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Cultivating an Actively Caring Culture: The Courage and Compassion of an Injury-Free Workplace

Feb. 1, 2010
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It may be that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition is not the blaring noisiness of the so-called bad people, but the appalling silence of the so-called good people.”

In an actively caring culture, people look out for the safety and welfare of others with courage and compassion, enabling the achievement of an injury-free environment. This paper explains these qualities with regard to occupational safety, and entertains ways to cultivate a brothers-sisters-keepers' culture of actively caring.

Most people care, but too often, people fail to act on their caring. They seemingly lack the courage to step to the plate to prevent potential harm to another person. All the six sigma, behavior-based safety and customer-focus directives will not make a difference unless people have the courage to speak up and act on behalf of a particular performance-improvement process. Indeed, without courage, most well-intentioned initiatives become another “flavor of the month.”

Courage is not a human trait, but a person state that varies according to certain circumstances and interpersonal interactions. These are given practical relevance in The Courage Factor: Leading People-Based Culture Change1 and reviewed here. First, we need to consider another dimension of actively caring.


Compassionate people are considerate and responsive to the feelings and circumstances of others. They listen and speak with empathy. Thus, while courage increases as a function of a person's relevant competence and commitment, the positive human impact of one's courage is a direct function of his or her compassion. The outcome is actively caring.

Authentic and effective actively caring requires courage plus compassion. A person who is competent and committed in a situation calling for actively caring might not have the courage to act. But when it comes to interpersonal intervention, courage without compassion can be ineffective or even perilous. So how can a culture increase actively caring?

Many factors that influence one's propensity to actively care can be subsumed under the general label - culture. A work culture, for example, can incorporate an accountability system that encourages interpersonal helping, and the daily interactions of people influence certain person states that affect one's propensity to go beyond the call of duty for another person's safety. In other words, the frequency of actively caring varies directly according to extrinsic response contingencies and indirectly as a function of certain dispositional person states.


For almost 20 years, I have promoted the use of a special, “actively-caring thank you card” at my university for recognizing individuals following their people-based discretionary behavior. The front of this brightly colored card includes designated spaces for the name of the person being recognized, the particular actively caring behavior and the name of the observer.

Several organizations have customized this thank-you card for their culture. I have seen this simple thank-you-card process cultivate a sense of interdependence and belongingness throughout a workgroup, as well as help people feel good about their actively caring.

In their 2005 book, Measure of a Leader, Aubrey and James Daniels describe a creative device they successfully have used for years to motivate discretionary helping behaviors throughout an organization. Specifically, they hang a chart in a conspicuous location that lists the names of all employees in a certain work area. Then they give each person a sticker identifying that individual. Subsequently, whenever a worker is helped by a coworker, that person puts his or her identifying sticker on the chart, next to the name of the person who actively cared.

The Daniels brothers report dramatic culture change as a result of this public accountability system for interpersonal discretionary behavior. “Not only does it give recognition for those who help, but it is an antecedent for others to take the initiative in finding ways they can help other team members.”2


Genuine appreciation and recognition can have dramatic, positive effects on a person's attitude, mindset and disposition. Indeed, a recognition system that directly acknowledges actively caring behavior can result in a spiraling cycle of propitious culture change.

Positive regard for people's helping behaviors increases the frequency of the target behavior directly, while simultaneously feeding the five person states that set the occasion for more actively caring. Let's define these person states, and entertain ways to augment them.

Self-Esteem (“I am valuable”) - How do you feel about yourself? Research has shown that people with high self-esteem report fewer negative emotions and less depression than those with low self-esteem, and they handle life's stressors with more confidence and competence. Most importantly, the better we feel about ourselves, the more willing we are to actively care for the welfare of others.

Actually, common sense tells us people will not act to protect others from personal injury if they do not perceive themselves as being worthwhile. Our common sense also informs us of ways to increase our own and others' self-esteem. Consider, for example, the following A-words that reflect certain types of interpersonal conversations that can boost a person's self-esteem: accept, actively listen, agree, appreciate, acknowledge, approve, ask, attend, avoid criticizing and argue less.

