…..the art of questioning becomes more difficult as status increases. Our culture emphasizes that leaders must be wiser, set direction and articulate values, all of which predisposes them to tell rather than ask”.
Edgar Schein in Humble Inquiry (2013, p.5)
I attended a ‘thinking group’ meeting last week with a new group of people that I hadn’t met before. While I was reflecting on the gathering afterwards, one thing that occurred to me was that among the people that I was with, I was the last to introduce myself. In fact, I didn’t speak at all (aside from a short “Hi, I’m Rob) for the first 15 minutes or so. There were new people to meet and I was interested in ‘their stories’. We had a great chat and I got to know some interesting new people.
Wind the clock back a couple of years however, and given the same setting, I would have been busting at the bit to be the first to speak, to be the centre of attention in the meeting and generally being the extroverted and energetic guy I had been known for.
I have observed this often from my peers in risk and safety where being extroverted and energetic is often seen as critical for success. To be described as ‘passionate’, ‘engaging’, and ‘energetic’ seems to be a sign of pre-eminence. It seems that being an ‘extrovert’ is synonymous with being passionate about, caring for and to be frank, being ‘good’ at safety. But is this right? To be successful in risk and safety do we need to come across as outgoing, passionate and engaging? If this is our style, if our preference is to ‘engage first’ rather than ‘ask and listen’, what does this mean for our relationships with others?
If this is you, as it was me, what does being passionate, engaging and energetic mean for how you go about supporting others to deal with risk?
This reminds me of the most important piece of feedback I’ve received in my career. It came after I had completed a ‘passionate’ presentation at a ‘town hall’ meeting in front of nearly all of the employees at the head office of the company that I was working for at the time (Sara Lee). I remember talking about ‘office safety’ in a way where people seemed to be ‘entertained’, where I received overwhelming feedback that my presentation ‘really hit home’, was ‘interesting’ and made people ‘really think about safety in a very different way’. To be honest I was feeling pretty chuffed, a great success I thought, people really listed to what I had to say, that’s success right?
Well I thought so too! Until that is, I caught up with one of the best leaders that I have had the privilege to follow. The conversation went like this, “Rob, your presentations are great, you have a special way of getting your point across, and I see people engaging with you, well done. I have just two questions though, 1) what legacy do you leave and when you move on from here, which you will eventually do, what will this mean for safety? 2) If safety is all you Rob, then are you really doing what we need you to do?” This conversation has had me thinking since it took place in 2009!
I now finding myself listening a lot more, less focused on getting my point across, and far more interested in others. This has been the outcome of a good dose of self-reflection, of feedback from people who care about me and from a better understanding of social arrangements and what they can mean for my relationships with others.
It has also been one outcome of the extraordinary learning adventure that I have had the privilege to be a part of over the past 3 years. I’ve learned so much about people, about how we make decisions, about why we do what we do and about human motivation. I’ve read quite a number of books, amongst the most stimulating for me has been Edgar Schein’s Humble Inquiry who describes, “the purpose of humble inquiry is to build relationships that lead to trust, in turn, leads to better communication and collaboration” (p. 21). Is that our real purpose in risk and safety?
I wonder if there is a need for those of is working in risk and safety to take time out to think about how we go about things? What benefit would come from more listening, inquiring and understanding rather than jumping in with answers, solutions, and instructions?
I am very grateful for Isadore’s questions in 2009. He is naturally an introverted man, he is quietly spoken and always appears calm and in control (i.e. very different from overtly passionate and engaging). His two questions had a profound effect on how I go about things. It didn’t require a good ‘rev up’, he didn’t need to engage me with passionate war stories or scenarios, he simply asked two very poignant questions. Perhaps he humbly inquired?
For those of us who are naturally extroverted, who have engaging and outgoing personalities; I wonder how we may benefit from developing our inner introversion?
As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments.
Author: Robert Sams
Phone: 0424 037 112
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