Catherine Baker, director of CIRAS, shows that there is more to listening than we might think.

This article was originally published in the June 2024 issue of Rail Director magazine.

Woman in focus listening to colleagues 600x400

When leaders take listening for granted, we all miss out. Good listening can provide critical information for effective decisions. When a decision affects safety, it’s in everyone’s interests to listen.

Often, we listen out for what we expect or hope to hear; we are not really listening at all. Unconsciously, we may even stop hearing what someone is telling us if we believe we have heard it before and cannot help. Paying attention can teach us more than we realise. Nuances in a conversation or seemingly minor concerns can hint that a situation needs a closer look.

Safety leaders may expect that an open-door policy and encouragement to share concerns guarantee they will hear from those with something to say. These are both very important if we want to hear more from our people. But will they always share what they know with you? How can we extend our listening to voices that aren’t cutting through?

The answer to that first question is, ‘No’. Research shows that one in every two people withhold their concerns, even if there could be fatal consequences.

A company with a positive safety climate has managers who visibly care about safety, actively share information on safety and reporting systems, and encourage safe practices and reporting. Despite this, individual perceptions and past experiences can still cause a reluctance to share concerns. Factor in limited time and heavy workloads, and people might decide it isn’t worth their while.

When someone believes they won’t be listened to, perhaps because they regularly feel excluded or not heard, they are unlikely to say anything when it really matters. They also might not recall a time that raising a concern has made a difference, even though this sort of feedback helps to demonstrate that listening is taking place.

Getting the message

Hearing more subtle concerns that you might usually miss could set off a chain reaction where more people feel listened to and are then prepared to voice concerns more often. When this listening leads to action and others know about it, a listening culture grows.

Organisational behaviour and culture specialist Dr Mark Noort studied the black box recordings from 172 aviation incidents that resulted in fatalities. His research showed that people only failed to raise safety issues in five per cent of the recordings. What varied was how much they said and how often they said it. The recordings showed that as the incidents progressed, people spoke up less, especially when there was evidence that they were not being listened to.

His wider research consistently found that for people to be motivated to raise concerns, they need a low workload. They also need to be part of an organisation with a weak hierarchy. Additionally, access to someone who they believe will listen is, unsurprisingly, important.

Dr Noort carried out an experiment that showed the subtleties of safety voice. A researcher was to walk across a plank between two chairs. Volunteers in the study were told the plank could not hold a person’s weight—although it could. He observed the volunteers’ behaviour in response to this. Sixty-six per cent of volunteers were concerned about the situation being unsafe. They either raised no concern because they felt no responsibility, were not aware of the issue, or were afraid to speak up. Some gave clues but did not actively express their concern. They used nuanced speech instead, such as “Are you really going to walk over that?”

One way we can listen better is by changing our expectations of how someone will voice concerns and listening to what people are really saying, instead of what we are expecting. Can you be an agile listener? Different people might raise the same issue in completely different ways. Picture a scenario with a broken gate. Outspoken Ashley might say to you, “The gate is broken.” New recruit Sam might ask, “Is the gate always tricky to lock?” Contractor Charlie might say, “Sorry I’m late. I had some trouble with the gate.” Pat says nothing, just fetches a plaster from the first aid box to patch up a finger that got trapped in the gate.

Someone’s personality, position at work, and experiences, will all impact how they raise a concern, but it is best not to make assumptions either. The key, as always, is to listen.

Making listening easier

Understanding that people raise their concerns in different ways shows why it is important to have a range of reporting options. Offering choice means you hear more.

This echoes the active listening approach of employee engagement. A wider range of methods to listen to employees, such as regular pulse surveys, focus groups, and digital listening, is linked to several benefits. These include innovation, better responsiveness to change, and higher trust and engagement.

Learning from the employee engagement world could benefit safety too. Employee listening specialist Dr Kevin Ruck suggests a six-step approach to establishing a listening climate. This starts with auditing senior leader perspectives on the value of listening and employee satisfaction with listening, and the methods being used to listen, before analysing the findings. This analysis can be used to set measurable objectives to build a listening plan for regular review and evaluation.

Listening is a two-way process

Who is listening makes a difference to whether something is heard. They might respond to someone instinctively on a personal level, with unconscious or conscious bias. The listening process impacts the listener and affects their response to what they are hearing. Neither listener nor speaker is passive.

Safety concerns are a positive attempt to make a difference and protect an organisation and its people from harm. Sadly, they are not always seen in this light, and the listener can perceive concerns negatively.

The person raising a concern may feel that they are sharing valuable information to help the organisation improve – using the promotive voice. But if their concern is seen as bringing to light a failure or mistake on behalf of the organisation or the listener, even inadvertently, it can mean their concern is perceived negatively – as the prohibitive voice. Both voices raise a challenge to the organisation as it is.

If the listener is aware of their emotional response to a concern, it can help them to separate this more clearly from the speaker’s intention and listen more effectively.

Listening with CIRAS

Providing feedback and having the opportunity to respond to a concern may help the listener feel more positive about the process. That’s especially true if they can show action and resolution. The CIRAS reporting process is one example of this. CIRAS closes the feedback loop, so the reporter feels listened to. In turn, it gives the organisation space to investigate the concern and really think about their response.

Listening can easily be taken for granted – don’t we do it every day? Listening effectively takes work, but the benefits are more than worth the effort.

Find out more

Make the right call: more about listening