The unemployment rate at that time was 25%! People were looking for jobs and many couldn’t find any. Many were losing their jobs due to the Great Depression, but during these difficult circumstances an amazing technical feat took place. The Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge spanning the Golden Gate, the mile-wide (1.6 km) strait connecting San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The construction of the bridge was undertaken by a huge labor force consisting of common laborers except for a few skilled laborers and only a few of them were engineers. This project was one of the most incredible achievements of the industrial revolution, and the workers were proud to participate in it.
The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge is also an amazing story of achievement and safety standards. And Tim Elmore, in his book “The Eight Paradox of Leadership”, tells the story.
The Golden Gate Bridge’s safety record was impressive. Only 11 workers died while completing the $35 million project. The expectation for building a steel bridge was one death for every million dollars of cost, by these standards. So how did they pull this off?
Generally, when a person falls and dies during the construction of a bridge, the work slows down; you can imagine the remaining workers becoming worried and fearful, causing missed deadlines. The men became preoccupied with survival instead of focusing on the success of the project, and their fear slowed down the work. The foremen became insistent. They know that the longer it takes to complete the project, the more delays and slower pace can cause the project to incur higher costs. So they pushed harder.
However, chief engineer Joseph Strauss was convinced that the workers had to work safely, although the project might miss the deadlines. Thus, Strauss made the site the first in America to have a safety net suspended below. The decision was costly at $130,000, but it worked. The safety net saved the lives of 19 plummeting workers who call themselves the club halfway to hell. Not only did people survive, but work accelerated as everyone felt able to focus on completing their work rather than fearing for their safety, despite the cost of the expensive safety net. The project was completed on time, within budget and with minimal losses.
Can you see the paradox of hanging a safety net under a project that costs money and time? A leader might assume it’s not worth the cost. Ironically, however, it saves time and money. Work speeds up as the team feels safe, not in fear for their lives, empowered, and can focus on getting the job done.
Today we do not build or build bridges, but all the same. We work with people in our business in a volatile and uncertain environment. In addition to the physical security provided by the physical nets in our Golden Gate Bridge story, we need to train our leaders to have the leadership skills to lead their teams and provide them with the psychological security their staff need. Inspirational leaders inspire confidence in their people and enable them to fulfill their potential. Without this skill, team members would be afraid of faltering or failing, and when that becomes the culture, you can say goodbye to creativity and excellence.
Psychological safety is defined as the belief that one can express oneself without the risk of punishment or humiliation. It has been well established as a critical driver of high quality decision making, healthy group dynamics and interpersonal relationships, greater innovation, and more effective execution in organizations. As a result, success comes faster; creativity and initiative thrive because failure is neither final nor fatal, and the team knows they will not be punished or humiliated by the boss.
The workplace needs many effective leaders who are humble and don’t like to humiliate people who make mistakes or don’t deliver. And that’s why good leadership training for leaders is essential for security reasons.
(Francis Kong is hosting his Level Up Leadership 2.0 master class online on May 24, 25 and 26.