Unlocking Your Potential: Mastering the 5 Principles of Human Performance – Part 1

In Converation with the Safety Collaborators Podcast

Episode 016

Mar 1, 2023

In this episode...

In today's episode, we introduce The 5 Principles of Human Performance.

Unlocking the secret to unstoppable human potential and igniting transformation for your people, teams and the entire organisation. 

We came across the following post in a public forum (social media group) for somebody looking for advice, and we'd love to hear your reaction to this post.

Facebook Post used to introduce The 5 Principles of Human Performance

Post for consideration about The 5 Principles of Human Performance

"I have a question please. I have a workshop cleaner who was asked to go and clean under the generator. The generator is in a closed area with a gate with signs saying keep away when generator is running. The worker ignored this and opened the gate and started mopping under the generator while it was running.

His mop got caught in the radiator fan and caused damage to the tune of ZAR25,000.00 (approx. USD $1,500.00). I made a suggestion to the worker that the company will pay half the amount and he will have to pay the other half over a period. I would not deduct more than 25 percent of his salary per month. Am I legally allowed to do this? I would like to know before I start deducting."

We were gobsmacked, meaning utterly astonished that this was even a question. 

This post is an interesting introduction to The 5 Principles of Human Performance, as much comes to the surface when reading this post.

We unsuccessfully tried to connect with the person who wrote this to understand better where they are coming from because the one thing we have learned with safety and safety culture is that people don't know what they don't know. And this raised many questions for us:

  • Is the worker alright?
  • Did he need medical attention?
  • Did anything else go wrong?
  • How is the human behind this?

Many assertions, assumptions, and judgments can come from this; however, we should avoid jumping to conclusions, and instead, we need to learn more. 

Our mission is to help people change how they think about safety. And our ethos is to make a difference. So part of our role is to help people broaden their understanding, questioning and thought process of how what you are doing impacts you, your teams, your people, your workers, your staff, and ultimately the organisation. 

So how did we find out about Todd Conklin's work and the 5 Principles of Human Performance?

Karin has always been curious about different ways of thinking and how we look at safety differently. 

Whilst conversing with our client about redesigning a 15-year-old safety leadership programme which we are converting to a global digitally facilitated programme with modern views of safety, gone will be some outdated behavioural-based safety concepts and the introduction of modern safety culture and human performance principles.  

During this conversation, Karin was introduced to the work of Todd Conklin and his book The 5 Principles of Human Performance. She found it such a great eye-opener that it is now being used as the framework for the new programme.

While behavioural-based safety (BBS) tended to focus more on the worker and their actions; for example, in the above post, this would translate to the person who damaged the generator with his mop; our question now would be, what happened before he went to mop, what instruction was given?

In one of her past lives, Nuala was chairperson for many disciplinary hearings, and her question was always to go one step back. 

When people showed her a root cause analysis, she often said,

 "I'm sorry, but you need to dig deeper because I am not satisfied that this is the root cause".

  • What else is behind it? 
  • How has the organisation encouraged this kind of behaviour? 
  • How has it been allowed? 

How has it become the norm that the person who transgressed or had an accident or caused something to go wrong believed that they were making the best decision, at that moment, to achieve the outcome they were asked to do?

It is about stepping back and asking:

  • Are we investigating or interrogating this person?
  • Are we looking at the bigger picture?

The Safety Differently movement looks more towards these questions and much more.

What are the five principles?
as per Todd Conklin and his book The 5 Principles of Human Performance

  1. Error is normal - even the best people make mistakes
  2. Blame fixes nothing - it only creates shame and guilt
  3. Learning and Improving are vital - learning is deliberate
  4. Context influences behaviour - systems drive outcomes
  5. How you respond to failure matters - how leaders act and respond counts

Why are these so helpful and critical in high-hazard industries?

Most people involved in an incident feel embarrassed or have a sense of shame. Depending on the severity, they will question whether anyone really needs to know, what the reaction will be, and whether they will be criticised because they didn't mean it [the incident] to turn out this way.

There's a vast difference between a violation and an intentional act against process, policy or procedure versus making a mistake. 

So let's talk about the first principle - Error is Normal.

We fly a lot, and the pilots potentially make about five +/-  errors an hour on our flights (based on research and statistics).

They don't do it intentionally; however, systems and processes are in place to catch those before it becomes an incident. So they're not being penalised, and they are still flying us around. 

