When rail leaders listen well, workplaces are safer. 

This article features in RSSB Horizon magazine issue 14, June 2024.

Leaders discussing and listening hand gestures 600x400

Listening can be strategic for a safer, healthier workplace, better performance, or successful change. Getting results means understanding how your business uses listening, why, and how you can improve the listening culture. 

Anyone with a concern is responsible for sharing what they know, but research shows people are motivated to speak up when someone is listening. One in every two people withhold their concerns. If someone raises theirs, it is better to listen. 

An organisation’s frontline staff are often the first to identify issues. Their expertise and real-world understanding can get to the root of a problem before it becomes serious. 

How you listen affects the outcome

Listener and speaker need to engage actively and authentically. New ideas and concerns can lead to innovation and better performance. So why would anyone be reluctant to hear them? A manager may identify so closely with the company’s culture or ways of working that a questioning or dissenting voice appears as a threat or a disappointment, not an opportunity. 

Listener and speaker need to engage actively and authentically. New ideas and concerns can lead to innovation and better performance. So why would anyone be reluctant to hear them? A manager may identify so closely with the company’s culture or ways of working that a questioning or dissenting voice appears as a threat or a disappointment, not an opportunity. 

Someone raising a concern may feel that their information is helping the organisation. But if it reveals a perceived failure or mistake, particularly on the listener’s part, this can provoke an emotional reaction in the listener, who may then perceive the report negatively. Separating the emotional response from the speaker’s intention helps the listener to listen more effectively.

Learning from other industries

Dr Mark Noort is an organisational behaviour and culture specialist. He 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 5% of the recordings. What varied was how much they said and how often. The recordings showed that as incidents progressed, people spoke up less, especially when there was evidence that they were not being listened to.

People are not always straightforward in bringing forward information. Personality and experiences affect this. Someone may state something outright, hint at the true problem by asking questions, or even make a joke of the situation that reveals more than it appears. Picking up nuance and minor concerns can reveal the real issues at play.

Set measurable objectives for improvement

How a company listens starts at the top. Organisational listening specialist Dr Kevin Ruck offers a six-point approach to creating a good listening environment. First, audit senior leaders’ views on the value of listening, employee satisfaction with listening, and the methods of listening. You can use this analysis to set measurable objectives, then review and evaluate your progress.

Feedback is important. It shows concerns have been heard and acted upon. How companies respond to reports from CIRAS confidential safety hotline can show reporters and other employees how good they are at listening.

Are managers empowered to act and give feedback? Higher autonomy means better organisational listening. People are less likely to even voice concerns where there is a high workload or a strict hierarchy. 

Leaders have the power to shape their organisation’s listening culture, and to champion listening. They can start by recognising that active and intentional listening benefits everyone. 

Find out more

Make the right call: more about listening