Questioning Safety

This is a tale of — and lesson from — two stellar professionals who each achieve extraordinary results in safety by enlisting out-of-the-ordinary methods.

This is a tale of — and lesson from — two stellar professionals who each achieve extraordinary results in safety by enlisting out-of-the-ordinary methods. Both Mickey Hannum, MS, CSP, SGE, CPSA, CPEA, Vice President of Health and Safety for McWane Inc., and Craig Lewis, J.D., Harvard Law School (who, as my colleague, is one of the most effective safety change agents I know) realize the value of “questioning safety.” That is, utilizing the right questions at the right time to enhance safety knowledge, skills, motivation and commitment.

A Time-Tested Method

This overall approach isn’t new. After all, the great Socrates famously employed asking-rather-than-just-telling — written about in his student Plato’s “Dialogues” around 400 BCE — to simultaneously draw out others’ thoughts and concerns, surfacing pre-existing knowledge and the lack thereof. 

This “Socratic method” of shared dialogue was further refined by the leadership luminary Peter Drucker, who high-graded a style of change agentry that was — and still is — alien to many leaders. Drucker commented, “My greatest strength is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.” And, “The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers. It is to find the right question.”

Applying this to safety, Mickey and Craig have each, in their own ways honed approaches of questioning they’ve found superior to lecturing for reducing defensiveness, engagingly energizing, and increasing others’ sense of being well-regarded (vs. treated as either an unknowledgeable “student” or, worse, an “idiot” or “dummy.”) That going back and forth with workers or other leaders can significantly elevate safer mindsets, which cascade towards considering-then-adopting higher-level skills and actions.

Even more, eliciting responses in safety can help step up culture. Referring to an after-incident meeting, Mickey Hannum wrote, “If we are disciplining/terminating people for not following procedures when they are injured without diving into understanding why they felt it was ok to do so, we are not learning. We are only disciplining because of consequence — ‘it went on the OSHA log.’ We need to be looking at behaviors and what drives them because the behavior exists before the consequential OSHA recordable. That made most of them in the room get more engaged in the conversation.”

Tips and Techniques

Of course, intent is paramount. Both Mickey and Craig communicate with genuine humility; it’s the polar opposite of needing to flaunt their (considerable) expertise. Effective questioning has to be sincere — not done as a ploy to maneuver others into speaking or responding. Or to show off how smart or knowledgeable the leader is. With truly honest questioning, others know they have a choice whether and how to respond — without being cross-examined, pointedly “volunteered,” put on the spot, or embarrassed if they venture a “wrong” answer. 

Some of their tips:

Mickey Hannum: “There is an approach to safety that is more impactful than regurgitating the standards, regulations, rules, procedures, etc. Try having conversations with people doing the work. Be curious and ask lots of questions about their work. You should do this even if you used to do the job - It might be a minute or two and you may not remember all of the challenges they face each day. Just start asking questions and listening. You will learn a lot and create more value than you already do! You won’t have as many walls to run through.”

Craig Lewis: “I think of what I do as ‘coaching with questions.” For example, in our MoveSMART Instructor-Catalyst trainings for reducing soft-tissue injuries, I might ask questions such as: 

• ‘How often do you do the task? What’s the weight? Does a load have to be heavy to cause problems?’ 

• ‘When you do this task, do you feel any strain? If so, where in your body?’

• ‘Where, if any, have you tried applying these new methods? Did you notice any difference? Did it help in any way?’

• ‘Are there tools or equipment you can use to make it easier?’

• ‘Have you been able to use these methods and techniques away from work? If so, where — and how has that worked out?’

• ‘Have you found that using these methods helps you better direct your attention where you want it to be? If so, in what way(s)?’”

Long-Term Payoff

Of course, everything with upsides also has downsides. Questioning can be less time-efficient on the front end compared to just lecturing or quickly telling others what to do and how to do it. But of course, in the mid- and long-term, the right approach to questioning has repeatedly shown to create deeper buy-in, resulting in more effective and lasting improvements in safety decisions and actions. Neuroscience studies bear this out (see “We Learn Faster When We Aren’t Told What Choices to Make,”

Further, former Intel CEO Andrew Grove was a fan of questioning for heightening his own knowledge, discovering more valuable information for his planning. He wrote in his excellent “High Output Management” that one of his main principles was: “Ask one more question!” 

Both Mickey and Craig have found that incorporating questioning in the right ways into safety conversations, meetings, training and planning boosts self-convincing, helps change beliefs, and enhances decision-making. 

Does any of this at all pique your professional interest? Would you consider including more questioning into your work and life? If so, what would you do?

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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