The Art of Humble Inquiry as a Pathway to Safety Improvement

Originally posted on August 9, 2016 @ 6:53 PM

Gab Carlton’s first article republished by demand. Seems to be a topic of interest at the moment. With 43 comments, one of our most popular articles.  The message here is so simple yet contradicts orthodox and contemporary safety education, training and practice: “telling is more risky than asking”, “We see ‘asking’ as a ‘weakness’ or being ‘ignorant’ so we avoid it”

The Art of Humble Inquiry as a Pathway to Safety Improvement

clip_image001I was chatting with a good friend and fellow colleague, Brett (not his actual name) the other day. Our discussion was on the importance of effective conversation leading to engaging workers. Brett stated that it was easy, he just ‘has a chat with the guys’ about what’s going on and then he ‘tells them what he wants done’. Brett is a safety manager in a large corporation.

This is not the first conversation I have had like this in my many years as a risk and safety consultant. Yet after my conversation with Brett I questioned whether this was indicative of our industry or society as a whole. Schein (2013) eludes to this in his book Humble Inquiry. Schein (2013, p. 10) states that our culture is ‘biased towards telling’. We value the art of ‘knowing’ and fixing problems rather than understanding and focussing on relationships. We see ‘asking’ as a ‘weakness’ or being ‘ignorant’ so we avoid it.

We only have to go so far as a Google search on risk and safety management (accessed 10 February 2014) to see the fixation on solutions focussed on systems and processes. One of the links leads us to the Safe Work Australia Code of Practice: How to Manage Work Health and Safety (2011). This code (2011, p. 4) details ‘a step-by-step process’ for managing risk. According to this document it’s a four-step process; identify, assess, control and review.

Lets turn to the textbook for Work Health and Safety Certificate IV and Diploma (2014). A 368-page book on the ‘process’ of risk and safety management. ‘Telling’ the safety student how to ‘do’ risk and safety in the workplace. Even the safety culture section details a process on how to integrate a ‘safety culture’. All about ‘telling’ and the ‘how’ of risk and safety and no mention of people focussed safety, relationship building or collaboration!

As a risk and safety professional myself I find this a concern. This is the standard textbook for risk and safety education. Nothing on social engagement, relationship building, engaging people or collaboration. Also having undertaken a degree in safety myself I know that it isn’t any better in most risk and safety postgraduate studies.

So is it any wonder that my good friend Brett (who also has the same degree under his belt) thought that his way of ‘effective’ risk and safety management was all about ‘telling’.

What this industry needs more of is a focus on how to engage workers, how to build relationships and collaborate more. There is no simple and easy formula either. We need to accept that ‘asking’ is not about being ‘ignorant’ but is essential in relationship building. Schein (2013, p. 9) outlines this here:

If I don’t care about communicating or building a relationship with the other person, then telling is fine. But if part of the goal of the conversation is to improve communication and build a relationship, then telling is more risky than asking (Schein, 2013 p. 9)

In order to build a relationship we need to develop trust. We can develop trust by ‘empowering’ the other person and just as quickly destroy it by stamping all over people. Schein calls method of ‘upbuilding’ others through conversation as ‘Humble Inquiry’. Schein (2013, p. 10) further states that there is growing evidence that we can achieve better ‘safe’ work tasks through the art of ‘Humble Inquiry’.

Gabrielle Carlton


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