or who working on oil rigs or a hundred other dangerous jobs. They often spend up to the first 20 minutes of their day in a safety meeting reviewing the same procedures day in and day out trying to avoid workplace accidents.

Their jobs are dangerous. These safety procedures (and following them every time, especially when you don’t want to) are how you get home with all the parts you had when you left. Or how you get home at all.

But a recent study concludes that, when it comes to workplace accidents, it may be even more important to spend some time just being human. Consider this example.

You probably know that oil rigs are one of the most dangerous places to work on the planet. A recent NPR article spoke with Tommy Chreene, who remembered when he first started work on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico at the age of 15. It wasn’t out of the norm to see a man die on the job. One man, Chreene recalled, accidentally kicked a handle while exiting the platform. Unfortunately that handle held a large pipe in place. When the handle moved the tension in the pipe was released and it caught the man’s ankle.

“‘In about three seconds, it spun him around 80 times,’ Chreene says. A few feet from the man was a post, and ‘his head was hitting that post like a rotten tomato.'”

According to Chreene, he and his coworkers had about 15 minutes to grieve the loss of their friend before they had to get back to work. “I mean, that hole cost a lot of money,” Chreene says.

An unusual approach to reduce workplace accidents.

Fast forward to 1997. Shell began construction on the world’s deepest offshore well to date. Ursa would cost $1.45 billion and would stand 48 stories tall. At the time, nothing compared to the magnitude of this project.

Rick Fox was one of the men responsible for Ursa’s success. Having seen rigs in action and knowing that this rig was going to be exploring water deeper than any ever had, Fox knew things needed to change if he was to ensure the safety of the platform and the men who operated on it.

He began working with Claire Nuer, a leadership consultant and Holocaust survivor, on ensuring safety in such a dangerous environment. Fox was just beginning to discuss technical details like drilling schedules and man rotations when Nuer stopped him. She believed that the primary focus should be on “how the men dealt with their feelings.”

I don’t know how many oil rig workers you’ve met. But you can probably guess that opening up about their feelings isn’t high on their “favorite things to do” list. During the construction of Ursa, Fox put over one hundred of Shell’s oil rig workers through Nuer and others’ training programs. The purpose: get these men to open up to one another.

They did.

Robin Ely, Harvard professor, and Debra Meyerson, Stanford professor, decided to study Fox and Nuer’s experiment. What they found, recounted in their HBR article here, is that:

“By allowing themselves to become vulnerable to one another, [oil rig workers] had altered ‘their sense of who they were and could be as men.’

Ely says that as the men became more open with their feelings, other communication was starting to flow more freely. ‘Part of safety in an environment like that is being able to admit mistakes and being open to learning — to say, ‘I need help, I can’t lift this thing by myself, I’m not sure how to read this meter,’ [Ely] says. ‘That alone is about being vulnerable.'”

[Fox and Nuer] helped contribute to an 84 percent decline in Shell’s accident rate companywide, Ely says. ‘In that same period, the company’s level of productivity in terms of numbers of barrels and efficiency and reliability exceeded the industry’s previous benchmark.'”

Not only did learning to open up and be vulnerable with coworkers improve Shell’s safety rating. Workplace accidents plummeted while production increased. The men worked better together because they communicated better.

I know you probably don’t oversee oil rigs. But there’s a lesson we can all learn from this.

Being vulnerable with your team is a strength not a weakness.

Employees who know each other well care more for each other. They’re look out for each other and help out when someone gets in a bind. They enjoy their work more. They have more enthusiasm and are more engaged. Their comfort with each other improves problem solving and leads to more innovative ideas.

The results of this study are completely consistent with our research on leader approachability, which isn’t surprising. After all, the second part of our connection model teaches leaders to be more open and vulnerable with their team. Leaders who lead by this example see the same thing they saw on the Ursa – improved relationships AND improved business results.

Try being vulnerable with your team. You won’t regret it.

If you need a little help knowing where to start, check out The Approachability Playbook (especially the Approachability Window Tool in our Approachability Toolkit). It’s full of easy-to-implement strategies for learning to be more vulnerable and increase connection with your team.

Do you worry that someone on your team holds back and doesn’t speak up when they want to? Could any workplace accidents or production issues have been overcome if people just communicated a little better? How could your company culture encourage being vulnerable with others?