Courageous Timeouts: A Paradigm Shift from Burnout to Empowerment
During an HSE Leadership session with a Business Group Leadership Team, the stakes were elevated, and the expectations were high. This is a leadership team just one level below the board of directors. In addition, during the preparation talk with the CEO, he revealed that many members of this business group have “burned out”.
My co-trainer and I were very nervous, especially knowing that high-ranking executives were present to observe and support the session. The objective was clear— to delve into the underlying causes of burnout within the organization and find solutions. Little did I know that this HSE Leadership session would take an unexpected turn, leading to transformative results.
A Rocky Start
Scheduled to commence at 4:00 PM, we had a customary request for participants to arrive thirty minutes earlier to enjoy some refreshments. However, upon arriving the attendees expressed their frustration when they realized that we weren’t going to start promptly at 3:30 PM. They felt they had a missed opportunity to wrap up ongoing meetings, finish calls, or complete pending tasks. Sensing their discontent, we made the decision to forgo the pre-session break and dive right into the program, albeit 15 minutes later than their anticipated time. It was an inauspicious start.
We always begin the HSE Leadership session with an experiential learning exercise — in this case, the helium stick challenge. While we were explaining the task, the group, brimming with impatience, started attempting the challenge prematurely. In the midst of their fervor, one of the participants nearly poked my eye with the stick. Attempting to intervene and provide more instruction, I was abruptly cut-off by the Business Group Leader, who insisted that they were well-versed in managing risks, and this challenge was nothing compared to the risks they encounter every day. So, the underlying message was: “get out of the way, let us finish this stupid challenge”. Chaos ensued as everyone clamored and shouted, desperately trying to bring down the floating stick.
The Silent Awakening
Overwhelmed by the tense atmosphere, my co-facilitator and I exchanged glances that revealed our shared anxiety. With my heart racing, I made the decision to take control of the situation and call a Time Out. I asked my colleague to trust me and stepped forward to address the group. In as confident and commanding a voice as I could muster, I said “Everyone….STOP!! I do not feel we are in a safe situation”.
Gradually, silence settled upon the room. Seizing this moment of stillness, I said “Right now my heart is beating at about 180 beats per minute. I’m nervous and anxious about what is going on. My partner is also feeling stressed about what we are observing”. Then, I asked them the question:
“Can you imagine that if we experience this reaction after 10 minutes being new to this group, what those who you work with for longer periods of time might be experiencing?”
Then I stopped talking. I let the quietness linger in the room for what felt like an eternity, and in reality was at least four minutes. This was the most challenging “stillness” I have ever experienced. Then, unexpectedly, one of the attendees broke the silence, saying: “I think they have a point”.
A Turning Point
In short, this unexpected timeout proved to be the catalyst for change. In those initial fifteen minutes, the experience illuminated the HSE Leadership objective. The Business Group leader and the entire team underwent a paradigm shift, altering their operational strategy for the upcoming year. They put a halt to an endless stream of initiatives, instead focusing on completing ongoing tasks before moving on to new endeavors. The organization began to thrive, and burnout cases significantly decreased.
Looking back, I recognize that this timeout represented one of the most daunting challenges I have faced as a facilitator. However, I take immense pride in the fact that I used myself as the most critical instrument in that moment. By openly acknowledging our own vulnerability and drawing attention to the impact of that team’s energy, we managed to create a breakthrough moment that sparked transformative change.
The HSE Leadership session with the Business Group Leadership Team turned out to be an unforgettable journey. Despite the initial tension, it will always stay vivid in my memory, as it revealed me the power of courage. The courage to listen to my own gut feeling to speak up; the courage to bear through the unbearable silence, and the courage of that participant to embrace the confronting message. Those courageous moments of doing the right thing, despite the group pressure, join together like droplets, creating a wave of change that resonates with heartfelt truth.
Related article – “Chance or Choice, Risk Reduction for Safer Organisation“
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