Why paying attention when people are speaking up can help you stay on top of safety issues and risks during uncertain periods, by director of CIRAS confidential reporting Catherine Baker.

two-way conversation and listening graphic

Change continues to affect us all at a remarkable rate. Innovation and technology are driving forces, but current change is also a reaction to realities such as the global pandemic, war in Ukraine and economic issues. Further change is inevitable. 

The rail industry is no stranger to this fast-paced procession of change, with its own driving forces even pre-pandemic, such as the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail. 

Change is often positive but also creates uncertainty and risk. This uncertainty – however effectively the change process is managed – can make space for unsafe practices to develop as people create their own workarounds or adjustments to new situations. New hazards can arise and slip through the net.  

All our processes for safe management of change and risk assessments to back them up are of course really important. So too is an effective feedback loop for detecting early warnings about how the change is landing in practice. 

Will your employees tell you what’s going on? There are research studies indicating you will hear from them less than usual when there is psychological uncertainty. Whether someone chooses to speak up is also often linked to their perception of job security and job autonomy – being more likely where someone’s job autonomy and security are higher. The uncertainty of change can make more people feel less secure and so less likely to speak out or challenge. 

Providing clarity to employees on the changing situation will help, but even then, different interpretations and perspectives may mean the information does not land as intended.

You can start to see why listening is so important in times of change – for both sides of a discussion. 

Two-way listening 

Listening well is a two-way street that can facilitate understanding and action. When developing and briefing out changes you want your people to listen and understand. Do you also expect and welcome feedback and questions, and respond appropriately? 

Being aware of a change, understanding what it means, and knowing what action you need to take are three separate things. Listening and dialogue can help to unravel that understanding for a clearer picture. For example, a reporter called CIRAS as they did not feel confident to use new equipment because the briefing process had not given them the opportunity to ask questions, and they now felt unable to raise this directly. 

If people perceive obstacles in the way of them doing something, they are less likely to do it. So even if people know what they are expected to change or how they should be working differently, the change may not happen as planned if there are obstacles, such as not having the right equipment or the right people on the team to work in a different way.  

Crucially, if people recognise that there is an obstacle to change or safe practices, such as in the above examples, and also believe their employer faces difficulties in overcoming those obstacles, they are less likely to communicate about the problem.  

Add in the psychological uncertainty from change and there is a high probability that you may not be made aware of some of the issues. It is worth making sure that perceptions of working culture or company attitudes to safety and reporting are not among those obstacles.  

Confidential reporting can help potential reporters of concerns to bypass some of their perceived obstacles to speaking up and being heard. This may be a seemingly uninterested manager who is perhaps just too busy with the change to listen fully, or a more ‘relaxed’ attitude to safety in the reporter's part of the organisation, or even the reporter's own fears about sticking their head above the parapet. By having the option to speak up confidentially, their concern can reach an interested audience in the relevant organisation who can act and who is happy to focus on the issue and not on the person reporting it. 

Impact of uncertainty and pressure

Given that people are less likely to speak up in times of change, because the psychological uncertainty from it leads to a feeling of having less control and kickstarts self-protective behaviours, then it is a brave act to raise safety concerns.  

Recent research (not specific to the rail industry) suggests employees can be reluctant to speak up frankly to their supervisor because they feel that it could be a risk to do so. 

Time pressures and peer pressures can also be heightened in times of change. The 2022 accident report into a collision between two mobile elevated work platforms at Rochford dug into why no one spoke up in this instance, and it shows the impact that time pressure can have on safety. It pointed to the perceived negative consequences for anyone raising safety issues that might delay the work.  

How fair an employee perceives their organisation to be generally – based on their own perspective and experiences or word of mouth – can also influence whether they feel safe speaking up to their supervisor or manager. 

In these contexts, confidential reporting can offer a solution by providing a less ‘risky’ way for someone to raise their voice and express their real opinions – without the fear of being identified and the potential consequences of that. 

And after the concern is raised, whether confidentially or through internal channels, then what next? How well do you listen to what’s being said?  

Unconscious bias 

Speaking up about safety should always be recognised as a positive attempt to make a difference and protect an organisation and its people from harm. Unfortunately, research into prohibitive and promotive voice – where prohibitive is raising concerns, and promotive is suggesting improvements – demonstrates that it is not always seen this way.  

By focusing on concerns, which can bring to light others’ failures or mistakes even inadvertently, using the prohibitive voice may get a less favourable reception from those listening.  

It may feel natural to be upset about receiving a concern – or to wonder why it wasn’t raised earlier or in another way – but if we can see through the concern to the positive suggestion it hides, the outcome can be positive and beneficial to the organisation or organisational relationships. 

A defensive reaction to concerns may be instinctive although ultimately unhelpful, in the same way as having an unconscious bias towards who we listen to and how we listen to them. 

For example, if the temporary night cleaner mentions something to you at the end of their shift, do you give it the same credibility as you would when hearing from the qualified and experienced site director after their monthly inspection? 

Or if someone flags something up which simply does not fit your worldview or understanding of what is supposed to happen, you might dismiss it – intentionally or not – without further thought. 

But all of us can contribute to identifying safety improvements, and raising concerns is not about specific expertise or being in a certain role – although sometimes that helps. It is the act of observing then questioning or challenging. That challenge or observation is what sets in motion a chain of events that can make a situation safer. 

As listeners we are all affected by unconscious bias, so confidential reporting can open up someone’s ability to be truly heard and understood. Our reporting analysts are trained to listen fully to reporters’ concerns and ask questions in an open and honest dialogue. They are also independent of the situation and can therefore raise the concern with the company in a way that considers the full impact of the concern on the reporter, the business and any others affected. 

It is important to hear from employees or others working on or around your sites, and to pay attention to concerns that may come from unexpected places – however they are raised. Those voices have been linked to improved problem solving and work processes as well as other positive organisational benefits. 

In contrast, silence can be costly and even deadly. So can failing to listen well, as the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 shows. Seven astronauts lost their lives after the project office ‘[failed]...to understand and respond to facts obtained during testing... [nor] responded adequately to internal warnings’ (from the Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident). Pace of work and timing were factors, demonstrating again that pressures – common during times of change – can lead to safety concerns going unheeded. 

Closer to home, in the rail industry, we must never forget the lessons of history. After the 1988 Clapham Junction rail accident, the public inquiry led by Anthony Hidden QC revealed issues around fatigue, training, reorganisation, communication channels and a complacent attitude to safety.    

Whatever is changing in your line of work, stay alert for safety’s sake – and make time to listen well, however you receive concerns. Lives could depend on it. 

 

Find out more

Listening inclusively: check your own biases

Why listening can prevent safety silence

How listening can help people thrive

The power of listening for safety and wellbeing – Watch Catherine Baker's talk for the Rail Wellbeing Live event

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