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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How can we get employees to speak up (when they see risky behavior)?

Speak UpVictor has over 20 years experience in the warehouse.  You have a few years of experience and were just hired a few weeks ago.  Today, you are working as a team, unloading pallets of packaged materials that were delivered from the dock. As both of you approach the first pallet, Victor takes a position directly in front of the strapping that is straining under tension.  You see that this puts him in the line of fire. Instinctively, you take a step back when Victor pulls a pair of snips from his pocket to cut the strapping…

Do you speak up? Do you stop him?  Are you sure?

Perhaps you would say something.  But a surprising number of people in this situation would stay silent. Their thought process would be something like, “Surely he must know how to perform this task safely. He’s done it thousands of times.  I’m the rookie here.  Who am I to question his experience and job knowledge?”

Peer pressure is a powerful social influence.  Most of us are fearful of being considered an outcast if we are the dissenter, especially if we have less informal authority than other people in our natural work group.

You may think of peer pressure as overt statements from co-workers. “Look, this is the way things are done around here.”  But this is not always the case.  In the scenario above, Victor did not have to remind you about his seniority and experience.  It was implied and understood.

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