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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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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You can’t coach stupid

working-man-shoesIt was noisy in the meeting room as the construction workers assembled early one morning.  The concrete floor and cinder block walls created an echo chamber for the men’s voices and the squeaking of metal chairs being pushed into place.  Spartan furniture and a dusty, bare floor were tell-tale signs that this room was used occasionally for crew meetings, but not much else.  Some folding tables on one side of the room strained under the weight of 3-ring binders and manuals stacked half-way to the ceiling.  Another table in the back held a large coffee urn and numerous boxes of doughnuts, most of which had already been claimed.

While Russ went to the front of the room to get the projector running, I settled into a metal chair beside the doughnut table, fighting the urge to grab one of the few remaining sugary treats.  Russ was the internal trainer. He was scheduled to talk to the group for the first hour.

The class about safety culture and leadership had been requested by the contractor’s leadership team. The company recently had some serious injuries and near misses.  They were anxious to see what could be done to prevent another event.

The managers were perplexed why some of their guys were taking risks, even though they had implored them to “be careful.”  Even more disturbing, it seemed as though someone was making a mistake on the job almost every week.  While all of these were small errors, the senior managers knew that any one of these mistakes could cause significant property damage or result in another injury under different circumstances.

As Russ went through the introductory slides and started the first class exercise, a burly man dressed in blue jeans and a shirt that appeared to be one size too small abruptly emerged from an office which adjoined the conference room.  The name plate and title above the door indicated that Ed was a supervisor.  Ed yanked his office door closed behind him, causing a loud thud when it met the door jamb.  I heard him mutter a couple of expletives as he walked briskly by my chair and walked heavily down the stairs on the far side of the room. Continue reading

Five-Step Guide for a Safety Conversation

bubbles-normal-800pxIt takes at least two people to have a conversation. For a conversation to be effective, each person needs to alternatively talk and listen. Unfortunately, some leaders are prone to lecturing, with very little listening. This ineffective communication style isn’t isolated to senior leaders who ascribe to the command-and-control approach to management. It can be seen at all levels of organizations.

The prevalent communication style of managers and supervisors is a barometer of the safety culture. Occasional, one-way safety conversations are telltale signs of a culture of compliance. Frequent, interactive safety conversations are indicative of a culture of commitment.

As indicated in a previous post, the motive for having a conversation significantly influences the safety culture.  To recap:

  • If the reason you have any safety conversation is to exert control, the approach will be to criticize and seek compliance through correction.
  • If the reason you have any safety conversation is because you care, the approach will be to coach and seek commitment through collaboration.

One communication model1 suggests that an effective organizational conversation has four attributes: intimacy (building trust and listening), interactivity (promoting discussion), inclusion (collaborating on solutions), and intentionality (sharing a common purpose).

In this article, I introduce a guide for an effective safety conversation – one that starts with caring.  This guide incorporates the four attributes of an effective conversation. It also stimulates a conversation that enables coaching and collaboration.

Five-Step Guide for a Safety ConversationTM

5-Step Safety Conversation

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Dear Supervisor – Do you expect me to be injured?

Safety Expectations

Image courtesy of Atlantic Training

One of my summer jobs was working at a busy warehouse, filling wooden pallets with various orders of canned fruit or juice products. Forklifts then loaded the pallets on a trailer for shipping.

I remember the day I filled out the employment application.  The job was on second shift.  It was hard to find anyone who wanted to work these hours, so I was hired.  The woman from human resources asked me if I could start working the same night.  I showed up 30 minutes before my shift for orientation.  While I don’t recall everything that was said, the supervisor’s safety expectations were memorable.  The speech from Lyle went something like this:

“Most of these guys have been working here for more than 15 years.  So ask them anything you want to know.  The work isn’t that hard, but you can expect to get a few minor injuries before the summer is over.  Nothing serious – maybe a gash from a box cutter or a sore toe from a case that is dropped accidentally. No open-toed shoes, by the way.  There’s a first aid kit in the break room.  If you need something more than a bandage or ointment, come see me.  Now look, the number one thing you need to remember is that those guys running the forklifts are moving fast.  The sooner we get these trucks loaded, the more time we all have at the end of the shift to relax.  So stay clear of them at all times. They have the right-of-way in the aisles.  Any questions?”

What questions would an 18-year-old ask?  I had none.

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