Humble Inquiry – How to build trust by asking instead of telling

inquiryAs a leader, do you spend more time asking or telling?

In the United States, we have a culture of “Do” and “Tell”.  We value task accomplishment more than relationship building.  It is a cultural bias that many of us have.  Many people in a supervisory or managerial role spend most of their time telling others what we think they need to know to get a job done, rather than asking for their input.

Status in most workplaces is gained by task accomplishment.  We are recognized and rewarded for getting things done.  Indeed, one of the most significant factors that determines whether someone is promoted or given more responsibility is the ability to complete work assignments.

In some cases, a mostly “tell” approach is all that is required to get a task accomplished.  Some examples include situations where the work is straightforward or where the employee is inexperienced.  These interactions are characterized by almost exclusively one-way communication.  While we can get work done using a telling approach, it does very little to build relationships.

There is a significant amount of interdependence in today’s workplace. We need effective communications and good relationships to be successful in completing complex tasks. To build these relationships, we need a different technique other than simply “telling.”

In this article, we compare the strategy of telling with one that is centered on a specific kind of asking known as humble inquiry.   We will learn that this attitude is critical for improving communications, developing relationships, and building trust.

The notion of humble inquiry was originally developed and explained by Edgar Schein.  He defines humble inquiry as:

“…asking questions to which you do not already know the answer; building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

The strategy of asking by using humble inquiry is especially critical for facilitating an effective safety conversation. Many safety conversations that are initiated by people in authority are missing this key attribute. Unless you are willing to ask questions from a basis of genuine care for the employee, you will not build trust.

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Which safety conversations have the most impact?

“The toolbox topic for today is chemical safety,” the supervisor said as he looked down at the information sheet he was holding.  “The first group of chemicals we will review are known as acids.  Strong acids have a pH that is significantly less than 7.  Some examples include…”

With this introduction, the warehouse crew in the room immediately tuned out. Some looked at the ceiling.  Some stared at their shoes. Some even took a quick peek at their cell phones.

Too often, we view safety conversations as simply something that has to be done.  We know these conversations are a responsibility of any leader.  However, when we talk with employees about safety, our conversations are often reactive and seldom well-planned.

If a safety meeting is conducted where the primary goal of the leader is to “check the box” for a required training, the response is predictable.  When employees realize the objective, there is no engagement.  Most attendees stare blankly or watch the clock.  Group meetings such as these should not even be considered as “conversations.”  They have almost no impact in terms of engagement, learning, or mindset.

In this article, we will discuss three essential attributes for proactive safety conversations to have a positive impact.  Think of these as the 3 P’s of an effective proactive conversation:

  1. Principled
  2. Prevalent
  3. Personalized

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To reduce risk-taking, encourage a future-looking mindset

Greg was running late.

He glanced at the clock on the dashboard of his truck.  His son, Travis, was the starting pitcher today for his high school team. Travis had traveled with the rest of his team to the field and he was currently completing the last of his warmup pitches. Greg’s wife was going to meet him at the game which was scheduled to start in five minutes.  Yet he was still fifteen minutes away from the ball field.

As Greg’s truck crested a small rise on the two-lane road, he spotted a tractor ahead pulling a cultivator.  Greg braked hard and slowed to 20 mph, slamming his hands on the steering wheel in frustration. Another hill loomed in the distance.  Greg eased the truck into the other lane numerous times, looking for an opportunity to pass the farm vehicle, which blocked his view.  Each time, he retreated behind the tractor as a car approached from the opposite direction and passed by.  Finally, Greg saw an opening.  Ignoring the double-yellow line, he steered his truck around the lumbering farm equipment and quickly accelerated.

Greg didn’t see the oncoming vehicle.  It was obscured by a small rise in the road.  The last thing Greg remembered on that fateful day was swerving to the left.  He watched in what seemed like slow-motion as fence posts were clipped by his front bumper, each one splintering like a matchstick before disappearing over the roof of the truck.  At the end of the fence line stood a large locust tree…

Meanwhile, Travis had pitched several innings and was doing well.  That’s why Travis was surprised when his coach came to the mound in the middle of the third inning.  The coach asked for the ball and told Travis to go see his mother who was sitting in the stands behind the dugout.  She was wiping tears from her cheeks while pressing a cell phone to her ear… Continue reading

Emotional Contagion – When Feelings Go Viral

emotional contagionAre you aware of the extent that your emotions may affect others? Your verbal and face-to-face cues are surprisingly influential in determining the feelings of those who are listening and observing. This phenomenon is known as emotional contagion. It is recognized by behavioral psychologists as a kind of interpersonal influence.

