Let's talk


Words by Michelle Rushmore

March 18, 2021

Are you a King, a Queen, a Grand Master or Mistress?

“We're delighted to present the next article from Michelle Rushmere (Grad IOSH), who is a recent Graduate of the Month from our IOSH Certificated Performance Psychology for Safety & Health Program. In this article, Michelle compares decision making in chess with the kind of decisions a leader, site or shift manager might make each day in safety.”

Anyone for a game of Chess?

Okay, so now you are wondering what on earth Chess has to do with health and safety, right?  Well, there are, in fact, remarkable similarities between the two.

Chess, otherwise known as the ‘’Game of Kings’’, has proven to demonstrate, time and time again, how the very same principles used within the game can create methods for success. It has proven that it can influence performance and increase our ability to become strong leaders. All of us have it within us to become the master of our own Chess game, and many famous people from all walks of life, past and present, have done just that. These people include former President Winston Churchill, former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, Her Majesty the Queen of England, Comic Artist Charlie Chaplin, former professional American tennis player John McEnroe, English television and radio presenter, Clive Anderson, Music Artist Madonna and Actress Julia Roberts, to name but a few.

In fact, most of the world’s billionaires, such as co-founder of the Microsoft Corporation Bill Gates, internet entrepreneur, philanthropist, and co-founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg, and investor, author and philanthropist Richard Branson all have a history of playing Chess and have contributed significant parts of their success in life, to the game.

The idea of how people become successful or even self-made billionaires always fascinates, not only because of the tremendous amount of wealth that it can imply, but how they went on to achieve it. It seems that these extraordinary people use the same principles used in

Chess to develop skills that enable them to evaluate opportunities and make effective decisions, utilising these principles over and over throughout the years. So, what was it specifically that first attracted them to the game of Chess?

Well, one of Chess’s most fascinating attributes is how it constantly calls on us to challenge ourselves. Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy (1956) developed a classification of levels of intellectual behaviour in learning. He identified six levels: remembering (knowledge), understanding (comprehension), applying (application), analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.  Academically we are rarely able to use all six of these levels together but instead tend to use the lower levels of remembering, understanding and application.  Chess, however, includes those higher-order skills of – Analysing, Evaluating and Creating, which are all involved throughout every step of the game, thus promoting a higher level of thinking.  Chess calls on the need to exercise an implicit requirement to hone our ability to remain attentive and remember important details and procedural facts that all serve to develop intellectual abilities and skills. All the fantastic attributes of a great leader.

Furthermore, it also teaches us the value of positivity and seeing things with a clear mind. It is about learning from our mistakes and appreciating the wins.  We realise that we can create opportunities for success if we always look for ways to win the game. And most importantly, a great leader does not start a chess match with a negative mindset, thinking they will lose. The thought of failure is completely removed and not even considered an option. This is definitely an important aspect that we could use more in safety.

In Chess, all of the 32 pieces on the board have a specific role to play, regardless of their title. Each piece’s value can easily be related to the value of our employees, not only through individual strengths but also because their input on health and safety is vital, especially when we are all playing on the same chessboard together. That is not to say, however, that a pawn is of less importance. On the contrary, in fact, even the pawn can become the highest value piece on the board in the right circumstances. When you consider the pieces collectively, we quickly realise they form our team’s basis and how it represents the importance of everyone working together to ensure a successful outcome.

Chess reinforces the need to consider prompts and guidance coming in around us before making any moves. Instead of only thinking about the next few seconds, we need to be thinking three or four steps ahead at all times to ensure we remain in a winning position, and maybe even seven to ten steps ahead if we are a competent player.

Chess is not just about the short-term wins from these steps but also about how the combination of those steps can alter the game’s whole dynamic to get an advantage. The only way you can truly achieve this is by thoroughly observing the board in front of you, recognising emerging patterns and noticing where the pieces may be vulnerable.

This could easily be related to a step in a procedure or even from observing or talking through a task being carried out. Never underestimate however, that at some point, you will likely encounter a series of events that you weren’t necessarily planning on and crucial decisions will need to be made on how to proceed. Sometimes it may feel as though our options are limited or restricted to the choice of only a few squares in front of us before we can see the bigger picture.

This does not automatically mean that we will lose the game, but it may prove challenging to counteract the chain of events unfolding. That being said, the move we decide to make can influence and even impact the actions and behaviours of those around us, so careful contemplation is required. This will ensure we have all of the relevant information before making our move; only then can we communicate our intent so that health and safety becomes more manageable and, once implemented, more effective. If it is performed correctly, we ultimately ensure that everyone goes home safely at the end of the day.

So how do you achieve a level of mastery?

Well, you certainly don’t need to be the next Magnus Carlsen (reigning Chess World Champion) or even play Chess for that matter. You do, however, need to ask yourself what a great leader does that an average leader does not. The answer is that they think like a champion, and they visualise the win. They imagine every step they will take to allow them to be successful. They look at the things that “on a good day” go right. They don’t focus on avoiding failure or spend their time worrying about events they can’t control. Instead, they focus on the things they have influence over, then proactively use their time to make the most significant impact possible. Great leaders understand that this does not happen overnight.

Just the same as Chess is not about instant gratification. It is taking the time to develop and implement a range of psychological characteristics to attain that level of excellence. I firmly believe that you can learn so much about effective leadership by applying some of those very same principles used within Chess. The great news is that there is now a fascinating fully IOSH Certificated Program that explores many different areas of performance excellence. This course will give you the knowledge and the tools you’ll need to develop yourself and inspire others to sustainable excellence and this can be applied to all areas in safety.