Director of CIRAS Catherine Baker shares her thoughts on listening to diverse voices, breaking the bias towards groupthink to help create a speak-up culture that leads to safer workplaces.

Diverse team in the workplace wearing PPE

Every voice matters. Of course it does – who could disagree with that? 

Why then did the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) state in its 2020 annual report that ‘racial, language and cultural tensions were factors in the accident’ at Rochford? 

Why then at CIRAS do we hear from workers who are afraid to speak up about safety unless their identity is protected? 

Accident reports from many sectors tell a similar story, from aircraft crew to medical staff.  Someone either spoke up and was not listened to, or didn’t feel able to speak up… and the opportunity to prevent harm was missed. 

I sometimes wonder whether we get mixed up between between people and systems when it comes to how we treat inputs that don’t agree with the majority view.  Let me explain. 

Aircraft autopilot systems have multiple processors.  In some cases these have been designed, built and programmed by different teams so that they are unlikely to contain the same errors.  They are diverse by design, but in flight the processors must agree.  If there is an ‘odd one out’ then it is ignored and taken offline – silenced.  This keeps us safe in the sky as the variation results from a bug. 

A human team is the complete opposite.  

Imagine we’re a team of like-minded individuals who work well together and are joined by somebody new who brings a different viewpoint, perhaps because of their age, gender, culture or experience.  By tuning in to a new perspective and listening in an inclusive way, we could find better ways of working that make everybody safer.  That different voice really matters.  But if we choose to act like an autopilot and assume that a minority voice must be wrong and is best ignored, we could miss that opportunity to prevent harm. 

It’s worth checking ourselves here, because this choice may not be conscious.  If I picked up bad vibes in my team about being the 'odd one out', would I choose to speak up with a different viewpoint?  With the wrong work culture, we might default to being an autopilot silencing the voices we need to hear.  In so doing we lose the value of a diverse perspective, with potentially tragic consequences. 

It matters if I am distracted from a safety-critical task when the tea-break ‘banter’ offends or upset me.  It matters if I’m not well protected by badly fitting PPE designed for a different physique.  It matters if colleagues are slack with communications protocols and as a non-native English speaker I misinterpret an instruction.  It matters even more if these things go unchecked because the voices that could raise them are not heard. 

Why not check in with your colleagues to see if anyone has ideas or concerns from a different perspective that could lead to safer ways of working?  Or, if you ever feel your viewpoint is the ‘odd one out’, be assured that we need to hear your voice more than ever.  If you don’t feel able to raise things internally, let us know at CIRAS.  We’d love to hear your perspective.  We guarantee to keep your identity confidential and will make sure that any concerns or ideas you have will be heard by the right people.  Tell us about what stops you speaking up internally, too – your voice might help unlock a speak-up culture for others. 

Every voice matters.  Especially yours.