Therefore, an error is normal and good systems are tolerant systems.

Let's look at that holistically. How do we influence the greater system and create a safer workplace where people are not afraid to speak up and say, 'I messed up'. 

Working in an environment where we think that if you break the system, you are making the errors, that it's you, you're to blame, that's not going to work well, and so a vital point of that first principle is that error is normal and not a violation. 

It's also not always bad. Sometimes, it might be the difference between good and lucky. 

Sometimes it is good because it helps us innovate and improve the next time we do the same work. So an environment that allows people to speak up requires psychological safety. 

We are talking about how if people feel safe to learn, contribute, and speak up, we will improve things. So that is where the error is not always negative, although it is hard for some people to grasp that.

Listen to episode E006 to find out more about psychological safety. Karin will share her knowledge of the 4 Stages of the Psychological Safety framework. 

Because we're human, we make mistakes. 

It's as simple as that. We do it all the time. 

Are you always focused even when you are in the car and driving from A to B? Do you get to point B and think - how did I get here? Are you making a mistake or having an error in judgment? There are mechanisms to help us stay on track, such as the rumble strips on the side of the road in case we veer off the road in a moment of no focus. 

These moments happen to us constantly on the job, especially when doing repetitive work. So if the system isn't supporting us and we don't trust the system, there's a whole range of points along that journey where error always happens. 

So how do you help the system accept that there will be errors and not design systems for perfection? Where and how can you build system tolerance?

We love this quote, and it's a direct quote from the book:

'Actually, the problem with being wrong is that before you know you are wrong, it feels right.' 

Error is never a choice because if it is a choice, it becomes a violation. 

And by saying that error was a choice or asking people not to make errors or why they made it, it turns that error into a violation. It changes the dynamic of the error because it brings in that guilt and shame rather than saying, 'Okay, this was an unintentional deviation from the expected outcome.' 

  • So, what do you do next? 
  • How do you adapt the system? 
  • How do you adjust the process? 
  • How do you ensure the error or mistake becomes an opportunity for deliberate learning?

So that's an insight as to why Error is Normal, and we highly recommend that you read the book. 

The takeaway from this podcast

Think about errors as being normal and not normal. We don't think that's good English, but you know what we mean ... it's all part of being human.

It does not matter how clever you are; it happens to all of us, and we believe that if you can walk into everyday life not expecting but appreciating that fact and then not being surprised when something doesn't go quite according to plan. 

Generally speaking, catastrophe doesn't happen just from minor errors, it happens for a whole range of reasons, and perhaps as we go through the five principles, some of those will come to light. 

We ponder the error in the post we shared upfront. There was an error; the worker went, and interestingly they used the words 'ignored this' (signs saying keep away), but we wonder if he did? or was he doing what he had been told to and made a simple error that costs by the sound of things a mop and a fan belt?

We will continue exploring these questions as we work through the remaining 5 Principles of Human Performance. 

In our next episode, we will look at principles 2 and 3. Then, in the final of this three-part series, we will look at principles 4 and 5  and deep dive into how you respond to failure matters, which is foundational to all of these principles.

Nuala Quote

"The five principles of human performance, if we can get enough people exposed to this, excited about this, we can make a difference."

Over to you

You can help us spread the word by sharing this podcast,  and please do hit the subscribe button on your favourite podcast platform to stay up to date with our musings. 

And finally, how can we support you in your safety, culture and leadership endeavours? Contact us. 


The Series


  • The 5 Principles of Human Performance by Todd Conklin, PhD
  • The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety - defining the path to Inclusion and Innovation by Timothy R. Clark
  • Next Generation Safety Leadership - from Compliance to Care by Clive Lloyd.

About the Show

Our purpose in sharing this podcast is to have a chinwag (conversation) to help people change how they think and behave about safety. 

We do this by engaging in dialogue and testing the levels of trust and psychological safety, which are core to organisational culture. Making safety part of your DNA so that your people speak up, show up, do right, and become safer every day for yourself, your team, and your business.

We will explore topics related to organisational and safety culture, leadership, the language of risk, emotional literacy, psychological safety, conversational agility, intercultural intelligence, and whatever else pops up during our conversations—sharing our experiences and learnings. 

We intend to share nuggets of wisdom that will challenge your perspectives, potentially solve a nagging problem, share actions you can implement, and give you at least one aha moment.

And, if you enjoyed the show and gained value, please share with just one other person to help spread the word.