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Want to Create Safety Culture Change? Start Asking, Not Telling

Mar 15, 2023

Two safety colleagues in a bright office laughing and looking at a computerWorkplace culture is shifting across the country and around the world.

A study in the California Management Review found that organizations are becoming more flexible, transparent, supportive and decisive.

“In short, organizational cultures in the pandemic era have generally shifted away from a high-performance orientation to one that prizes empathy, understanding and mutual support,” the researchers conclude.

These new attitudes extend to safety culture.

To adapt to this shift, many safety professionals are turning to emerging communication strategies like humble inquiry that challenge current power dynamics to cultivate better relationships and improve safety results.

Based on the book, “Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling” by Edgar H. Schein," this communication style centers on asking rather than telling.

It was the subject of a Future Safety Leaders webinar presented by Colette Lertkantitham, ARM, risk control consultant, and Laura Turro, CSP, ARM, risk control service director, both with Liberty Mutual Insurance.

What Is Humble Inquiry?

Schein defines humble inquiry as “the fine art” of:

  • Drawing someone out
  • Asking questions to which you do not already know the answer
  • Building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person

“Humble inquiry can be thought of as an art because [it doesn’t have] prescriptive steps or some kind of checklist to follow, but more so principles to apply,” Lertkantitham says.

Another way to think about it is in terms of its opposite approach, where you tell instead of asking, Turro says, a process that often focuses on telling someone something they already know.

That’s why adopting a humble inquiry approach can produce many benefits in the workplace.

“If all you’re doing is sharing the same viewpoint . . . throughout an organization, you’re not ever getting other perspectives and you're never going to learn,” says Wyatt Bradbury, M.Eng., CSP, CHST, CIT, HSE area manager at Hitachi Rail, who attended the webinar. “If we want to drive innovation and continuous improvement, then we have to make sure we’re engaging others.”

This table offers a quick comparison between asking and telling and their effects on safety culture.

Asking  Telling 
 Shows genuine curiosity and interest Assumes the information shared has some level of validity or appropriateness to the situation
Reduces the likelihood of misinterpretation, bad judgment and inappropriate behavior Assumes the person does not already know what you are telling them 
 Builds relationships  Focuses on task accomplishment
 Promotes listening  Attempts to impress and entertain

Often, telling comes in the form of a poorly asked question. Consider these two examples:

  • Do you have a safety program?
  • Can you explain your safety program?

The first is a closed question seeking a yes/no response that doesn’t spark conversation. The second is an open-ended inquiry that creates room for a response and doesn’t reflect any preconceptions.

What Are the Challenges? 

Status, rank and role boundaries can inhibit the practice of humble inquiry.

Consider a typical structure in a manufacturing plant. There is a plant manager, who resides at the top of the organizational structure, with a safety manager then production workers below on the organization chart. While each person has specific responsibilities, their jobs are interdependent and they’re all working toward the same goals and objectives.

However, production workers are those closest to the output. The safety manager and plant manager may not be around the manufacturing process each day. That’s why it’s so important to involve production workers in discussions about work design, safety and culture, and help find ways to help them feel comfortable sharing questions with senior management.

“You can see some pretty scary outcomes when people don't feel empowered to speak up,” Lertkantitham adds.

In a facility that embraces humble inquiry, workers will be more inclined to bring up concerns —this is where the practice can drive culture change, Turro says.

How Can We Overcome Those Challenges?

There are two primary ways to overcome barriers to humble inquiry:

1. Build personal rapport. Ask everyone from executive leaders to baseline workers how they are. Learn about their families. Take in as many context clues as you can, like what’s on the walls of their office or the sports logo on their hat. Find common ground where you can bond.

Thomas Bosquez, safety specialist at Ferguson Enterprises, offers this example. There are often language barriers in his workplace, but he strives to connect on a personal level with workers. During a recent conversation, a production worker told Bosquez about a problem he wouldn’t otherwise have seen. Left unaddressed, this issue could have impacted worker safety.

“Without that camaraderie and communication, that could have never happened,” he says.

2. Practice “here-and-now humility.” When you adopt a humble inquiry approach, you tell the other person they know something you don’t or can do something you can’t. That is humbling. While this can be challenging at times, this approach signals the “importance and interdependence we have on each other to get the job done at the end of the day,” Turro says.

By adopting this perspective, safety professionals can better manage increasing cultural diversity, identify needs for collaboration among interdependent work units, and create the relationships and climate that will promote the open communication needed for safe and effective task performance.

Safety professionals also need to recognize that they must invest in mastering humble inquiry.

“This is an art,” Lertkantitham says. “This is not something that's going to be developed overnight and it will definitely require practice and reflection.”

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