One summer when I was a college student, I accepted my friend Joe Huston’s invitation to work on a table grape ranch in the San Joaquin Valley in California. I didn’t realize that I was entering a blue zone. We worked ten hours a day in the hot sun outside the small town of Arvin, under the supervision of Joe’s father, Boom Huston, the general manager of El Rancho Farms, a big operation that included packing and cold storage. The college kids worked alongside the migrant workers in an integrated crew. There were no arbitrary distinctions among us. We worked the same jobs, had the same hours, and earned the same pay. The only real difference was lunch. Their carne asada, tortillas, and salsa were better than anything I pulled out of my brown bag.

At first, I thought it was simply a matter of professional obligation that Boom treated all of us with equal respect, but it went beyond that. He hosted a barbecue for the workers at his home and all were invited, again without arbitrary distinctions of any kind. There was no preferential treatment, just equal regard. The result of the egalitarian ethos that Boom created was highly engaged workers who were willing to release their full discretionary efforts.

Key question: Do you respect only high achievers and the highly educated, or do you recognize that insight and answers can come from some of the most unlikely people?

I never saw people work so hard and smile so much. The work environment Boom created affirmed their coequal status with the other workers regardless of socioeconomic background. It offered patient encouragement for them to learn the skills to do a job without fear of a belittling response. And finally, it granted autonomy for results. Boom exacted high standards and ran a clean and organized operation, but he didn’t needlessly micromanage. The contributor safety he created fueled our performance. The college kids lost their attitude and the migrant workers had a very real sense that they were not second-class citizens. Our working relationship was on equal footing.

Now you might say to yourself at this point, “That’s nice. Everyone worked hard and performed well because Boom made them feel good about themselves.” If that were the takeaway, you would have missed the other half of the equation. Boom elevated performance in terms of raw output, but he did more than that. He planted a postindustrial mindset into a preindustrial agricultural setting. Boom was the son of the dust bowl, with parents who never finished the eighth grade, migrated to California in a Model A, and settled in Salinas. Having grown up as a cantaloupe laborer and joining the United Packinghouse Workers union at age thirteen, Boom created a blue zone from a deeply internalized sense of justice and equity. 

Blue Zone/Red Zone Descriptors

Blue ZoneRed Zone
Risk taking
Fast feedback
Renewal and resilience
Manageable stress
Initiative and resourcefulness
Risk aversion
Slow and filtered feedback
Debilitating stress
Learned helplessness

The blue zone he created rooted out fear, allowing people to give and receive constructive feedback, collaborate by thinking out loud rather than competing in silence. It emboldened people to speak up, ask for clarification, even talk about mistakes. You see, it only takes a little fear to create a fear-stricken team.

Key concept: Fear-stricken teams give you their hands, some of their head, and none of their heart.

They become dutiful yes men and women. The past lingers so powerfully in the present that the “despotism of custom” hinders human achievement, as John Stuart Mill observed during England’s Industrial Revolution. If I’m overstating the case, why, then, does Gallup continue to report that 85 percent of employees worldwide are “not engaged or actively disengaged at work,” resulting in a global downward trend in workplace productivity? Why do we constantly launch anti-harassment campaigns in our corporations? We have some work to do.

Key question: Do you express any nonverbal cues that might silently marginalize others and create a red zone?

I walked away from my experience in California’s Central Valley with the very real conviction that most people will release their discretionary efforts if they are working in a climate of psychological safety. If given the chance, they will produce outstanding results in exchange for autonomy, guidance, and support.

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation by Timothy R. Clark, published March 2020 by Berrett-Koehler Publishers Copyright © 2020 by Timothy R. Clark.

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