In the past decade, new ideas have emerged around how to communicate at work. Edgar Shein’s treatise on humble inquiry – the importance of asking gentle questions instead of telling people what they should do – continues to make its way into organisational psychology and safety.

With very good reason!

Too often, when we think about organisations trying to improve safety, there’s an assumption that the managers or safety professionals will be able to tell the workers what they need to do to remain safe – almost by virtue of their professional status.

But before this can happen – if at all – safety professionals and managers need to ask the kinds of questions that will elicit the information they need to provide meaningful answers and insights into how they might enable the safety of work in their organisation.

Simply put, safety professionals and managers are rarely experts in what’s going on in an organisation because they’re not close enough to the work. The answer for them is to develop an art for asking questions. Not just any questions either.

How to ask better questions to improve the safety of work

A few years ago, we were on a drilling rig in Queensland. It was a rainy day and we were sitting in the shed with the rig workers of our drilling contractor, having a natter about the day, but also building relationships and rapport so we could understand their workplace better.

We asked a very general question, it wasn’t safety related as such. Mostly, it was driven by curiosity and empathy. “Is there anything we can do to make things better for you?” The response was one we’ve never forgotten. “You can give us our f***ing thongs back!”

We were confused but intrigued and the workers told us how they live in mobile dorms on semi-trailers, moving between semi-trailers to access their beds, kitchen and showers. The trailers are parked on a gravel plot where they might be stationed for one or two days, before moving to another well site and another make shift gravel pad.

At the end of their 12 to 14 hour days, the workers take their boots off and wear thongs about the camp. That is, until someone cut their toe on one of the stairs and management decided they were to wear their sweaty steel-capped boots all of the time – day or night.

Having to put on work boots after a shower or in the middle of the night when you need the bathroom was wearing thin. Yet it was safety professionals and managers who decided this was a genuine solution to an incident and the way to keep their workers safe.

There’d been no engagement, conversation or asking of questions to determine the experience these workers were having after hours – and with this decision, management had destroyed any good will and positive workplace culture.

The irony was, this was a maintenance problem. It was the stair that needed fixing, nothing to do with the workers’ behaviour. If we’d asked, “how are things going with safety at work?” rather than “is there anything we can do to make things better for you?” it’s unlikely we’d have heard any real insight into the work culture.

Asking questions can improve much more than safety outcomes

Here are some of the questions safety professionals might be traditionally expected to ask and understand:

  • What do you think of the new form we’ve asked you to fill out?
  • What was the last incident you had?
  • Where are you up to on implementing that new work process?
  • Do you have all the protective equipment you need?
  • Have you read the updated work method statements?

They may be valid questions but they’re not open or asking anyone to reveal more than the minimum necessary information. These are specific and limited questions – likely to attract eye rolls and superficial responses.

Instead, when we ask general open-ended questions, with curiosity and empathy, such as: “What’s making your life hard at work?” or “What are some of the challenges you face in your role?” we’re able to get much closer to understanding the actual reality of people’s working lives in our organisations.

When we understand the lived experience of work, we’re able to make and provide meaningful support rather than imposing our ideas on the workforce. Managers and safety professionals who eliminate a safety concern for themselves by deciding everyone must wear boots at all times, are deaf to the needs and experience of the workers.

This sort of action has a dangerous flow-on effect and will discourage workers from sharing their concerns later on, if it’s clear that managers and safety professionals are only going to act in the company’s interests, and ignore those of their workers then the flow of information will quickly dry up.  This created a dangerous gap between work as imagined by management and safety professionals and work as done by the workforce.

Asking questions changes the relationship between workers and managers

So why haven’t we been asking these sorts of questions all along? Leaders have traditionally been the ones who have been expected by their organisations the answers. They stand up in front of hundreds of people and present solutions, not problems.  These leaders look to their safety professionals to tell them what to say. On the flip side, our workforces aren’t yet used to being asked for their opinions.

At Forge Works, we work with organisations to break that cycle. We bring managers and safety professionals and workers together – in an open conversation about what’s going on in the business. We care about the opinions of workers and much as the opinions of managers as this is the only way to improve the safety of work.

The only way to make progress on this in your organisation is for the people in power to start asking questions rather than telling or giving the answers – because, as we know, when you’re not in it every day you know less than others about the work being done across the business.

It’s also important to create the right environment to elicit honest answers

Working one-on-one and in small groups, getting to know the lives of your workers, talking to people as people rather than quizzing them on operational and safety matters from the get-go, will produce more meaningful insights around safety in the long run.

When we visit organisations, we can tell very quickly by the way managers interact with their workers, whether there’s open communication. Managers who know their workers by name, their children’s names, what’s going on this their lives outside of work for example, these are typically open communication environments.

When we sat in the shed with the workers having a conversation, rather than asking them about safety, we were able to discover the implications of banning certain footwear, the impact this was having on workplace culture and safety communication across the business.

Don’t ask questions to feel good – you must take action too

Within a few days, those workers were back to wearing thongs. When we went to management and queried this decision, we were able to advocate on behalf of the workers, having understood their experience of work.

Asking better questions and establishing rapport with workers is not just about improving safety and being better safety professionals. You need to be prepared to act on what you hear. It’s your job to speak up on behalf of workers and explain the implications of the situations you identify to management. 

We call this, the safety professionals’ responsibility to ‘amplify the voice of the frontline’ to counteract the silencing effect of this voice from management, hierarchy in power in the organisation.  Typically, the voices that know the most about work and safety, those of the frontline, are unfortunately the quietest in organisational decision-making.

When you create an environment where you receive open and honest feedback from workers, you’re on notice to do something about that. Asking questions creates a social contract of sorts. If you’re not prepared to listen and act, think seriously about why you’re asking questions.

The power of asking questions in different settings

While developing a health and safety strategy for Powerco New Zealand, we invited 60 to 80 representatives from all contractor organisations to a workshop based on three questions:

  1. What are the things you rely on to keep yourself safe?
  2. What gets in the way of you working safely?
  3. What would you like to see improve the safety of your work?

Each person reflected on these questions on their own, writing down their thoughts before sharing in small groups, and eventually, as a collective group. We allowed 45 minutes per question and afterwards compared the group’s response with a thematic analysis of all of the individual contributions – more than 1000 pieces of insightful feedback.

This approach and the responses we received, which largely focused on work, have been central to informing what the board of the company will act on, because they know that safety is an emergent property of work: we have to improve work if we’re to improve safety.

By asking broad questions, we were able to elicit honest responses that lead us towards the development of a strategy that will improve the safety of work. The only way managers and safety professionals can help their workers to get the job done, safely is by asking what they need – and then acting on it.