Studies reveal that emotions (either positive or negative) spread among group members like viruses. Emotional contagion often occurs at a subconscious level. In other words, people are unaware that their emotions may have been affected by another person’s mood with whom they are in close contact.

But it goes even deeper than a transfer of emotions. Research by Sigal Barsade has demonstrated that when emotional contagion takes place, the judgment and quality of group decisions are also impacted. Let’s review a study that shows how the emotions of a single person can significantly impact an entire group’s performance.

Business school students were divided into small groups for a simulated management exercise. Each had to role-play a department head advocating for an employee to get a merit-based increase. At the same time, all the students were part of a “salary committee” negotiating how best to allocate a limited amount of bonus money. In essence, they had to balance getting the most for their own candidate, while maximizing the overall benefit to the company. Each group was also seeded with a confederate (an actor) who was trained to convey one of four different mood conditions:

• cheerful enthusiasm
• serene warmth
• hostile irritability
• depressed sluggishness

The researchers were able to identify several effects of emotional contagion. Groups in which the confederate had “spread” positive emotion experienced an increase in positive mood. But the emotional contagion was not limited to a spread of feelings. These groups also displayed more cooperation, less interpersonal conflict, and believed that they had performed better on their task than groups in which negative emotions were spread by the confederate. In addition, groups in which people felt positive emotions made decisions that allocated the available bonus money more equitably.

When the participants were asked why they allocated the funds the way they did, and why they thought their group performed the way it did, they pointed to factors such as their ability to negotiate, or the attributes of the “candidates” they had been assigned. They were completely blind to the fact that their behavior and decisions (and that of their group) had been influenced by the displayed emotion of the confederate.

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How confirmation bias contributes to a culture of compliance

License: Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0. Attribution: Nick Youngson

Confirmation bias is the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs1. This biased approach to decision-making is largely unintentional and often results in ignoring inconsistent information. Existing beliefs can include one’s expectations in a given situation and predictions about a particular outcome. People are especially likely to process information to support their own beliefs when the issue is highly important or self-relevant.

In a previous article, I outlined the differences between two distinct cultures – compliance and commitment.  This post describes how a confirmation bias can perpetuate a culture of compliance.  I will also discuss how the conversations that take place in a work place with a culture of commitment minimize the potential for confirmation bias.

Culture of Compliance

The model below explains how confirmation bias influences decision-making (and the actions taken by managers) when an organization is managed through compliance.

Confirmation bias - Compliance

It begins with a person’s existing beliefs.

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Your dangerous wandering distracted mind

wandering mindDistractions are everywhere in our world.  We can be distracted while driving, while working, or while doing any number of routine tasks. In the work place, incident investigations reveal that tens of thousands of injuries each year occur when people are not focused on the task at hand.

Most everyone recognizes the dangers associated with being distracted while driving a motor vehicle.  Distracted driving is a leading contributor to automobile crashes.  For example, here are just a few statistics from an organization dedicated to stopping texting and driving injuries and deaths:

  • Every year, about 421,000 people are injured in crashes that have involved a driver who was distracted in some way.
  • Each year, over 330,000 accidents caused by texting while driving lead to severe injuries. This means that over 78% of all distracted drivers are distracted because they have been texting while driving.
  • 1 out of 4 car accidents in the US are caused by texting while driving.
  • Texting and driving is 6 times more likely to get you in an accident than drunk driving.
  • It takes an average of three seconds after a driver’s mind is taken off the road for any road accident to occur.
  • Reading a text message while driving distracts a driver for a minimum of five seconds each time.
  • The chances of a crash are increased by 23 times when you are texting.

Error Rate and Distraction

A recent Michigan State University study provides supporting evidence that being distracted significantly increases human error (which can result in an accident).

Participants in this study were asked to perform a series of tasks in order, such as identifying with a keystroke whether a letter was closer to the beginning or end of the alphabet. Of course, a certain number of errors were made even without interruptions.

Occasionally the participants were told to input two unrelated letters — which took about 3 seconds — before returning to their task. These slight interruptions led to participants making twice as many mistakes when they returned to their sequencing task.

In addition, there are a number of studies and/or exercises which prove that humans cannot consciously complete more than one task at a time.  Indeed, one author has labeled the so-called skill of multi-tasking as “worse than a lie.”  No matter how you look at it, being distracted (for any reason) significantly increases the risk of making a mistake and/or being injured.

Unfortunately, we are not only distracted by something in our environment, but simply by the way our minds operate!

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