Factors consistently listed as affecting self-esteem include communication strategies, reward and penalty contingencies and certain leadership styles. Participants at my actively caring seminars have suggested a number of ways to build self-esteem, including: a) providing opportunities for personal learning and peer mentoring, b) increasing recognition for desirable behaviors and personal accomplishments and c) soliciting and following up on a person's suggestions.

Self-Efficacy (“I can do it”) - Self-efficacy is more situational-specific than self-esteem, and refers to a person's sense of competence at a particular task. Thus, job-specific feedback directly impacts self-efficacy. When individuals believe they are doing worthwhile work well, their self-efficacy increases, along with their willingness to actively care.

Here we're talking about personal experiences that enable a person to perceive their achievements. Sometimes these success stories occur naturally, as when the artist, scholar and tradesman view the positive results of their ongoing behavior. We call this “intrinsic reinforcement.” Effective safety leaders point out the inherent positive consequences of a group's injury-prevention efforts, thereby increasing the self-efficacy of the participants.

Personal Control (“I'm in control”) - The academic term “locus of control” refers to a general outlook regarding the location of forces controlling a person's life - internal vs. external. The internal outlook reflects belief in direct personal control over a certain situation, as opposed to the external belief in chance, luck or uncontrollable fate. In the internal state, individuals are captains of their ship, whereas in the external state, people believe they are victims of circumstances beyond their control.

The perception of “choice” closely is related to belief in personal control. In other words, whenever you increase one's perception of choice (e.g., by offering options rather than mandates), you enhance the perception of control, ownership and self-directed commitment. These perceptions contribute to an actively caring disposition.

Optimism (“I expect the best”) - Optimism refers to the learned expectation that life events will turn out well. People who expect the best benefit from the self-fulfilling prophecy. They start with an expectation of success, and then work diligently to make that positive outcome happen. In contrast, a pessimistic prophecy can depreciate a person's perception of personal control, self-efficacy and even self-esteem.

Empirical research has demonstrated increases in both optimism and helping behavior following such simple events as finding money in a coin return, accepting a cookie, listening to soothing music, being on a winning football team and receiving genuine behavior-based recognition. Bottom line: People are more likely to actively care when they are in a good mood and optimistic about the future.

Belongingness (“We are family”) - We don't hesitate to ask members of our intermediate family to stop an at-risk behavior or perform a certain safe behavior. This does not take courage; it's an obligation, and compassion comes naturally.

However, intervening on behalf of a stranger's safety takes moral courage. For example, giving corrective feedback to an unknown person regarding his or her at-risk behavior could result in an unpleasant, uncomfortable or embarrassing confrontation. In fact, the lower the relatedness between an observer and the performer of at-risk behavior, the more courage it takes to intervene.

Some work teams are extremely cohesive and consider themselves members of a “corporate family.” These individuals not only are willing to give and receive corrective feedback regarding at-risk behavior; they expect their teammates to actively care for their safety. These workers are “brothers-sisters-keepers.”

How can a sense of belongingness or interdependence be cultivated in a corporate culture? I've heard a variety of proposals from discussion groups at my actively caring seminars, including: a) increase team-building exercises, group goal-setting and feedback sessions, self-managed or self-directed work teams and group celebrations for process and outcome achievements; b) decrease the frequency of top-down directions and “quick-fix” programs; and c) teach relationship-building communication strategies throughout the work force.


There are obviously numerous ways to cultivate actively caring throughout a corporate culture, both directly and indirectly. Only a select few have been given here.

I suggest you solicit suggestions from your work teams. You may be surprised by the number of specific examples given about daily events that decrease these five person states among people and therefore their propensity to actively care for the safety and welfare of others. More importantly, you will learn practical ways to decrease these inhibitors of actively caring and to increase the facilitators of actively caring for safety among your teammates and beyond.

Searching for ways to cultivate an actively caring work culture will take significant time and require compassionate courage. Subsequently, implementing the practical suggestions will be even more time-consuming. But the resulting interdependent and injury-free workplace will be well worth the effort.

E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., is an alumni distinguished professor at Virginia Tech and a senior partner, Safety Performance Solutions.


1E.S. Geller & R.A. Veazie, 2009. Coastal Training and Technology Corp., Virginia Beach, Va.,

2Daniels, A.C., & Daniels, J.E., 2005. Measures of a Leader. Atlanta, GA: Performance Management Publications.

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